Growing up is awkward, terrifying, hilarious, and overwhelming. What does it mean to become an adult? How do our roles in society change as we grow and change with it? Honestly, I can’t answer that. Luckily, there’s a whole genre of films that explore this phenomenon, using humour and drama — even horror — to try and explain what the hell is going on in life.
Lady Bird – Zofia Gryf-Lowczowska
Greta Gerwig’s 2017 comedy-drama Lady Bird perfectly encapsulates the essence of the coming-of-age genre. The film is set in the early 2000s as its protagonist Christine McPherson, who rebrands herself as Lady Bird, struggles through adolescence and her tumultuous relationship with her mother. In its memory-like style, Lady Bird deals with issues that are universally common to adolescence such as love, sexuality and familial relations, with Gerwig’s direction paying particular attention to the female protagonist’s emotional maturation. Perhaps most significantly, the film depicts Lady Bird’s difficult relationship with her hometown; she desperately longs to move as far away as possible, only to sorely miss it once gone.
Cinema Paradiso – James McCafferty
Cinema Paradiso is more than a traditional coming-of-age story. Through the character of Jacques Perrin’s Salvatore, the film asks us to consider the role of memory and nostalgia in how we relate to our childhood. Salvatore’s adult success is based on leaving and rejecting his home village of Giancaldo. At the same time his experiences in Giancaldo, particularly his relationship to cinema projectionist Alfredo, enabled him to discover his passions to begin with. These elements are exemplified in Ennio Morricone’s magnificent score, representing everything the film wants to communicate. Few films are as consistently touching as this.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Josh Sandy
I have to confess that when I first watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower I had never heard David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. Five years later, I’m a big Bowie fan and I’m also still in awe of Stephen Chbosky’s film. The coming-of-age genre often tackles the subjects of mental illness, trauma and loneliness, but never as directly as The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The issues faced by the characters are not romanticised nor idealised, but used to create an uplifting, hilarious and often heart-breaking picture of the difficulties of growing up and the importance of friendship.
The Squid and the Whale – Michał Wasilewski
Created from the need of heart and excruciatingly honesty, this Oscar-nominated feature from Noah Baumbach is an autobiographical reflection on coming-of-age in a family of intellectuals. Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) thinks his father as perfect and blames his mother for their ongoing struggles, and, ultimately, divorce. All of his father’s flaws, including pretentiousness, egoism and self-love, are clearly visible in Walt, as he looks down on his peers — but he is not unequivocally a bad person, as is no one in Baumbach’s films. The writer-director uses his masterful skills of writing realistic dialogue to picture a genuine and self-critical portrait of his teenage years. He tells the story of coming to the realisation about the complexity of the reality, with the titular National History Museum’s exhibit immaculately working as the film’s central metaphor.
The Graduate – Tobias Soar
I’ll never forget when my dad sat me down to watch this the week before I left for university. Set after the graduation from university of protagonist Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman), The Graduate explores the uncertainty of life after university. Benjamin doesn’t know what to do with himself as he lays in the summer sun day after day. He then falls for a childhood friend of his while simultaneously having an affair with her mother. It’s tragic, it’s hilarious, and it put Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ on the map. As the credits rolled, my father turned to me and said: “Well, that might not have been the best film to watch before university.”