Feature: Cinema’s 5 Best Coming-of-Age Films

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Originally published on The National Student on 01/07/15. 

To celebrate the release of John Green’s latest teen odyssey Paper Towns, we count down some of the finest (and most thoughtful) coming-of-age films, from the 1980s all the way through to present day. 

The Breakfast Club (1985)

The undisputed godfather of the teen movie, John Hughes popularised the genre throughout the 1980s, making stars of Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy in the process. But his single greatest achievement may well have been his 1985 cheese-fest The Breakfast Club

Spoofed and poked at by every respected sitcom under the sun, the aforementioned teen classic finds five hopeless misfits locked within the confines of their school library over the course of a single Saturday whilst they serve detention. With their only source of entertainment throughout the day being each other, the social boundaries which separate the five gradually begin to collapse, uniting them all in a fun-fuelled haze of meaningful chats and ridiculous dance montages. 

Despite Hughes’ take on the classic teen archetypes now appearing somewhat dated (not to mention the film’s now-ludicrous make-over finale), there still remains an undisputed sense of triumph deep at the heart of The Breakfast Club. Ultimately, its narrative rests on five very unhappy teenagers who band together to survive adolescence and along the way, discover exactly what it means to grow up and break away from the labels that have come to define them. As corny as it may sound, there’s no escaping the power of such a lesson. 

Almost Famous (2001)

Alongside the likes of 80s legend Hughes, Cameron Crowe is another name synonymous with the coming-of-age genre. Aside from the likes of cult-favourites Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything, Crowe’s arguable magnum opus is his 70s-set ode to classic rock Almost Famous, which follows the state-spanning adventures of 15-year-old budding music writer William Miller, as he sets out on tour with infamous rock group Stillwater. 

Easily one of the most impassioned instalments in the genre’s history, Almost Famous captures the spirit of youth through a largely romantic lens, but always remains thoughtful in its approach. Crowe’s love and knowledge of the decade shines through, but its the genuine sense of ambition emitted throughout from Patrick Fugit’s William which really sells it as something special. 

At its base, William’s journey encapsulates every teenager’s dream, from his interviews with his hero – Billy Crudup’s ballsy frontman Russell – to his fleeting romance with Kate Hudson’s infinitely iconic Penny Lane. And there simply exists no greater moment of belonging in a film than when William and his new friends all begin belting out the chorus to Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’, without a single care in the world. Teen acceptance at its finest. 

Spider-Man (2002) 

Although it may not necessarily be a ‘teen’ movie in the traditional sense, Spider-Man is every bit a coming-of-age tale as much as it is a superhero adventure film. Fed up of being bullied by jocks and forced to hopelessly pine after his childhood sweetheart, high-school nerd Peter Parker finds his true calling in life after being bitten by a radioactive spider on a school trip. The resulting bite gifts him with the insane ability to climb walls and shoot webs from his wrists, and it’s these bizarre new additions that spur him on to effectively grow up and become the ‘man’ of the film’s title, one act of vigilante justice at a time. 

It’s here in Sam Raimi’s original incarnation of the classic Spidey legend that the coming-of-age base to the Marvel hero shines most brightly. Tobey Maguire’s Peter is every bit the changed man by the film’s end; a spineless nerd evolved into a bonafide hero. Thus, aside from being a fun summer blockbuster, Spider-Man represents that same quest for maturity which stands at the centre of every great teen movie. 

The immortal words of Peter’s dearly deceased Uncle Ben ring true: “With great power, comes great responsibility”, and the film is as much about him understanding and embracing this mantra, as it is about him kicking bad guys in the face. 

Submarine (2010)

Former sitcom-star Richard Ayoade’s debut directorial effort is certainly a thing of beauty through all its New Wave influences, but its central story is also very much a wonder to behold. Adapted from Joe Dunthorne’s unflinching novel of the same name, Submarine finds 15 year-old Oliver at the height of his awkward phase, as he finds himself drifting uncomfortably into a first-time romance with classmate-turned-lover Jordana. 

Largely projected from the often unsettling mind of Oliver himself, Ayoade’s film shines a humorous and mostly authentic light on the trials of adolescence. Covering everything from parental divorce to losing one’s virginity and of course, the aforementioned ‘L’ word, Submarine charts the rise and fall of every British teenager through the most irksome stage in their growth, and does so both fearlessly and hilariously. 

Boyhood (2014)

Arguably the most definitive of all coming-of-age films, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood earns its stripes purely for being the only one to actually showcase a real ‘coming of age’, in its star Ellar Coltrane. 

Shot periodically over the course of twelve years, Boyhood chronicles the general growth of a young Texan boy named Mason, paralleling the character’s development with Coltrane’s own in real time. The result is something really quite astounding, a genuinely sincere portrait of the quest for maturity which stands devoid of any external narrative influences. Put simply, all we see is Mason grow and adapt throughout his entire adolescence, and as a result, Linklater’s film becomes very much a unique form of cinema: the ultimate twist on the coming-of-age formula, pure, untouched and for the most part, genuine.

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