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The Beginner’s Guide: Coming-Of-Age

The Coming-of-Age film typically follows the story of confused, lonely and lost teens searching for their own identity as they weave their way through adolescence. In this Beginner's Guide, we look back at some of the best examples of teen self discovery.

The Beginner's Guide: Coming-of-Age

“Parents just don’t understand” -DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince

Growing up, that transition from childhood to adulthood is not an easy one. Not only does the body go through awkward, uncomfortable changes, but your whole outlook on the world and your identity goes through a series of ripples.

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson is noted for his work in the psychosocial development of humans, and his research breaks down human development into eight stages. Rather than recite each stage like an oral presentation for school, Erikson coins his fifth stage of development as the “Identity vs. Role Confusion” level. This period occurs during adolescence, ages 12-18. The years are marked by the adolescent searching for their personal identity (Where do I belong? Who am I? What should I believe in?). It is the period when the child slowly transforms to an adult – a period common in copious stories in film and literature.

The coming-of-age story generally features a young character, typically or close to a teenager, who gets confronted by a mature conflict. This youth feels alienated, alone and feels no one (adults) understand them. These disengaged teens might feel detached from their home or school life, and through this obstacle, goes on a quest of self-discovery. The reason we keep watching and reading these stories is that we were all young once, we know being a teenager sucks.

It would be a daunting task to cover all coming-of-age films, so to make things simpler, this guide will provide key films that capture what it means to feel young and out-of-place. What binds this diverse collection of films together are the themes of outsiders faced with mature situations, and how they end up discovering who exactly they are.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

The Beginner's Guide: Coming-of-Age

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – source: Warner Bros.

A truly iconic film that led several young men to wear the jeans and leather jacket look, but failed to capture the cool swagger of James Dean. While Holden Caulfield beats Jim Stark as the 1950’s alienated teen on the page, Dean brought youthful pessimism to the big screen – along with fellow misfits Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo).

Jim Stark is the new kid in town, and the local teens make sure to make him feel unwelcome. He finds kindred spirits in Judy, a popular girl with a troubled home life, and Plato, a closeted gay teen with absent parents (obviously this can’t be said aloud in a 1955 movie, but there are subtle hints throughout). The three of them find happiness in each others company to fill the void in their lonely lives.

This triad is out-of-place among their peers, and don’t receive any help from parents or adult authority figures. They face conflict from both sides, and run away one evening to make sense of things (after a terrible drag racing accident). An awful thing happens toward the end, and these teens are forced to grow up sooner than expected.

The 400 Blows (1959)

The Beginner's Guide: Coming-of-Age

The 400 Blows (1959) – source: Concinor

Like Jim Stark, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) has parents that don’t understand. The difference is Jim’s parents are nice people that mean well, but are totally clueless. Antoine’s parents are not kind, but are self-absorbed assholes that scold or ignore Antoine’s needs. This leads the young man to break many rules.

Francois Truffaut based a lot of Antoine on his own youth, bringing his own troubled self to celluloid. He remembers how awful it is to be young, and creates through Antoine an honest, realistic character. They’re not adorable moppets: they smoke, swear and tell crude jokes, as I’m sure most kids did when they were young.

Out on his own or among friends, our young hero learns about the harsh realities of the world at a young age. Like Jim Stark, he is away from his parents and learns a lot about his own identity on his own. Just like the group of kids in this next film.

Stand By Me (1986)

The Beginner's Guide: Coming-of-Age

Stand by Me (1986) – source: Columbia Pictures

In the summer before the start of middle school, four friends go on a journey to find a dead body. Through their trek, we learn about their families and the individual thoughts of these boys. These guys are very different, but what binds them together is their understanding of each other. Both in family situations and life direction.

Each boy has a troubled or complicated domestic life. Gordie (Wil Wheaton) is ignored by his parents over the premature death of his older brother, Chris (River Phoenix) is the son of a drunk, Teddy (Corey Feldman) endures his father’s mental illness and Vern (Jerry O’Connell) has an overbearing mother. Getting away from home is part of the reason for this trip to the woods.

With many coming-of-age films, young people want to grow and branch out. Set in a small town, these kids want to get out more than most. Some are successful (Gordie becomes a novelist, Chris a lawyer) others are not (Teddy is in-and-out of jail, Vern is a townie) upon entering adulthood. Small towns aren’t the only places young people want to escape, but the inner-city too.

Boyz N The Hood (1991)

The Beginner's Guide: Coming-of-Age

Boyz N the Hood (1991 ) – source: Columbia Pictures

Like Stand by Me and other films, Boyz N the Hood centers on a group of friends, all opposites, who feel adults don’t get them and attempt to look for opportunities to find out who they are. To add authenticity to the story, John Singleton uses semi-autobiographical details in this film. By doing so, he conjures up fleshed out realistic characters.

Three friends Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube) grow up in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. The neighborhood is rough, and each day these young men just try to survive. In order to survive, you must make choices.

Tre excels academically and hopes to escape to college, Ricky is a mediocre student but great at football and Doughboy, well, he is a solid friend, but he went down the path of crime – a high school drop-out in-and-out of jail since he was a child. As the film progresses, the road to adulthood gets tougher, and escape by any means necessary is imperative. A teen’s need to escape from their dangerous environment, as we’ll see in the next film, is a global feeling.

City Of God (2002)

The Beginner's Guide: Coming-of-Age

City of God (2002) – source: Miramax Films

While many films featured distant or neglectful parents, Boyz N the Hood had a strong parental figure in the form of Tre’s father. His father is a frank and sincere character who doesn’t shelter Tre, but is there to guide him to adulthood. In City of God, the streets of Rio de Janeiro seems devoid of adults in any form, it’s like Peanuts as a crime drama.

City of God continues the coming-of-age convention of featuring characters trying to figure out who they are and the mature situations they face when growing up. The film focuses on Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) who aspires to be a photographer and another youth who enters a life of crime. Rocket does what he can to focus on his craft and not end up lost like his peers.

As an artist, Rocket feels withdrawn from the others committing crimes. He is on the outskirts observing rather than participating. Rocket uses photography as a way to express how he feels, since many teenagers have difficulty expressing their feelings verbally. Some teenagers, however, communicate their thoughts a little too well.

The Edge Of Seventeen (2016)

The Beginner's Guide: Coming-of-Age

The Edge of Seventeen (2016) – source: STXfilms

Seventeen year old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) broadcasts rather loudly her angst. She is the class misfit, constantly butts heads with her mom and to make matters worse, her best friend slept with her brother. Nadine responds to her daily misfortunes through deadpan, sardonic commentary, and it is satisfying to watch.

First time director Kelly Fremon Craig creates real, three-dimensional teens attempting to make sense of their unfair world. Nadine is awkward, lacks social skills and as referenced earlier, does not know how to properly communicate her feelings. Nadine’s life is hilarious and heartbreaking all at once. People try to understand her, but are left frustrated.

Nadine’s dark view of the world can be traced back to the unexpected death of her father. Her dad is the only one who understood her, and his premature passing was instrumental in her development as a sarcastic pessimist. Mature situations, such as death or any other traumatic experiences, can leave a strong impression on a young mind, as did with the characters in this final film.

Super Dark Times (2017)

The Beginner's Guide: Coming-of-Age

Super Dark Times (2017) – source: The Orchard

The Netflix’s sensation Stranger Things and the retro Canadian cult movie Turbo Kid were partly instrumental (at least in my view) in the wave of nostalgia programs. Reminiscing on the 1980’s and 1990’s is a hot market at the moment. Like Stand by Me brought 1950’s nostalgia for boomers, Super Dark Times does the same for looking at small town life in the 1990’s.

Dial-up internet, scrambled TV porn and ’90’s alternative rock are in the background to this story of teens who see and do a terrible life-altering thing. Without spoiling it, the teens commit an awful act and swear to keep it a secret – a secret that haunts them and breaks them down psychologically.

Like Tre, Zach (Owen Campbell) has a strong parental figure (his mom) who tries to guide him in the right direction. His other friends, like Rocket, seem to occupy a universe with an adult vacancy. They are left to solve this very adult problem on their own, all the while dealing with typical teen problems (parties, dating, school etc.).

Prior to the act, Super Dark Times succeeds in, like the other films, in creating believable teenagers. The way they interact with one another, and topic of jokes, gave me a bit of a nostalgic feeling from my teenage years during that decade. Well, excluding the incident, I obviously can’t relate to that.

Coming-of-Age Films: Final Thoughts

The coming-of-age film is a vast world of cinematic entertainment that spans decades, genres and continents. However, regardless of your nationality and current age, we were all teenagers at one point. Making it easy to spot which movies are truthful, and which ones are artificial in their storytelling.

As this guide detailed in the films examined, what tie these diverse titles together are the young protagonists who feel lost and confused. Young people who want to escape from the humdrum of the everyday, and go on their journey of self-discovery. Whether it’s through the guidance of an older mentor, or on their own, they will face countless hurdles to the stage of adulthood, all the while keeping us viewers entertained.

Is there a film I left out you wish I included? What are some of your favorite coming-of-age movies? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!


Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

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BA in Film from the University of Nevada Las Vegas. MA in English from the University of Sheffield. All-around fun guy who wants to make the world a better, and more interesting, place.