American Graffiti counts down the the 25 greatest coming-of-age films ever made
By Carter Bagley
The subgenre of Coming-Of-Age has always been among my favorites as the best movies in the genre tend to last with you for a long time. More than the traditional drama film at least. This is because it deals with themes that are integral parts of life that anyone can relate to and have experienced or seen. This is my opinion so I’m not necessarily counting the films I think are the most well made, but ones for whatever reason clicked with me the most. There’s some downright classics on here and some underrated indie’s so let’s start the list of the 25 Greatest Coming-Of-Age Films of all time.
Movies That Almost Made It
“Sixteen Candles” – 1984, John Hughes
A John Hughes classic that’s funny, memorable and showed what the filmmaker had ahead of him, although it’s just not quite as good as the others on this list. It might be higher-up if Hughes didn’t make the movies he did later on, but he did so I can’t discount that. It’s still a very goodhearted teen comedy though that deserves your viewing and it still holds up thirty-two years later.
“A River Runs Through It” – 1992, Robert Redford
A slow paced family drama that has good themes about family and brotherhood, it takes place in rural Montana and follows two brothers Norman (Craig Sheffer) and Paul (Brad Pitt) and their relationships with each other, their hometown, and their family. Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt are both fantastic as the brothers and Tom Skerritt does a good job as their strict reverend father. The real beauty of this film though come from Robert Redford’s impressive filmmaking. It’s shot beautiful and has a very carefree and simplistic beautiful tone to it that gives the film a sense of freedom.
“The Kings of Summer” – 2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts
A very underrated Sundance film shows a heartwarming story about three boys who escape their mundane lives by building a house in the woods together. Nick Robinson delivers a great standout performance and is definitely a young talent to look out for in the next couple of years. It’s a very lighthearted film and very funny film with some laugh out loud moments and some feel-good ones mixed in there.
“An Education” – 2009, Lone Scherfig
A different kind of coming of age story, “An Education” dealt with a girl getting an inside look on an adult life that she learns a lot from over the course of the film. It’s truly a great film with complex rounded characters and difficult circumstances throughout it. It’s a slow burn but upon examination this film almost turns into a masterpiece.
“Me and Earl and The Dying Girl” – 2015, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
A film I was very surprised by in a lot more ways than just one. The writing, the editing, the directing, the performances, the dialouge..it was all so spot on. It was made with great originality and references to countless parts of pop culture, this is one of those films that last with you. I just couldn’t find a place for it on this list.
Now Here It Is, The 25 Greatest Coming-Of-Age Films of All Time
25. “Boyz ‘N The Hood” – 1991, John Singleton
The only film on this list to focus on an inner city story and features an impressive young cast with Cuba Gooding Jr., rapper turned actor Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, and Laurence Fishburne. Chronicling a tragic story of young kids from the wrong side of town just trying to get by in the world they were raised in. All the actors give great performances especially Ice Cube who at the time impressed audiences with his acting chops. “Boyz ‘N The Hood” is by no means the innocent teen comedy like others on this list and instead focuses on real issues in the lives of these kids.
24. “Mean Creek” – 2004, Jacob Aaron Estes
This brutally raw film is made to feel like it’s really happening to real kids. Full of great child performances across the board with actors Trevor Morgan, Rory Culkin, Scott Mechlowicz, Ryan Kelley, Carly Schroeder, and a baby faced Josh Peck. Sam (Culkin) is getting tormented at school by bully George (Peck) who is dealing with personal issues of his own. Sam’s older brother Rocky (Morgan) hears about the bullying so he teams up with his friends to help Sam get revenge on George during a friendly canoe trip that quickly goes awry. It’s almost painful to see these characters go through this film as they make a series of bad decisions, leading some of the kids to go down different paths than others. It’s a truly remarkable and underrated film that’s horrifying in a very real way.
23. “Moonrise Kingdom” – 2012, Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson’s most recent foray into the genre of coming-of-age may be his most detailed, and best directed film he’s ever made. It follows a young precocious camper (Jared Gilman) who recently has become smitten with a local girl (Kara Hayward) and they run away together causing many locals to form a search party full of many odd and peculiar characters to find these two young lovebirds. A huge cast including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Frances McDormand, and Harvey Keitel, each of the actors has a great moment especially Bruce Willis and Edward Norton who are beyond fantastic as the local cop and scout master.
22. “Risky Business” – 1983, Paul Brickman
The breakout film for one of Hollywood’s biggest stars Tom Cruise, “Risky Business” is a downright classic teen film about letting loose and learning how to less self-serious and have a good time. Cruise plays Joel Goodsen, a very intelligent awkward rich kid who’s going to go to a great college. Though one weekend when his parents are away he decides to take advantage of it and have a good time. It ultimately leads to some bad decisions but after years of playing it safe, Joel is ready for some risky business.
21. “My Own Private Idaho” – 1991, Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant’s indie masterpiece is a fascinating and heart-wrenching character study on Mike Waters, a lost and dazed young male prostitute who suffers from Narcolepsy. All alone not sure of what his future beholds him, his disorder puts him in a constant dream-like state as he’s never really full there. Played wonderfully by River Phoenix, he proves to be a very complex tragic character lost in this complex world not built for a kid like him. He barely gets by on his simple mission of trying to find his way back home, wherever that may be. Gus Van Sant does an amazing job of directing this film with many dreamlike sequences reflecting the characters point of view. It also includes a surprisingly good performance by Keanu Reeves who plays Waters’ friend for a part of the film who tries to help him.
20. “The Last Picture Show” – 1971, Peter Bogdanovich
The classic black and white film that got Jeff Bridges his big break. It takes place in the small town of Anarene, Texas in the early 50’s gives a unique perspective of small town life and various different characters changing in different ways. Very real and human at most parts, this a movie that is definitely not for everyone for a number of reasons, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s very simplistic and brilliant though. Not flashy or overdramatic “The Last Picture Show” gives a very good look at what life is like growing up in a small town.
19. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” – 1982, Amy Heckerling
This hilarious well-paced teen comedy pretty much perfects the genre of the teen comedy. An outstanding cast with Sean Penn in his breakout role, Forest Whitaker, Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates. The film tackles teenage topics like dating, partying, and immaturity from all walks of life and there’s some truly memorable scenes that will go down in history. Also, Penn steals the show as Jeff Spicoli even though he’s only in it for a small amount of time, and later roles showed how capable this young actor was.
18. “American Beauty” – 1999, Sam Mendes
Instead of coming-of-age from a kid to adulthood, “American Beauty” focuses on the coming-of-age from adulthood to mid-life crisis. Sam Mendes crafted an extremely overlooked masterpiece with this film. The first time I watched it blew me away and I immediately watched it again. Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a middle aged married father who isn’t satisfied with his life. His daughter despises him and his marriage is a sham. Although when the new neighbors move in next door, their teenage son who’s strange and mysterious although extremely brilliant has a profound effect on the family in various ways. This is one of those films that deserves introspection on the film itself and one’s own self after viewing it. It has a lot to say about the world we live in and the way we live our lives that people should give a listen to.
17. “Say Anything…” – 1989, Cameron Crowe
Excellent performances by John Cusack and Ione Skye and another fantastic film by Cameron Crowe adds to the maturity of “Say Anything…” that other 80’s teen films didn’t have. It’s not quite as charming and entertaining as “The Breakfast Club” or “Sixteen Candles” but it’s human and real and shows realistic portrayals of well-rounded teenage kids while other films had very cliche social roles. This is one of those classic films of young love and the scene where Lloyd Dobbler (Cusack) holds the boombox over his head outside Diane’s (Skye) bedroom is no doubt an iconic Hollywood moment.
16. “Sing Street” – 2016, John Carney
The most recent on this list for sure and it’s already among my favorites of the year. It seemed to get widely overlooked even though it was written and directed by John Carney and garnered wide critical acclaim. Great performances and truly inspiring and emotional moments make this an instant classic. Click here for my full review of it.
15. “Running On Empty” – 1988, Sidney Lumet
Maybe the most underrated film of the list which is odd considering it’s a Sidney Lumet film and stars River Phoenix as the main character of Danny Pope. It’s a little hard to find and you may have to go out of your way a bit, but I assure you that it’s definitely worth it. If you want to see my review of the film click here.
14. “The Squid and the Whale” – 2004, Noah Baumbach
Noah Baumbach has always been an odd filmmaker and despite the very impressive cast with Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, Laura Linney and Billy Baldwin this always seemed to be one of those films that I heard was great but never wanted to check it out. I finally got around to it though a few months ago and I must say that I’m glad I did. Daniels and Linney are remarkable as two parents that get a divorce and newcomers Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline portray their two children dealing with it in very different ways. Both of the kids are phenomenal and interesting to watch develop and make some rather questionable decisions throughout. Owen Kline was especially good as the youngest kid and it’s odd to see that he hasn’t done much of anything since as he was so good in this movie. Eisenberg is no doubt probably the heart of the film and he progresses a lot as a character leading up to the very relatable titular concluding scene.
13. “Superbad” – 2007, Greg Mottola
The most comedic on this for sure as it’s pretty much a straight-up Seth Rogen comedy. Written by Rogen and his partner Evan Goldberg and featuring performances by Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Emma Stone that turned them into household names. Hill and Cera play Seth and Evan who are two nerdy high school seniors and trade bits of witty dialogue throughout the film. They’re looking to attend their first big high school party before graduating but it unknowingly turns into a way for the two best friends to spend one more awesome High School night together before going separate ways.
12.”Rushmore” – 1998, Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson’s first higher profile film was the start of two long-term partnerships with Wes Anderson and actors Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray. Written by Anderson and best friend Owen Wilson and tells a very quirky and different kind of coming-of-age story with a very peculiar protagonist. Schwartzman gives a great performance as Max Fischer, a young prep-school kid isn’t the traditional innocent and naive kid in most coming-of-age films but is instead cocky, persistent and imaginative. His coming of age is one of maturing and seeing that things aren’t always going to go his way in life, which is a very refreshing take on the genre.
11. “Dead Poets Society” – 1989, Peter Weir
Set in the 1950’s at a prestigious boarding school for boys. Most of these boys were told from birth that they were going to be Doctors or Lawyers and most of them never questioned it, but when their new teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) comes into the classroom things quickly change. Teaching the sheltered boys about poetry and life and following your dreams awakens many of the kids’ eyes and they begin to discover passion, happiness, and how to seize the day. Robert Sean Leonard and a young Ethan Hawke are fantastic as two of his students who learn a lot about life from Keating. Although it doesn’t bode well for the teacher after a horrible tragedy strikes the classroom and blame is falsely appointed, it doesn’t matter because his effect on the boys’ minds will be there forever… no matter how much the prep school despises that fact.
10. “Good Will Hunting” – 1997, Gus Van Sant
The breakout film for both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck who not only starred in it but also wrote the screenplay. They were best friends through childhood and wrote this film together in a basement in their mid-20’s and struck gold. Extremely impressive that these two young guys made a film like this at that time of their lives as it features extremely well-written characters and dialogue along with monologues that stay with you. It portrays a very tragic look at young life in Boston and has complex characters who have layers as a result of the society they were raised in. Damon gives a great performance as Will Hunting, a troubled genius, along with Robin Williams as his therapist in maybe his best role yet. Affleck is very charismatic as Will’s best friend Chuckie Sullivan who tries to show Will that the whole world is his as long as he wants it.
9. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” – 1986, John Hughes
Ferris Bueller is one of those characters that every single guy ever wanted to be in High School. He’s endlessly charming, intelligent, quick-witted, confident, rich, and has a hot girlfriend. John Hughes really perfect the teenage comedy with this film and it still stands out as a classic that kids are discovering and enjoying 30 years after it’s release. Perfectly cast with Matthew Broderick as the titular character and also Alan Ruck who steals many scenes as his friend Cameron, Mia Sara as his girlfriend Sloan, Jennifer Grey as his antagonizing sister along with Jeffrey Jones as the psychotic principal Mr. Rooney.
8. “The Graduate” – 1967, Mike Nichols
An iconic Hollywood classic and the breakout role for Dustin Hoffman and got him his first Oscar nomination. At the time of release the film was very controversial and had a lot of ideas about youthful rebellion that were very risky in ’67. It also pretty much created the modern idea of a “milf” and like many others on this list, it featured a great soundtrack made by Simon & Garfunkel. The conclusion of the film is also an iconic hollywood scene that tosses out the traditional happy ending for one that makes you reflective and a little unsettled.
7. “American Graffiti” – 1973, George Lucas
George Lucas’ film that proceeded “Star Wars” which definitely overshadowed this little film but it doesn’t mean this film isn’t a damn near perfect film about growing up. Another fantastic soundtrack and excellent writing and characterization, maybe the best straight up filmmaking Lucas ever did although “Star Wars” was much more creative and imaginative this film made up for in skill and raw easy-going talent. Also the amazing title of the film led to me naming my band after it and in turn this very blog, so it also gets points for that.
6. “Boyhood” – 2014, Richard Linklater
Pretty much THE coming-of-age film as it’s the only film where someone literally comes to age. Richard Linklater’s 12 year epic follows Ellar Coltrane as the character of Mason who we watch actually grow up before your eyes. You almost as if you understand this family on a personal level and although it may not be showy or super dramatic, it’s one of the most human films I’ve ever seen which is an astonishing compliment for any film.
5. “Almost Famous” – 2000, Cameron Crowe
One of the most underrated and under-appreciated on this list is Cameron Crowe’s 1970’s set coming-of-age epic about a young teenage boy who gets the chance to write an article for the fictional Zeppelin-esque rock band “Stillwater”. An original story with original characters and tons of heart and spirit gives this gem an energy that will last with you after just one viewing.
4. “Dazed and Confused” – 1993, Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater’s breakthrough film and after all the classics he’s made since this still stands as one of this best. With an impressive cast of young actors who went on to have huge careers (Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Rory Cochran, Mila Jovovich, Parker Posey, Adam Goldberg, Cole Hauser) and one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, “Dazed and Confused” might not have much of a plot or even story, but the characters and circumstances are very relatable.
3. “The Breakfast Club” – 1985, John Hughes
One of the most famous films of the 1980’s and John Hughes’ best work. The Breakfast Club totally captured the drama in 80’s teenage social life and separated the differences we think are there but aren’t. Emilio Esteves, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald all delivered great performances for memorable characters and filled with classic moments, great dialogue, and a great soundtrack “The Breakfast Club” might be a little dated but it’s a classic nonetheless.
2. “Stand By Me” – 1986, Rob Reiner
Another one of my all-time favorite films and it stars one of my favorite actors as well: River Phoenix. Pretty much the quintessential coming-of-age tale based on the novella “The Body” by Stephen King and directed to perfection by Rob Reiner. This film just got everything about childhood friendship right, the young cast was beyond amazing and pulled off fantastic performances. Almost everyone involved with it was either a big name or became a big name after this film was made. Like the four main kids Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, River Phoenix, and Jerry O’Connell along with other actors like Keifer Sutherland and Richard Dreyfuss, even John Cusack appears in a few scenes as Gordie’s dead older brother. This film is absolutely timeless and a story that any boy from any generation can relate to deeply.
1. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” – 2012, Stephen Chbosky
Most people truly do not agree with me when I say this is the greatest coming-of-age film of all time. This is my personal opinion however and I must say this is 100% my favorite film of all time. Most people won’t disagree that this a great film, but when I say it’s my favorite people seem to get weird. It really is a masterpiece that is the definition of underrated. Logan Lerman gives an excellent breakthrough performance as Charlie along with Ezra Miller who steals many scenes. Written and directed by the author of the book himself, this film knows exactly what it is and everyone should go check it out as soon as possible.