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6 Greatest coming-of-age films of all time

BY READERS DIGEST

23rd Jun 2023 Film & TV

6 Greatest coming-of-age films of all time
Remember what it's like to be young and awkward and constantly embarrassed? No? These coming-of-age classics will remind you (in the best way possible!)
Choosing the greatest coming-of-age films is a tricky endeavour, because in this particular genre amazing cinematography and flawless direction play second fiddle to relating personally to the experiences you see on screen.
Perhaps the strongest mark of a good coming-of-age film is when the person watching it goes, oh my God, that was so me. And that is going to look a little different for everyone. Having said that, if you’re in the market for the next film that will have you cringing almost all the way through but that will ultimately warm your heart, here are a few of our coming-of-age favourites.

Stand By Me (1986)

This classic, directed by Rob Reiner and based on a novella of the same name by Stephen King, surely tops any list of coming-of-age films. It follows a group of boys one summer on a mission to find the body of a missing boy. 
The premise is morbid—hardly unexpected for a film based on a story by one of literature’s greatest horror writers. Yet the film captures the sense of dizzying excitement of being with your best friends, feeling untouchable. 
"The film captures the sense of dizzying excitement of being with your best friends, feeling untouchable"
Simmering under the surface of this jaunt through the countryside are heavy themes of repressed grief, parental neglect and class prejudice. Perhaps these things, which everyone must face sooner or later, become more palatable when looked at through the lens of children going on an adventure with the best friends they ever had. 

Rushmore (1998)

Longtime Wes Anderson muses Jason Schwartzman and Bill Hanks first shared a screen in Rushmore. In fact, it was Schwartzman’s film debut, but you wouldn’t know it by his confident portrayal of Max Fischer, a 15-year-old whose awkwardness will feel painfully familiar to many viewers.
In between starting all manner of extracurricular clubs (including an Astronomy Society and Rushmore Beekeepers) and slowly flunking out of the prestigious Rushmore Academy, Max strikes up a friendship with rich industrialist Herman Blume (Hanks). The friendship is soured by a rivalry for the affection of elementary school teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), and hijinks such as filling a hotel room with wasps ensue. 
We’ve all been an awkward teenager figuring out who we are and what we’re good at, trying different hobbies to see what sticks and going toe-to-toe with a wealthy local businessman in an increasingly dramatic competition for a school teacher’s love. Okay, maybe that last one is a little niche, but the first two are definitely universal. Rushmore captures those typical teen growing pains with both humour and heart. 

Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

Directed by Gurinder Chadha, Bend It Like Beckham is a British gem. Parminder Nagra stars as Jess, the youngest daughter in a family of British Indian Punjabi Sikhs who challenges her family’s cultural norms as well as anti-Indian racism in order to follow her dreams of playing football
"Chadha’s film is a lighthearted exploration of changing norms"
Along with her friend Jules (Keira Knightley), Jess joins a local amateur football team. Her football dreams are hindered by family disapproval and love rivalry, but this is a feel good film at its heart and the ending will leave you with a grin on your face. 
Chadha’s film is a lighthearted exploration of changing norms, relatable to everyone while putting a spotlight on British Indian experiences in particular. And it features a cameo from David Beckham himself!

Moonlight (2016)

Often cited as one of the best films of the 21st century, Moonlight is a coming-of-age film that follows the life of Chiron in three parts: his childhood, his adolescence and his adulthood. He is played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes in each part respectively. 
Director Barry Jenkins deftly explores Chiron’s identity, honing in on issues of sexuality and masculinity as he moves through life as a lonely child, a bullied teenager and later an unexpected drug dealer.
As well as touching on important themes with vulnerability and empathy, Moonlight is just a well-made film, with striking cinematography and powerful performances that make it feel like you are watching real people who just happen to have been filmed.

Lady Bird (2017)

In Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, Christine (Saoirse Ronan) is impatient to get out of her small town and be her own person. In fact, she’s started on the whole being-her-own-person part by renaming herself “Lady Bird”. Gerwig depicts Lady Bird’s navigation of university applications, friendship fallouts and first relationships with whimsy and startling honesty. 
Like Rushmore, part of the film’s appeal is how ordinary the protagonist is: as her mother and her school guidance counsellor don’t hesitate to tell her, she is in no danger of getting into prestigious universities like Yale. Set in 2002, there is also a touch of Noughties nostalgia that will be particularly appealing to millennial viewers. 
But at the film’s heart is the complicated relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf). The two of them oscillate at breakneck speed between making hurtful digs at each other and crying into each other’s arms, capturing a mother-daughter relationship in which the love is as painful as it is strong. It’s a brutally honest depiction: don’t be surprised if you find yourself tearing up at moments and saying, “Oh my God, that's me and my mum.”

Eighth Grade (2018)

Possibly the most painful watch on this list, Eighth Grade is a coming-of-age film for the internet generation. Kayla (Elsie Fisher) spends her time making YouTube videos about confidence and self-image, while at school she is voted “Most Quiet” and struggles making friends. Eighth Grade follows her in her final week of middle school as she tries to break out of her shell and make friends with an earnestness that is painfully raw.
This is Bo Burnham’s feature debut, and perhaps its delivery is strengthened by his own career beginnings on YouTube. Who better to tackle what it means to grow up in a world that is obsessed with the internet? He expertly captures the dichotomy between who you want to be and the way everyone else sees you, as Kayla struggles with anxiety and an overwhelming desire to fit in.
"Kayla is treated with depth and sympathy as she faces up to the relentless challenge of being a teenager"
It’s easy to look back at the problems that plagued you when you were 14 years old and laugh, but Eighth Grade understands how devastating they felt at the time. Bo Burnham tackles the coming-of-age genre with a level of perceptiveness that suggests he has not forgotten what it means to be 14, and Kayla is treated with depth and sympathy as she faces up to the relentless challenge of being a teenager. 
If you don’t see your own favourite coming-of-age films on this list, it must be because you have bad taste. Just kidding, this list is purely subjective and in the interest of space a lot of great coming-of-age films had to go unmentioned. Ultimately, the best coming-of-age film is whichever film best captures your personal coming-of-age. 
Banner credit: Columbia Pictures
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