Is there anything so iconic as the scene in Dead Poet’s Society where the characters all stand on their desk as John Keating leaves, or the look on Juno’s face when she finds out she’s pregnant?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- 1980s Coming of Age Movies
- 1990s Coming of Age Movies
- 2000s Coming of Age Movies
- 2010s Coming of Age Movies
Coming-of-age is a major theme in comedy and romance stories, where adolescents and young adults learn to cope with their own identities and responsibilities. Whether a thoughtful lesson or a hilarious adventure results from the coming-of-age experience, these movies have emerged as some of the best of the best. Some may even be movies to see before you die.
They help us understand what it means to grow up in the 1980s, 1990s, and the 21st century.
1980s Coming of Age Movies
The 1980s brought more than just a variety of bright clothing styles and big hair; they also opened up possibilities for what teenage life could look like, especially in the movies of John Hughes.
While the 1980s may be less relatable as every year passes, they’ve certainly inspired multiple generations of movie watchers with their emotional messages.
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1. The Outsiders
This classic 1967 novel was adapted into this famous movie about the rivalry between a working-class group of teens and the wealthier kids who clash with them.
The particular circumstances may change, but the way that teens learn about class differences can be universal and makes for a timeless story of growing up and taking responsibility.
2. A Christmas Story
While primarily an American Christmas movie, A Christmas Story also has the reflections of an older Ralphie Parker on how his perspective has changed since a very important Christmas when he was 9 years old.
3. Sixteen Candles
One of many of John Hughes’s 80s films about growing up and falling in love, Sixteen Candles follows the crush Sam Baker has on Jake Ryan, as well as the frustration of her birthday being overshadowed by her sister’s wedding on the same day.
With humor and emotional moments, Sixteen Candles reminds us of the times when we thought we’d never grow up or reach milestones, until all of a sudden we did.
4. Back to the Future
A sci-fi twist on the coming-of-age story, Marty McFly’s journey back in time and the wild adventures that ensue has become a hit in the comedy and science fiction worlds.
The Delorean from this classic movie has become a symbol of the 80s that endures to this day.
5. Dirty Dancing
This iconic movie about summer camp and falling passionately in love, Dirty Dancing showcases what it is like to leave your cultural bubble and discover an exciting new world.
How “Baby” reacts to that new world of music and dance is what makes this movie such a classic.
1990s Coming of Age Movies
The 1990s was a decade for learning more about what being an adolescent at the turn of the millennium meant, especially as new technology like the internet began to change society.
6. Empire Records
A passion for indie music and teen hijinks have turned Empire Records into a cult classic coming of age movie.
It follows indie record store employees as they desperately try to prevent their place of employment from being sold to a major chain store.
7. Forrest Gump
This endearing movie is the story of a young man with a kind heart and the way he handled both those who would take advantage of him and those who loved him. While Gump grows up in many ways throughout the movie, he retains his care about Jenny and his friends, making his journey one of the most heartwarming.
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8. Good Will Hunting
A brilliant young man is given options: stay comfortable with the South Boston crew he’s always known, or explore a world where he might be considered a genius.
Good Will Hunting explores what it means to be a genius and how, if at all, that affects the way life should be lived.
9. Dazed and Confused
Partially popular because of a cast of people who would go on to be major stars, Dazed and Confused showcases the wildness of high school hazing, teen parties, and initiation rituals in the 1970s.
The comedy creates a sense of nostalgia for all the newness and adventure of high school.
10. 10 Things I Hate About You
In 10 Things I Hate About You, a modern spin on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, goofy characters hit real chords as they figure out what love means to them and what they want in life.
Heath Ledger’s hijinks make for a very memorable coming of age movie.
2000s Coming of Age Movies
Movies in the 2000s showcased changing social mores about growing up and widened our knowledge of coming-of-age movies from cultures around the world.
This iconic film about a spunky 16-year-old who surprisingly gets pregnant by her best friend captures the naivety of youth and a moment of metamorphosis. The choices Juno makes throughout the film indicate a lot of inner maturity.
12. Mean Girls
This coming-of-age story shows a sheltered teen girl meeting and falling in with two very different crowds at her high school.
When it becomes apparent that she cannot be part of the popular clique and still keep her artsy outsider friends, she has to make a decision based on her heart.
13. A Walk to Remember
This movie's heartbreaking love story shows a journey of growth amid beautiful visuals.
Based on a Nicholas Sparks’ book, it chronicles a love between two people who are in ‘different worlds’ in the same town, and the sacrifices the couple makes when they realize they don’t have much time together.
14. Garden State
A mid-twenties man comes home after launching a career as an actor, coping with the loss of his mother and connecting with people amidst his grief. This tender movie explores the meaning of life and loss in a palpable way that many young adults relate to well.
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15. Spirited Away
While Hayao Miyazaki’s films rely on fantasy elements, the storyline of Spirited Away follows the coming-of-age journey of main character Chihiro’s search for identity. It especially shows the element of valuing relationships with those you love.
2010s Coming of Age Movies
The 2010s marked the continued evolution of what maturing into adulthood means, including new challenges like a greater understanding of mental health and concerns about a digital world's impact on youth.
16. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Showcasing what teenage clinical depression can look like, especially after trauma, The Perks of Being a Wallflower offers a fresh look at making new friends, finding a new path, and moving forward—while acknowledging the pain and presence of the past.
This story, filmed over 12 years with the same cast, unfolds the triumphs and heartaches of growing up as a boy.
Its minimalist script allows a rich and complex storyline to unfold over its extraordinarily long development.
18. Lady Bird
The tumult of growing up and becoming your fullest self is explored extensively in Lady Bird, which gained great acclaim for its wordplay and excellent cinematography.
The main character, Catherine, who changes her name to Lady Bird, experiences her own version of growing apart from her mother and figuring out what, in the end, she wants her adult relationship with her to be.
19. Life of Pi
The fantastical story of a boy and a tiger trapped alone at sea, this story showcases one boy’s resilience and mental fortitude as his imagination helps him survive a long and dangerous journey.
Based on a book about growing up and aging, the movie is lush and imaginative while keeping you on the edge of your seat.
20. Call Me By Your Name
This sweet and sad 2017 story of young love between two young men is beautifully filmed and shows how one’s first love inevitably shapes the person who you become long-term.
It’s been lauded for its portrayal of love but also for its groundbreaking representation of showing a first gay relationship as its main subject.
21. Eighth Grade
Eighth Grade is the awkward but moving tale of a young girl trying to find her place among her 8th-grade classmates and in a world full of cell phones and internet bullying.
The excellent cinematography takes many of us back to the times when our identities were forming in the strange world of middle school. It acutely appeals to modern Gen Z’ers and millennials.
Moving from Childhood to Adulthood
Coming of age movies range from sad, showcasing the loss of innocence and the development of wisdom, to funny, glorifying how carefree being a teen can be. In most of them, though, characters learn lessons about what the adult world is like, even if they choose to focus on living for fun, one day at a time.
Through all of these movies, we get to appreciate what’s best about being young. We feel things deeply with the characters, we experience a ton of firsts, and we remember our own exciting times (often with some of the bad times conveniently forgotten in nostalgia). Watching coming of age movies is a great way to reminisce on the past and appreciate the present at the same time.