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The Greatest Coming-of-Age Films

Written by on May 30, 2013 

Perhaps more than any genre, the coming-of-age film finds its greatest purpose in hitting emotional resonance and, in some cases, transcendence by establishing personal dialogue with a viewer. To ask for preferred titles in this large, ever-growing category comes with a unique difficulty: while tenets of basic filmic quality (subjective or not) are ideally a factor in selection, connections to personal experience — put even more simply, pure and unmitigated “feeling” — take equal, sometimes greater precedence.

Which is why the process of compiling this list, timed with the release of the Sundance favorite The Kings of Summer, required yours truly to look at titles that were either a) seen during more formative years, or, similarly, b) seen at especially pertinent junctures in life. There are a number of titles here which, surely you’ll agree, have evident merit and greater, general value to them, but, prior qualifications known, odds say disagreement will be higher here than a typical assemblage. There’s no shame in having had a bad childhood.

But, if yours was fruitful, a few should feel right:

The 400 Blows (François Truffaut; 1959)

Such a quintessential example of the genre that its inclusion is nigh perfunctory. But, yes, we have included The 400 Blows because, yes, it really is that essential a work; moreover, a defining example of how these films actually function. A couple of years removed from his impressive, albeit roughshod short Les Mistons, the world was granted an elegant introduction to the talents of both writer-director François Truffaut and star Jean-Pierre Léaud, the both of whom extended past coming-of-age as it’s typically defined by chronicling the protagonist, Antoine Doinel, over three more features and a 30-minute featurette. There’s greatness in all the follow-ups, but they, like any film which falls below, cannot reach to those same places quite like The 400 Blows.

City of God (Fernando Meirelles; 2002)

For any number of reasons, crime sagas that earn a Goodfellas comparison would not strike the average viewer as a prime candidate. Yet Fernando Meirelles, not nearly as good ever since, gives a story of Brazilian debauchery its human core in the form of a young, ambitious, wholly relatable boy evolving into manhood under what, we’re led to feel, are the worst conditions known to man. That we’ll likely never know many (or all) of the situations that play out herein makes City of God’s reverberations an even greater miracle.

Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater; 1993)

More than just a nostalgic trip back to the good old days, Richard Linklater’s second film elevates and mythifies the cathartic release of a school year’s end. Each moment is treated as cataclysmic, world-defining turns in the characters’ lives, every action and interaction setting them on new paths that will reverberate for the decades to come. Music, pot, sex, and personal discovery as agents of massive personal change — what more do these movies need?

Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky; 1962)

The closest thing to a traditionally thrilling film in the Andrei Tarkovsky canon — not that this writer isn’t intensely stirred by the likes of Stalker, Solaris, and Nostalghia, mind you — is, unsurprisingly, the most “accessible” to neophytes. Its portrait of war — vis a vis sharp compositions, whisper-y sound design, and stark black-and-white cinematography — is sublime, but it earns a spot for balancing the brutal conflicts of men with the struggles of one child, his journey making way for Tarkovsky’s most significant hour (-and-a-half) as a humanist storyteller. Such a fine piece of work that it puts most every other coming-of-age movie to absolute shame.

The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach; 2005)

Odds would say this, above all others listed, is the one readers can glance at and most strongly see shades of their own life within. Both the specifics and broad characteristics of Noah Baumbach’s feature are so finely sketched that they need not be considered separate pieces, but a coherent whole which permits any single audience member to do two things: simply relate, sometimes in ways so specific that you’d think Baumbach is a psychic, while also filling in the (intentionally) missing edges for oneself. At Squid’s heart are uncompromised turns by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Klein, both of whom subtly and amply communicate the change divorce will bring to a youth’s everyday life — not merely with words, but physical and aural tone, too. These are the types of details that accumulate to make The Squid and the Whale a devastating experience.

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