Master the writing tools behind the time-tested sub-genre of coming of age movies and apply them to any story.
Movies are special. The best teach us about ourselves and live within us forever. They can be time machines, trips to foreign worlds, and even help us understand how we became who we are.
With the release of Mid-90's, it seemed the right time to dive into the subgenre and see what we can learn from the many great ones that have come before. I broke into Hollywood with my coming of age film, and one thing I learned quickly was that the universal themes within these movies help people connect with the work.
First up let's define coming of age, and get deeper into coming of age meaning.
The 50+ Best Coming of Age Movies of All Time [With FREE Writing Checklist]
Coming Of Age Definition
A film typically set in a character’s adolescence. It focuses on big life changes and deals with a resulting major shift in perspective for the main character.
What does 'coming of age' mean?
When someone “comes of age,” it means they’ve transferred from seeing life as a child into seeing the world as an adult.
What is a coming of age story? It’s just a story about that process taking place. In real life, these things happen to us over and over again. But just what makes coming of age stories so profound?
They are universal. We’ve all experienced it. Or we all will. Stories are always about change, after all. What change is easier to connect to than the one every human knows so well? But that’s not even the most powerful element of the coming of age story.
You’ll notice as we go through the top movies of the last 50 years, that they all have that nostalgia factor. Who doesn’t love nostalgia? Let 'em know Don:
Nostalgia aside, one question you might be asking is; “Is every movie about kids a coming of age film?”
The answer is no.
These movies are more specifically about change. Take a movie like Home Alone. It’s written by coming of age auteur, John Hughes. But that movie isn’t necessarily about growing up, even though Kevin does some mature things in it.
It’s more about the hijinks of the robbery and idea of being left alone. A movie like Weird Science, while goofy, is about two boys coming into their own as teenagers.
Forrest Gump has an excellent coming of age portion of the movie, but the entire film can’t be classified as a coming of age film because it’s truly a relationship drama at its core.
Which brings us to another reason why a coming of age story is so valuable to master. Great movies often layer genre. The more you layer genre, the more you can flesh out characters.
Maybe you’re setting out to write a sci-fi action thriller. Why does this post matter to you?
Because our coming of age story checklist might help you flesh out one of your characters. Create depth. Come up with something missing on page 48.
So with that said let’s dive deep into our coming of age movie structure.
The Meaning of The Best Coming of Age Movies of All Time
When you’re sitting down to write a coming-of-age movie, you have to think about particular films and what makes them the best. Usually, the answer to that is in their deeper meaning.
As mentioned in the opener, coming of age films are popular as samples, because the things that happen in them are universally applicable.
We’ve all come of age at one point or another, so if you’re trying to write your own coming of age movie, you should figure out what you have to say about life.
Don’t get scared away! This is why we’re going to examine some of the best coming of age films and see how they tackle the challenge. And the added bonus?
Even if you love these kinds of movies, you probably haven’t seen everyone on our list, so in addition to helping you write, this post might give you some good viewing material.
After all, I don’t think you can search for coming of age movies on Netflix… yet.
Our List of the Best Coming of Age Stories
They tell us what it’s like to be a kid, but also help us understand the complicated world around us. Even though the stories presented in these films come from different eras, and a variety of filmmaking voices, they all have universal themes that can help you master the genre, and the craft.
Disclaimer: This list does not include every coming of age film ever made. If you have a favorite, or a favorite lesson we can take from a coming of age film, post it in the comments below!
Okay, let’s do this… time to come of age!
Hollywood really took off in the 30’s and 40’s when sound came into play, but there weren’t a lot of movies made and marketed toward youth in America. Still, the coming of age film was ready to push forward in a big way.
What would be referred to as the phenomenon of the invention of the teenager in American culture paved the way for the coming of age film…
Rebel Without A Cause
We’ll lead off with perhaps the most iconic teenager and coming of age film of all time.
This is the coming of age film that made James Dean a star. It’s about realizing your parents are just flawed people, and discovering that you may not live forever. The homosexual undertones of the best friend/hero storyline are also ahead of their time.
Like many of us, the first time we deal with death is with a pet. Old Yeller is famous for its ending, but it’s really memorable as a movie about accepting responsibility, and the sacrifices we make as an adult.
Like many of the top coming of age movies, this is one that really stays with you.
The 400 Blows
France came into the coming of age film in a big way. This Truffaut classic takes us through primary school with Antoine Doinel. He’s a troubled kid who’s learning the world is as complicated as his emotions about growing up. What’s cool about this series is that Truffaut follows Doinel as he experiences life. If you love this one check out Antoine and Collette, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, and Love On The Run if you want to see the filmic treatment of his whole life.
As the 1950s came to a close, a new subset of movies came into existence; the Beach film. These were coming of age films populated by kids in Los Angeles who hung out on the beaches of Malibu and Santa Monica. They were the early version of hippies. The first Gidget movie, based on the novel, starred Sandra Dee. What sets Gidget out is that, like The 400 Blows, her entire fictitious life was captured on screen…
It feels like this post should transition with a Bob Dylan song here, but as the 1960’s took hold, it felt like the 20th Century was coming of age in its own right.
There was a war about to happen in Vietnam, sex, drugs, and rock and roll were taking over, and the coming of age movie was about to explode into new directions. But most important of all?
The youth had a voice and a movement. This had a major impact on Hollywood, as the youth culture helped bring about the demise of the studio system.
The Gidget Series - Gidget Goes to Hawaii, Gidget Goes To Rome
As Gidget changed from the 50’s to 60’s it not only changed lead actresses, but also changed how a young woman came of age. It wasn’t just about young love, but was also about travel, and independence. Still, as things got “real” in the 60’s…audiences turned away from the saccharine lessons.
Closely Watched Trains
Even as American kids were figuring out who they were, international cinema was coming into their own. This Czech movie shows a boy not only coming to grips with life, but also depicts the truly horrific backdrop of war, and what it means to come of age as a country.
A lot of people cite The Graduate as the seminal coming of age film.
From the opening scene on, the movie grabbed audiences and never let go. It announced a new kind of filmmaking, and a new kind of perspective.
In a way, The Graduate isn’t just a movie about coming of age, it was about movies themselves coming of age.
This movie tackles life’s big questions, like careers, relationships, sex, and of course plastics.
All with the humorous wisdom that defines the sub-genre.
I’m not sure this movie qualifies as a coming of age film, but I’m including it because of how it presents being a hippie versus being a square, which was another big piece of the movies themselves coming of age.
America was changing, and who better to symbolize this shift from one generation to the next than Peter Fonda, son of classic old-Hollywood leading man Henry Fonda?
This movie is rebellion incarnate. Yelling to anyone within earshot that they need to listen. It also introduced audiences to Jack Nicholson.
Cut from the same cloth as Easy Rider, this is a movie that takes on the Vietnam war. It’s about a kid paralyzed by fear of death and his future, but also about a country that has no idea what it’s doing. Here’s a cool thing to keep in mind:
The best also capture the time period where they’re set. This one works overtime to tell you the 1960’s were about change.
As the 60s came to a close, Hollywood was definitely going through changes. Marketing movies to younger generations was the new plan. People wanted stories consistent with the moments in their lives, and coming of age films were starting to multiply.
Before George Lucas blew everyones mind with Star Wars, he made a very personal film about his formative years. The tagline for this coming of age movie was “Where you were you, in the summer of ’62?”
Nostalgia was the name of the game here. Lucas and his timeless coming of age classic asked “Remeber that simpler time, right before everything went crazy with vietnam etc.?”
And people ate it up. Lucas tapped into a deep vien with this one. 50’s culture, as a source of coming of age nostalgia, was about to become a national phenomenon.
It also showcased a ton of up and coming actors. Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, and Ron Howard all had major roles here.
The Last Picture Show
Quite possibly my favorite movie on this list, The Last Picture Show took the straight dramatic turn to portray coming of age. Echoing classic Rebel Without A Cause, this movie was about learning that while you’re going through all that coming of age stuff, maybe so are the grown-ups. Maybe we never grow out of highschool. Loss, love, regret, age, youth, and time simply passing us all by.
The film brings Larry McMurtry’s windswept Texas town of the novel to life lovingly with gorgeous black and white photography. A fascinating contrast to Rebel Without A Cause, where teenagers burst onto the scene in vibrant color. This coming of age story about the other side of nostalgia. The kind that aches.
After The Graduate, sex became a staple of the coming of age film in American cinemas. But the 1970’s helped this expand. Carnal Knowledge placed sex in the spotlight when it came to learning more about becoming an adult, and the complications that came with relationships.
But the 70’s wasn’t all dour. Grease highlights how fun growing up can be. The lessons and vulnerabilities are easy to pushed away with a song, and it proved coming of age could also be pulpy and fun.
The 50’s nostalgia Lucas introduced in American Graffiti is on steroids by the time Grease rolls up (revving it’s engine of course.)
One theme explored but not nailed in some of these other movies is the desire to escape your hometown.
Breaking Away depicts a kid with talent, ready to take himself to the next level. When writing coming of age, it’s so important to sell the environment, what makes these characters tick is where they’re from. This movie nails it.
The 70’s tees up the 1980’s with some insane comedy. Meatballs is the quintessential camp movie. It takes kids misbehaving and going wild with hormones, and turns it up to an 11.
Bill Murray leads this coming of age cast, and while the movie is light on moral lessons, it’s devoted to showing you the joys of growing up, and the horrors of trying to balance being a counselor in charge of kids, while you still feel like a kid yourself.
While the past few decades were about coming of age films finding their own voices and tropes, the 1980’s are about leaning into this new world. Kids were getting more political, more messy, they had opinions and wanted to be heard, but perhaps most pertinent of all?
They were becoming a big demographic. And Hollywood was about to cash in.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High
The 80’s started with a bang. No pun intended.
Fast Times was loud and proud about its depiction of sex, drugs, abortion, and the major changes in teen life. It wasn’t a movie for parents or critics, it was a coming of age movie for the people living it. In a way, more than even any John Hughes movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High set the tone for the next ten years, it wasn’t about remembering what it was like. It was for the kids actually living it, who were going to the mall buying tickets.
This one is a little different than the others. First, it has slightly older characters. Coming of age films aren’t required to show teens. These people are out of college and still trying to figure out that life holds. It asks a ton of big questions and doesn’t provide easy answers.
The Breakfast Club/ Sixteen Candles / Pretty In Pink / Weird Science / Ferris Bueller
Let’s get this out of the way first: I could write 5000 words on any John Hughes movie, but when it comes to the master of the coming of age movie, it helps to list them all under one heading.
John Hughes talked to kids like they were adults. He took their problems seriously, and depicted the most realistic teens. What makes John Hughes coming of age movies so good, is that they set the bar high. The movement of addressing the audience dealing with the coming of age process hit it’s high point here.
These movies have incredible stories that affect every generation that watches them. Sure, they were made in the 80’s - but what hit the screen was timeless.
Stand By Me
One of the solid tropes is the idea of death. It seems like when people start recognizing life, they only can appreciate it by acknowledging death.
So what better way than with a group of kids walking down some train tracks looking for a dead body?
The way we are as kids affects who we become as adults. This movie takes the love of movies to the next level. It’s a great appreciation of cinema and the emotions that make us connect with the movies.
This coming of age tale really shows how powerful cinema can be in our lives, and how it can take us anywhere.
By the time we got to the 90’s, many filmmakers had been raised on movies. They wanted to put their own stamp on the coming of age film. It was an exciting time where indie filmmakers started blend tones and genre. Finally, coming of age movies were ready to become more diverse
Dazed and Confused
This Richard Linklater masterpiece was a complete revamp of the genre. It wasn’t stuck to the rigid outline of structure, and was much more of story about people hanging out. This coming of age film knew that kids just want to have fun, and it was okay showing it in its own time. It was, in many ways, an American Graffiti for a new generation.
Boyz N The Hood
John Singleton burst onto the scene with a multi-year coming of age story. It took the best of what we love about kids, and the dark and ominous trepidations of adulthood, and created one of the most important films of the 1990s.
This movie was unapologetically about Singleton’s experiences in South Central, and made outside culture take a look at a coming of age film through a much more diverse lens. It wasn’t all fun and game, or even teen agnst anymore. The scope was now shifting in a meaningful way.
Now And Then
When you come of age, sometimes you forget to look back. But this movie forces us into the past, via the present.
It also is female driven, something that previous decades ignored. This movie is conscious that what happened in the past created the characters we see in the present. It’s almost a mystery figuring out why they became that way. An excellent tool for any writer looking for craft some drama into their coming of age script.
Many coming of age films make an impression on the viewer, but few change Hollywood the way Clueless did. It’s one of the first massive monetary hits on this list. It truly was a breakout and let studios know, in case they every forgot, that there was serious cash to be made if your coming of age film was witty, and addressed the kids who could go out and buy tickets.
Like we noted before, things just weren’t all fun and games in the 90’s. After the AIDs epidemic swept America, filmmakers wanted to address the issue from the ground up.
Kids was there to hit back, with it’s raw docustyle. This movie showed the sexual promiscuity and drug/alcohol use ignored in many other coming of age films, the dark and dangerous side to youth. While other movies in the genre depict a heightened bubble-gum reality, this one was gritty and honest.
By the late 90’s, you couldn’t come of age without losing your virginity. It’s a seminal moment in growing up, and instead of including it as a trope, this movie built the entire story around it. There’s hijinks to spare, but American Pie figured out how to sneak some heart into the raunch, and explain why friends trump everything.
One interesting thing that started to emerge with coming of age films in the 2000s is that they echoed what had been felt by filmmakers in the 1990s. Filmmakers had a great base of coming of age films, and this time they started to add some other genres to accentuate the top coming of age film tropes and keep the surprises coming… of age. Sorry.
When I was in 8th grade, Donnie Darko blew my mind. It was the first coming of age movie I saw that blended another genre so seamlessly. It created an atmosphere that both leaned into falling in love, defying your parents, and also had a six-foot rabbit telling you the world was going to end.
City Of God
This Academy Award winning film took audiences by storm. It’s a coming of age film that elevates the whole subgenre.
It’s about growing up in a city where many people don’t make it past their teens. Where death surrounds you, and where having a big dream means you’ll usually wind up dead. The end result?
It deals with everything teens go through in the other films, but places it in a world many audiences will never understand, with life or death stakes they can’t fathom.
Before she directed Twilight, Catherine Hardwicke took aim at growing up in a much harsher reality. Thirteen shows the struggles between a mother and daughter, bullies, and exploring your own sexuality. It shows the dangers of fitting in, and the burden of sticking out.
While other movies on this list are set in different time periods, this movie takes a peek back thirty years prior, while still managing to remain relevant to audiences today. One of the best parts of this movie is that it makes sure you understand the relationships, no matter the time period. It also lets its soundtrack guide you emotionally.
Another breakout hit, this was one of the top grossing films of 2007, nominated for Best Picture, and gained universal acclaim. Not many movies on this list deal with teen pregnancy, but this one managed to start a national conversation. I honest-to-blog love this film.
This entry was a coming out party for Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. It was their opus about growing up. And the best part?
They began writing the screenplay when they were just kids themselves.
While the tropes and situations in this movie feel familiar, they’re quick not to depend on nostalgia, and just deliver something uniquely funny and heartfelt that makes you scream “I am McLovin!”
On Wednesdays we wear pink. This movie blew up.
Who knows if they thought it was going to be so huge, but it came along and shook up the genre. Coming of age movies had never found this tone, somewhere between real world and heightened fantasy. It was hilarious, real, and took on bullying in so many different ways but still managed not to feel trite or preachy. It was also focused on the female coming of age experience, which is a nice change of pace from the tropes we’ve come to know so well about the male.
Another staple of the coming of age movie is the summer job. We’ve all had them, they’ve all made us laugh, and deal with authority, and possibly fall in love with another one of the workers. They’re a seminal moment in growing up, and this movie builds around that job, and shows us the pressure and frustrations that come along with the real world.
Coming of age films by now have started to blend into more and more genres. Hollywood has gotten so good at it, and let so many diverse and interesting filmmakers create these films, that we may be in a golden era for these kinds of stories. Because these are such personal stories, they often bring the most honestly out of the creators.
An openly gay girl deals with how society views her, and has to deal with whether or not she can even rely on her family’s support. This movie couldn’t have been made in another era, and really pushes movies into a new realm.
This grand cinematic experiment literally chronicles the entirety of coming of age. It takes us from youth, to legal adult. Again, as we get closer to the present, people are experimenting more with the form of coming of age, and extrapolating why these movies mean so much to us. Consider that filmmaker Richard Linklater also made another more classic coming of age story on this list. The subgenre continues to evolve.
Where will you take it?
The Fault In Our Stars / Perks of Being A Wallflower / Spectacular Now
I grouped all these titles together because they represent the surge in Young Adult books becoming part of the coming of age movie phenomenon. As Hollywood leans more on intellectual property, lots of people are going back to source material to find new versions of coming of age movies. They also help ideas sell. Great tip for any screenwriter:
Dig into the books you loved when you were coming of age and look for inspiration. Or movie rights!
Dope is the culmination of a lot of different genres being twisted into a coming of age film. It has the music, the job, the world, the love, and then throws in a few genres to shake things up. It’s truly one of the best modern distillations of the coming of age story.
As you can tell, I like to delve into what the world’s doing - and when I saw this movie I was SHOOK. It’s a beautiful film about five sisters coming of age under the same roof. They’re married off one by one, and we see the others maturing and trying to escape this oppressive family, only to leave.
This movie opened my eyes to a different part of the world and has one of the most satisfying girl-bus driver friendships of all time.
So we’ve talked a lot about what qualifies as a coming of age movie. And while the last act of this film is about being an adult, since it’s actually about dealing with a first love that defined you, I think this is a beautiful way to show why coming of age films are so important. This is a movie about becoming who you are, and then learning to embrace it.
Once again, it’s pushing the familiar elements of the subgenre by combining them dramatically with other story models. Whatever you are writing, the coming of age checklist can help you.
We all know growing up can be hard, but imagine growing up with great power and great responsibility? The Superhero movie is absolutely dominating our theaters of late, and Spidey was always the superhero closes to the coming of age story. Insert spidey sense is tingling joke…
This movie adeptly takes the coming of age tropes and affixes them to the superhero genre. It centers around a homecoming dance, and even throws in some love interest twists to keep the audience guessing.
What I love the most about coming of age movies, is that they always feel like they’re on the cusp of a new generation creating a better world. In Love, Simon, we’re treated to a coming of age story that focuses on acceptance, inclusion, and also capitalizes on being a popular young adult book. It’s truly a coming of age story for a new era.
One of the oldest tropes of coming of age stories is how we deal with our parents. This movie takes that to the next level. It’s truly a period piece, capturing a time and place familiar, but different from our own. It’s Oscar nom shows that these movies still impact us.
This movie feels like Bo Burnhum’s opus. It’s driven by that seminal year before you enter high school. The changes the incur, the lost feeling you have when you try to fit in, and this one also deal with social media. It’s about becoming someone, and hoping other people like that person, while you try to figure out if you like yourself.
It’s only fitting that a stars from one of the best coming of age movies of all time would create his own coming of age film.
It’s about making friends, dealing with troubles at home, and discovering who you’ll become one day at a time. It’s a movie that looks back at the filmmaker’s past. At how the 90’s shaped him. I can’t wait till you all check it out and let us know in the comments where it ranks, and if it takes things up a notch.
The Best Coming of Age Movie Checklist
So you’re writing a coming of age movie screenplay? Here’s a list of some tropes, situations, and storylines compiled and streamlined from all the above films and coming of age story structures.
Do these coming of age story tropes occur in your movie?
Will any of these coming of age story items help you brainstorm what belongs in your story?
Use this tool to answer those questions, and others you may have as you put together any script on your desk, or in the back of your mind.
The Coming Of Age Story Checklist:
How old is your main character?
Do they have siblings?
Are they the oldest?
Do they have a favorite kind of music?
How will music affect the story?
Where does the story take place?
Where do they go to school?
Who’s their friend group?
Are they nerds?
Is there a crazy best friend character who steals each scene?
Are they dating?
Any unrequited love?
Are they a virgin?
Will they lose it?
How close are we to the end of the school year?
Is there a big dance coming up?
Do they have a date?
Will they have to find a date?
Do they get along with their parents?
Are both parents in the picture?
Is there a teacher who understands them?
Or a grandparent?
Or a neighbor?
Do they have a driver’s license?
How do they feel about life?
Has anyone died recently?
Is anyone sick?
Is it anyone’s birthday?
Is there going to be drinking?
Or will we learn a hard lesson?
Is anyone coming out?
Is this the first time they experienced the hard world?
Are they scared to grow up?
Is there a voiceover?
Who’s point of view in the story?
What’s the major lesson they learn?
Is it about themselves?
Is there a universal truth?
Happy or sad ending?
My genuine hope is that this coming of age checklist helps you find your character and story by allowing you to lean into, or subvert, the tropes of these kids of stories.
Coming of age films are some of the very best, so I’m excited when I hear someone has a new spin on a genre we’ve watched in film and television for over seventy years.
Summing Up The Best Coming Of Age Movies
Coming of age movies set out to help us better understand the world. And I hope after reading this post you have a better understanding on some of the expected tropes and storylines that can help you when writing your own coming of age film.
This is an exhaustive list, but I know there are incredible movies that come out every year. Let me know some of your favorites in the comments.
What are their best moments?
Any homages to coming of age films that have already happened?
Ready to write your own coming of age film?
Keep writing and keep watching!