How to Make a Coming Of Age Film That Doesn't Suck

Can we still make teen films as good as American Grafitti?  If you want to try, here are some dos and don'ts.

To draw inspiration for his latest video essay The Art of Teen Film, editor Andrew Saladino had to go back 43 years to 1973. This is a little troubling. Sure, their probably isn't a better example of a coming-of-age tale out there than American Grafitti, but what does it say about our modern teen flicks? American Grafitti set the mold for films like Dazed and Confused, but what good did it do for, er, less authentic examples like The Spectacular Now?

Not only does Saladino provide us with some concrete tips for creating a successful teen movie (in particular, focusing on soundtrack as a storytelling device), he identifies a trend of the hyper-serious tone increasingly present in modern entries into the genre. Gone are the days of lighthearted joy and fun.  Saladino argues that teens should be worrying about low-stakes teen things like drag racing, stealing beer, or finding that blonde in the T-Bird. How many of us remember that time a handsome stranger came into town and started murdering people? Above everything else, these films need to feel relatable to become classics. We've kind of lost that in favor of cynicism and deeper issues that no one under the age of twenty should rightfully have to deal with.

The real trick, like in all writing, is to get into the mind of the character as he or she sees the world while the plot unfolds. If your characters aren't talking or acting like kids, then they are really just a pale reflection of all the regrets and nostalgia you feel for your own childhood. As Saladino puts it, think of your film as a love letter from youthhood rather than a love letter to youthhood.     

Your Comment


Nah, disagree with a lot of this. Not the stuff about understanding the characters or whatever, but mainly the assumption that films modern films like Perks and The Spectacular Now aren't a realistic representation of teenage life (fair play - Perks is very idealised) just doesn't work for me.

May 19, 2016 at 3:30PM, Edited May 19, 3:33PM

Thomas Byrne

Couldn't agree more. Times change, the world is a different place than it was in the 60s.

May 19, 2016 at 4:44PM


My pet peeve about these films is teens who have more awareness of the world than most adults in real life. I understand teen angst, but putting it on such a large scale is annoying.

May 20, 2016 at 10:02PM

Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker

Love this post!

My "coming of age" modern go-to-flick would have to be "Superbad" of the funniest and most relatable (for the most part) films of my generation I would say.

May 21, 2016 at 10:32AM, Edited May 21, 10:32AM

Christopher Evans
Video Artist

Agreed...right next to "The Girl Next Door".

May 24, 2016 at 9:53AM

Andrew Drachman
Director of Photography

"The Girl Next Door" was surprisingly some really well done storytelling. Even though it probably falls squarely into these "what not to do" guidelines, they pulled it off well.

May 26, 2016 at 12:05PM, Edited May 26, 12:05PM

Tony Virili
Digital Mercenary

I thoroughly recommend American Graffiti 2 if anyone hasn't seen it.

May 7, 2017 at 5:37AM, Edited May 7, 5:37AM

Saied M.

The author of the video seems to have had a pretty neat couple of years there in his teens. I know I came out a complete wreck after watching The Perks for the first time, to the point where I barely could speak about it, because it rang so true to me. it was one of the first films to do that. I watched it again in the theater that same week, went on to buy the book and lose nights of sleep reading it, and it's still where I retreat to when times get the hardest - not out of nostalgia, but because that narrator still sounds like a friend to me. And, to appropriate an argument the videomaker seems so drawn to - most of my friends feel the same.
I think it's awful when movies play teens like light-headed dummies. I hated being seen like that as a teenager, even as a kid, and it feeds into that condescension so particular to the way adults treat their kids, it even has it's own name - patronizing. Kids hurt. Teens hurt. They have issues and problems and these things feel like the world to them, and I'd rather watch a movie that respects that instead of one that downplays it like it's nothing.

May 7, 2017 at 12:58PM

Luan Oliveira
film student in Rio