Welcome to the first Movie Watcher’s Club article of 2018! We are glad you could make it. 2017 was a fun year, as we introduced this film series, discussing a wide range of different films. Some of the topics may have been cliche — they were — but the discussions were nevertheless entertaining. Now it’s time to start the new year with a new crop of films in a different category. And what better topic is there for the Movie Watcher’s Club to kick off the New Year than the always reliable and emotional rollercoaster ride coming-of-age films.
Coming-of-age stories always have a special place in our hearts. We always find ways to empathize with the main characters as they are on a quest to discover their place in the world. Why? Because we are also on our own quests to discover our place in the world. Everyone at some point in their lives has had to face head-on those existential questions, whether it be as a teenager, a recent college graduate, or entering middle age. Humanity is on a perpetual journey to discover purpose, and these coming of age films hit at that emotional core.
The genre is overwhelmingly dominated by teen protagonists. It’s that time in our lives where we simply have so much to learn about ourselves, family, and friends. So much of our identity is shaped during these formative years. I’d argue that individuals still continue to grow, discover, and can even “come-of-age” after the age of 18, but that’s a different discussion for a different day. This may be the one notable flaw of the genre, but I’d be damned to be that critical as so many of these films are fantastic.
Enough of me yammering. Without further ado, let’s get into the staff picks of their favorite coming-of-age film!
Mean Girls (2004)
Director: Mark Waters
Writers: Rosalind Wiseman, Tina Fey
Stars: Lindsay Lohan, Jonathan Bennett, Rachel McAdams
On the surface, Mean Girls appeared little more than another stale, teenage romp. We’d met these unimaginative, shopworn characters time and time again. The trailers did little to inspire much confidence in Tina Fey’s brainchild. Yawn.
But that wasn’t the case here. What lay beneath that surface was a masterful exercise in navigating the social constructs of high school, a riotous journey of self-discovery, and the hardships young adults endure along the way. Cady Heron was a character the bulk of a generation could relate to. Regina George was the complex roadblock too many of us had run into along the way. Mean Girls was, in many ways, our own experiences under the microscope.
The formula was simple, but the execution was near flawless. Against all odds, Mean Girls, both on the strength of Fey’s script and its relatable characters, firmly cemented itself as a cult classic going forward and a masterclass in youthful filmmaking. It’s just too bad that nowadays Lindsey Lohan doesn’t even go here.
High school was hardly a tumultuous experience for yours truly. I wasn’t forced to navigate half the labyrinth the film’s lead did, but even then, there are parallels I can draw. Cady’s early struggles with both following her heart within the school’s social hierarchy and appeasing the popular crowd are something we can all relate to, myself included. That sort of relatability is why the film resonates still so many years later. Fourteen to be exact. Man, I am getting old…
Directors: Barry Jenkins
Writers: Barry Jenkins
Stars: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight shines far beyond its resume as an Academy Award-winning best picture. The coming of age film literally does just that as its main character, Chiron, navigates through life finding highs, lows, love, and identity in three defining chapters of his life. As a bullied child, Chiron befriends his own struggling mother’s drug dealer, Juan, who rescues him in more ways than just Chiron’s immediate danger. Played by Mahersahala Ali, Juan’s juxtaposition between occupation and supportive, gentle demeanor was absolutely worthy of the Oscar it received.
The second part of the film was Chiron’s life as a teenager, which was the most defining coming-of-age stage. It features a life-defining relationship, controversial to his area of Miami, that is later torn apart. In the final of its three stages, Chiron’s life experiences allow him to shed his previous life of bullying and shape him into having a rough exterior. The film’s true triumph is actor Trevante Rhodes. His tough exterior combines with his ability to show the inner conflict and ache he has within was a true culmination and combination representing each stage of his life all rolled up into one. Chiron’s life comes full circle, in more than one way, as he becomes a reincarnated Juan due to the twists and turns of his life.
Moonlight is a film that resonates with so many people’s journeys navigating through life. We, like Chiron, go on our own journey of self-discovery through ups and downs, for better or for worse, resulting in an adult version of ourselves that also reflects a history of every stage that’s led up to it. Moonlight’s Chiron is the epitome of coming of age because the film demonstrates every intertwined relationship and experience of his three stages making him into the adult he is.
I love this movie because of its conflict. Not conflict in the obvious sense. Rather, each of the three actors who played Chiron accomplished what so many people struggle with: inner conflict. While we may not all go through everything Chiron did, we each have our own versions of life-defining relationships and moments. Look past its accolades and there is true beauty in Moonlight’s cinematography and its characters. All three Chiron’s, Chiron’s mother (played by Naomie Harris), who undergoes a coming-of-age of her own through each stage, and the show-stealing Juan, both of which represent Chiron’s biggest influences. So often, the critically-acclaimed movies are depressing, Moonlight is a triumph. A triumph in finally accepting who you are and everything that brought you to that point. Chiron is who he is because of what he goes through in life. We all can relate to him because we all are Chiron.
The Kings of Summer (2013)
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Writer: Chris Galletta
Starring: Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias
Coming-of-age films have been making a comeback. While nothing will beat John Hughes and the nostalgia of the 80s, recent films have been casting a wider net and have been breaking from the traditional callsigns of the genre. These films appeal to something within us all, something gone but not forgotten. They occupy a very a liminal space, beckoning to our sense of nostalgia. I went to unusual schools all my life. I never was big into dances, my school’s biggest competitive team was a robotics club, and the notion of “cliques” is something that has largely died out in schools — and films as well, thankfully. So when I’m thinking about childhood, I’m thinking less about the functions of school and more about moments I cannot recapture. In the end, I think that’s what the best coming of age movies represent: connecting. A sign that you are not alone in your experiences, good or bad.
The Kings of Summer is a realization of a dream we all had: to run away into the woods, build your own house, and make your own rules. The first time I did this, I was within view of my house, at the edge of my family’s lot in North Florida. Forty-five minutes into a downpour, I crawled out of my fort — three plywood boards, two sod pallets, and some leftover carpet squares — and went inside. The kids in Kings of Summer got a little bit further. Joe (Robinson) lives with his father (Nick Offerman), both still coping with the loss of Joe’s mother. Tired of his lack of independence, Joe “takes control” of his life and builds a house in the woods along with his best friend, Patrick (Basso), and the enigmatic Biaggio (Arias).
The film treads familiar ground, independence, relationship quarrels, some questionable humor. Beyond this familiarity, the film is driven by Vogt-Roberts’s gorgeous scene crafting as well as the dynamic soundtrack. The film is at its best when Vogt-Roberts is acting as a voyeur to the three leads at their most candid. It’s not a perfect film, nor is it as groundbreaking as Moonlight and Boyhood, but it’s familiar to me. It’s charming, relatable, and funny. In the end, that’s what we expect from this genre.
Joe isn’t an uncommon character; he longs for independence, he’s sarcastic, and he’s as brash as most teenagers in these films. I’m drawn to his subtleties; a smile similar to my own and an admirable commitment to a joke (see: calling the cops on his father during Monopoly). His desire to run away, build his own house, and live in the woods, was a dream of mine at that age too. The film’s ending isn’t bittersweet or happy, it’s just kind of an end. There is no melodrama or triumph or grand lesson throughout it all. It is a story of fleeting youth and that’s what I love about Joe and The Kings of Summer.
Stand By Me (1986)
Director: Rob Reiner
Writers: Stephen King, Raynold Gideon, Bruce A. Evans
Stars: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
Rob Reiner’s 1986 film Stand By Me (an adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body) asks the aforementioned question throughout, and answers said question with a 90-minute exploration of the trials of growing up. This is my pick for the best coming-of-age film.
The story centers around four friends in Castle Rock, Ore. in late 1959. Gordie (Wheaton), Chris (Phoenix), Teddy (Feldman) and Vern (O’Connell) all give performances well beyond their years as they spend Labor Day weekend together on a journey not only literally, but emotionally. Over the course of the weekend, they discuss all the things important when one is twelve: girls, Mighty Mouse VS Superman, school, and siblings to name a few. While these topics may seem simple and not of importance, they are quite the opposite to a twelve-year-old. Through these discussions on these topics, one discovers their place in the world at that time.
You can tell Stephen King wrote the short story based on his own growing up, as he injects the story with such realness and emotion. One can’t help but think about the story as it pertains to their own experiences and growing up. The story was not only personal to King, but was personal to me. I’ve seen the film countless times and can answer that question same today as I did when I first saw Stand By Me: no, I do not have the friends now like the ones when I was twelve.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Stars: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis
Moonrise Kingdom, one of Wes Anderson’s many classics, is a story about a cub scout named Sam and an out of place in her own family girl named Suzy. They met during a play about Noah’s Arc and run away to be together. The film then follows their blossoming romance as the island scrambles to find them. It’s funny, touching, quirky, superbly acted, and perfectly silly. Comments on Wes Anderson’s style have been done to death and I’m not nearly as big an expert on cinematography as I’d like to be. So, I rather dive right into how Moonrise Kingdom subverts the typical coming-of-age story by having the adults grow up instead of the kids.
Now, granted, coming-of-age isn’t age specific but in a story that so heavily follows it’s two child leads, it’s the islands residents who end up doing the most growth. Most specifically, Bruce Willis’s character Captain Sharp. A coming-of-age story typically with youthful transgressions has a flawed main character attempting to be made right while growing as a more reasonable person, typically through the eyes of a youth character. With our child leads Sam and Suzy, we see a first romance play out that does meet certain criteria for your coming of age story, but they don’t learn the key moral of either repair or acceptance. Instead, they get exactly what they wanted with just a touch more adult supervision. The real growth is done by possibly the only law enforcer on the island, Captain Sharp.
Captain Sharp is pushed around most of the film by other characters: Suzy’s mom, Child Protective Services, etc. He’s having an affair with a woman he knows who will never commit to him. He’s alone and working a job he’s objectively not great at. Then he gets an opportunity to find two missing kids but that, of course, its setbacks. Once he sets asides his own feelings of failure — this beautifully happens organically throughout the film without attention being drawn to it — and just does what he needs to do (i.e. saving Sam from the church roof), Sharp finds his place as a person. In the ending, we see him putting his affair behind him and taking on a role as an adoptive father.
I once had a writing teacher say that the protagonist of any given story is the one who goes through the most profound growth. In Moonrise Kingdom, it’s not the kids, it’s the adult who just needed to have a win for once. I can relate to this. I think any adult can. One doesn’t come of age all at once. Most of us are a slow burn built on bad decisions and regrets. But those things can lead to positive outcomes. I see that so often. Choices I regret making have led to some of the most beautiful outcomes of my life. So I feel for Captain Sharp. I’m in the very same boat.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Tom Schulman
Stars: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke
The notion of developing as a person high-school is convoluted enough as it is. There are so many factors that can affect a student’s path. There are social standards that are expected to be upheld. There are assumptions of the future based on certain abilities in the classroom. Everything is corralled for an individual based on what you like, what you do, and how you interact in public. The pressure to come out of those four or so years as a free thinking and productive adult on the way to college is almost insurmountable. And this is just being yielded from your typical public-school environment. You add all of those aforementioned stimuli into a disciplinary, “tradition” based, private boarding school like Belmont and you are bound to get a very uncomfortable disadvantage when it comes to living a normal teenaged life.
I have a soft spot for movies that harken back to my own high-school development because I identify with the awkward uncertainty of choosing a path to happiness and success. I’m not going so far as to say that I’m not grateful for the path I took out of my Catholic high-school roots, but I connect with the core group of young men that went on to form the Dead Poets Society because they wanted to explore something deeper than the surface of stiff, calculated, rule-laden routines at Belmont.
Diving into the movie itself, it is easily in my top 10 of all time. It sets up the scenery of Belmont so well that you are going through all the strict rituals leading up to that first English class with Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) wishing that you could be expelled from that school immediately. The establishment of Neil and Neil’s father as having a colder, results-driven relationship is key to setting up his desire to pursue the Dead Poets Society with his hallway mates is very effective. It’s heartwarming to watch Williams’ Keating character establish a warm and vibrant spirit that resonates with the students of his English class because of how harsh the boys’ traditional lives and surroundings are illustrated. It brings a smile to me to watch the guys take that same kindred free-thinking spirit of their teacher and allow it to let them “carpe diem” and forge a happier path for themselves.
My personal favorite character is a toss-up between Charlie “Nuwanda” Dalton and the sensitive introvert Todd. I side more so with Todd throughout the movie because I admit to defaulting to a shy, pacifistic state in my life well after my high-school years. His fear of public speaking when the original poem assignment is dished out is very much resounding in my heart. The scene where Mr. Keating insists on finding his barbaric side and channeling into that inner warrior spirit to create an impromptu piece of poetry was astounding to watch. It reminds me that I need to reach inside myself at certain points of anxiety and self-doubt and “YAWP” my way to confidence.
This film reminds people that it is alright to venture out and find a unique path to success and joy. This is a film for young romantics to kindle the fire of inspiration from the magic of poetry. This film is for the intellectual that rejects the idea of conformity. And most importantly, this is a film for the individual that just needs a reason to believe in that impact of a caring attitude.
Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Writers: Stephen Chbosky
Stars: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller
Perks of Being a Wallflower is in many ways a poster child for the modern coming-of-age film and in many others a shameless meandering through the genre’s tired tropes: an exploration of sexual spectrums, drug encounters, and classic high school drama. Charlie is the ideal outcast candidate: a socially inept and academically above-average student in a high school that ignores his entire existence. Emma Watson plays Sam, his perfect foil, albeit a role reprised almost ad nauseam in the genre, as a unique young woman who has liberated herself from those scholastic expectations. She is independence, self-worth, and motivation for Charlie; she is sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
As is standard fare, he falls helplessly in love with Sam from an impossible distance. By happenstance and the “cool girl digs socially handicapped guy” idea propagated by years of Superbad and Scott Pilgrim, the pair somehow develop a teasing mentorship where Sam coaches Charlie through the hoops of subversion. Their iconic tunnel scene is both well-sequenced and extraordinarily soundtracked (if that is a word) and evokes a very strong wind-in-your-hair sensation that makes me feel like I stumbled back into a high school Thursday. In fact, the soundtrack throughout is equal parts adventurous and reminiscent — perfect for the subject matter. It’s a soundtrack that, like the movie itself, is easy to revisit.
The movie’s originality starts with Charlie’s mental issues, but it carries across with nearly every character, who wrestles with their own demons distorting the idyllic molds of coming-of-age characters. Candice (the firm sister) battles herself and her emotions through an abusive relationship, Brad (the token jock) struggles with his sexuality, and Sam’s extensive sexual abuse history combine to crack the facade of the happy American story of a high school male just “finding his way.” Everyone is vulnerable.
I think that personally, the ease of revisitation comes at least partially from a true sense of identifying with Charlie. As a high schooler, I was never very much of a romancer, nor a socialite. Like Charlie (and so many other high schoolers), I wrestled with the struggles of mental illness, isolation, and a lack of direction. I found myself drawn to girls like Sam: wild and at home in their freedom. There are times where I find Charlie pathetic; it’s often for things I didn’t like about my high school self. I think every high school kid goes through some semblance of these experiences. It wouldn’t be a good coming of age film without relatability, after all. Perks of Being a Wallflowerdoes that. For me, it maybe even hits too close to home.
Director: Greg Mottola
Writers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Stars: Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Over the several decades of Hollywood’s existence, coming-of-age movies have been abundant in several different genres, from comedy to drama to romance.
In 2007, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg teamed up to write their first major motion picture in the form of Superbad. Unsurprisingly, the story is about two co-dependent high school friends, Seth and Evan, who want to lose their virginity before they’re done with high school. When the two are asked to provide booze for a party that night, it seems like a perfect opportunity for them to make their wish come true. But of course, nothing is as easy as it sounds, and the adventure that takes place over the course of that one day is one for the ages.
Fake IDs, incompetent (but hilarious) police officers, and drunken mishaps lead to a night where the two childhood friends go through ups and downs that many friendships take several years to go through. Their journey takes them from a suspicious party to a near-arrest (by the aforementioned incompetent officers), and instead of getting one final blowout together before heading to different colleges, they begin to question their loyalties to each other. Their friendship arc is one that many people at that age have to go through — the co-dependency, the separation, and the acceptance that they’ll eventually go separate ways.
Evan is a character who many, especially me, can relate to. He’s the introverted one in the friendship and generally more cautious, while Seth is the more daring one who wants to take the risks. Being the cautious one is always easy; it’s easy to stay within your comfort zone and to question the need for going outside of it, which is what Evan does throughout the movie. He hesitates to agree to buy alcohol, he gets angry about being dragged to a suspicious party, and he even hesitates to make a move on his crush. While some consider this boring, it also makes him extremely relatable to the many others who tend to live in the shadows of their more extroverted counterparts.
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater
Stars: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Mason Evans Jr. (Coltrane) and his mother Olivia (Arquette) are home together. Mason is packing his final boxes for his move to the University of Texas at Austin. Mason is telling his mother about his new roommate and how antiquated the roommate selection process is. Teenagers, they know it all, right? Mason finds the first ever photograph he’s ever taken in one of the boxes. Olivia put it there so he can take a piece of his childhood with him. Mason insists that the photo is best left at the home and wants to leave the past behind. Olivia loses it, breaking down into a tear-filled rant about how her life is over as Mason looks and responds in a confused, upset, yet cold manner. He has the look of an 18-year-old unamused by his mother making this important life event about herself instead of him. It’s a powerful, emotional scene.
For those who have had this very conversation with their mothers — single mothers to be exact — we don’t realize at the moment why they are heartbroken. It’s only later in life we truly understand her pain. Olivia is without a doubt happy for her son; this is something that should not be questioned. Olivia’s pain comes from the realization of a new existential crisis. She spent the past 18 years of her life struggling for Mason, having to endure one divorce from the father of her children and another from an abusive alcoholic, going back to graduate school to obtain a career she both wanted and needed to support her family, and all the other struggles single mothers face. She, for all intents and purposes, completed her responsibility as a mother. Now what? What is her place in this world?
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is full of these mundane, yet all too familiar slices of life we face growing up. This isn’t a movie filled with fixed, life-defining moments, but rather one that continually unfolds the mysteries of the Evans family. We are left with more questions than answers and characters in flux. But that’s life. We don’t know what’s going to happen nor do we have the answers. As Mason Sr. (Hawke) tells his son, “I sure as shit don’t know. I mean, neither does anyone else, ok. We’re all just winging it, you know?”
This film and its main character hit a little too close to home for those raised by single mothers, especially those who had to deal with the horrors the Evans did in Olivia’s second marriage. When watching this film in the theatre, I related to Mason’s boyhood more than I really wanted to. I prefer to get “the feels” when watching a Pixar or Mamoru Hosoda film alone and in the comfort of my home. Watching the characters age on screen in a 2.5-plus hour movie was something truly special. We don’t get to watch ourselves age over the course of a film. Seeing everyone’s growth, from Mason to his parents, truly makes Boyhood one of the finest coming-of-age films of all time, and a personal favorite of mine.
Boy oh boy, this article was something, wasn’t it? And it’s a freezing-cold January, so that “there is pollen in the air” excuse isn’t going to work for those teary eyes. With the new year comes some new updates. Stay tuned for the first Friday of every month as this will be the new date for the Movie Watchers. Don’t forget to check us out on Letterboxd where we have all our previous lists in a nice an need link. Next month if February and though you may be expecting something like “rom-coms,” we may very much hit you with a curveball — like what love at first sight does to you.