What Makes a Movie a Coming of Age Movie?

The term coming of age refers to the phase of life where a teenager grows into a young adult. Coming of age movies typically focus on this transition between youth to adulthood. 

They take us on the journey, analyzing the consequences of growing up and taking on new responsibilities. They are often set in the past and put more emphasis on meaningful dialogue rather than action. The protagonist, who starts out lacking either physically, emotionally, or in other aspects, develops into a more complete person as he figures out his path to maturity.

The prolific John Hughes built a career on making coming of age movies. Many of them have become classic cult films:

He faces a mature (internal) conflict that forces him out of his shell. From start to end, character development continually molds him into a grown-up as he tackles the adult challenges that come with age. In general, characters face a life-altering test, readying them for the demands of adulthood.

Growing up is not easy. Young minds wander in confusion about their identities. They must be content with awkward changes in their body and their social world experiences uncomfortable ripples and shifts. On top of that, one’s outlook on life begins to change. 

A whole new world is revealed as if a veil were lifted from the eyes. Coming of age movies explore these dynamics of growth. They break down the conflicts a child deals with as they make that leap of faith out of their nests, so to speak, although often quite literally as well. 

Four elements of a coming of age movie

Identity crisis

Adolescence is often a confusing time. We don’t know what exactly we want out of life. We don’t know who we’d like to be. Career choices may also start to eat at the mind as well, among other issues that’ll define the people we grow into. 

Coming of age movies often feature some sort of identity crisis. Characters can’t be outrightly defined as white or black, or in other fixed metrics. They sway from side to side, trying each shoe until it fits. They experiment with their sexuality and other aspects of their personalities. There’s a whole range of color to them as opposed to one singular shade. 

Here’s a scene of Some Kind of Wonderful, as the protagonist finally identifies his true love:

Mostly, coming of age movies focus on teens and the fading embers of childhood. The audience is taken along on a journey of self-discovery at a time when people are typically uncertain about everything in life. 

It’s common that these types of stories center around high school experiences and how characters are battling to keep up with a world that would have them conform to a certain order of things. However, high school settings are not always the case. The persisting theme though is showing personal growth, which is often tested by some life-changing experience.

The rite of passage – balancing comedy with drama  

Childhood or teenage years are often characterized by some form of immaturity and generally bad decision-making. Most coming of age movies are usually a combination of comedy and drama. The movie starts out as a comedy as we follow the childish antics or mischievous teenage troublemaking of the characters. 

Here’s THE classic Stand by Me, as the protagonist reflects on his boyhood adventures:

A combination of awkward love interests, shaky confidence, peer pressure, ego, and immaturity ensures that the films of this genre thrive in the comedy niche.

As characters develop and grow more independent and confident, the film takes a serious turn. The pressure points begin to manifest and things get heated as humor slowly takes its leave. A rite of passage event typically establishes the change of pace. 

We were invited into the world of the protagonist during that phase when childhood innocence is beginning to wear off. The audience is shown how good the characters had it before something happens that necessitates that growth. The right of passage may come in many forms. It may be as simple as a decision to move out, going off to college, or a moment of clarity stemming from the character’s biggest error in judgment so far. 

The getaway 

Coming of age movies often go for one of two popular plot strategies. One of those being the getaway approach, where children “escape” the comforts of their childhood home to try their hand at being grown up. We all remember that age. 

That time of life when we couldn’t wait to be independent and start something that’s only ours. A young teen dreams of life after school and on her own. She can’t wait to get out of her house for good and hence out of the surveillance and shackles of her parents. She’s spent too much time in her hometown and would like to sample life beyond the borders.

Other times, the getaway may be instigated by the parents. Due to troublesomeness or perhaps the need to teach children some lesson in independence, guardians may also nudge them out of the cocoon. 

Other times, a higher power, like the death of a parent, thrusts these unready characters into the harsh reality of a world where they need to grow up quickly and figure things out similarly fast. The conflict revolves around the protagonist trying to break free of the nest, and the challenges that come with this newfound freedom.

The outcast

These types of movies may also take the outcast angle, and at times a rebel, like James Dean’s character in A Rebel Without A Cause.. A young teen doesn’t fit in the society she finds herself in. Maybe it’s because of the way she looks, her sexuality, or her financial status. Regardless, she stands out from the crowd. The protagonist struggles to find her place in a society that frowns upon those who would draw between the lines. 

In Pretty in Pink, the female protagonist confronts her boyfriend, who has been avoiding her. She suspects it’s due to her social status:

And she has to deal with getting picked on because of it. Sometimes this alienation can also stem from her family. She goes against long-held beliefs to unsettle the norm by being curious and herself.  

Alternatively, the outcast may also be a group of nerdy friends trying their best to fit in with the cool kids. Through personal growth, they perhaps realize that there’s more to life than what they believed. They instead find value in each other and their existing friendships. 

Coming of age movies are often formulaic, but that’s not always a bad thing. It’s a method that works time and again. The strategy has shaped many hit films of the genre including Pariah, Moonlight, City of God, and more.

Recent examples of coming of age movies

Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

As far as animation goes, Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse is a feat of human ingenuity and determination. To capture the classic comic tone of the past century, motion smearing was adopted as opposed to using motion blur. It took filmmakers more than 4 years to join the pieces, with a combined effort of more than 800 artists to create the final masterpiece. 

The movie excels in setting new standards of film design and deservedly won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. However, its best quality is the strong coming-of-age underlying that reshapes our understanding of the superhero genre. 

The film is ripe with internal and external conflict, as a half-Hispanic, half-Black teen struggles to find himself in a complex world he must make sense of. A superhero flick it may be, but many of the experiences are nostalgically relatable.

In a new world where spider-man is dead, young Miles Morale is shoved into the mantle of your friendly, neighborhood web-slinger. Miles is vastly not ready for the responsibilities that come his way. The new weight on his shoulders sees to it that he grows up quickly. 

He juggles schoolwork, keeping his identity secret, his family safe, family betrayal, and saving the city as he continually bites off more than he can chew. All the while, his relationship with his old man continues to strain. Father and son drift apart, with Miles finding a more understanding friend in his uncle.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse takes viewers on an emotional rollercoaster of a young teen who really doesn’t want any of the new responsibilities that have been forced his way. He has no mastery of his powers and is often more clumsy than heroic. 

The superhero theme is no doubt one of the central topics, but mostly we see Miles Morales work out the meaning of life and growing up in the hustle and bustle of New York City. The film is a light-hearted, family fun affair filled with many teachable moments. 

Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight digs a little deeper beyond the surface to unearth a coming-of-age tale that truly shines and speaks to the soul. The film holds a Golden Globe for Best Drama, making the most of a somewhat shallow plot that thrives on big moments and masterful dialogue.

A queer, black teen searches for his place in a community that’s not too accepting of the different. The protagonist is a man of few words yet he evokes the most powerful emotional punches.

From the excellent choice of music to remarkable color grading and everything in between, Moonlight impresses with its compassionate take on black masculinity among other issues.

In a classic coming of age style, Moonlight places 10-year-old Chiron at the center of mature conflicts. He struggles with his sexuality in a black community where perceived toughness and masculinity lie in bullying, drug dealing, and being straight. Juan, a neighborhood drug dealer, is the guiding light for young Chiron as he desperately tries to figure out what he wants in life.

He offers advice and helps shape Chiron into the man he becomes at the end of the film. The movie excels by avoiding after-school messaging and preaching. Chiron is continually urged to make decisions for himself, and that no one else can do that for him.

Chiron also struggles with his identity, wearing various guises in a bid to find his true self. The fragile teen grows up into a muscular thug and drug dealer, deciding to fight for his life in a pushy society rather than tuck tail and run. 

In its essence, the film dissects the cruelty of homosexuality stigma. It also addresses problems of communication and perceived toughness in certain social settings that make people shy away from sharing their problems.

Chiron experiences a lot of fights in Moonlight, largely with his junkie mother. However, the film’s biggest battle is the one that rages within. 

Lady Bird (2017)

Growing up can be a tumultuous time in one’s life. Lady Bird sieves the feelings of this phase into a compelling dramedy that speaks deeply about sexuality, friendship, and the expectations of life after high school. Christine is in her final year of high school and harbors ambitions of exploring the world beyond Sacramento, the town she has spent all her years in. 

She has visions of higher education on the east coast and is set on discovering new places, new people, and, of course, herself. But life is not as rosy and easy as she believes and the film explores various dynamics to that end.

Lady Bird encompasses strong cast performances and a funny script that’s guaranteed to sneak a few laughs every now and again. It’s also nice to see how Christine, who’s defiantly christened herself “Lady Bird,” and best friend Julie undergo the changes of growing up and how that shifts their friendship. The core conflict however revolves around a determined daughter and her overworking mother. 

Christine’s dreams of joining a college on the east coast are quite costly. Her persistence constantly puts her at loggerheads with her mother, who believes her daughter ungrateful for her parents’ efforts. Two strong personalities clash and it’s interesting to see how that shapes their relationship.

Christine lives in a world where she doesn’t belong. Her classmates have deep pockets, while her financial backdrop isn’t as lucky. Her mother is working hard to just stay afloat above the bills, supporting Christine’s brother, his girlfriend, and the entire family at large. Christine’s father is recently out of employment. 

Their financial struggles are a constant source of conflict. Like most coming of age films, the parents here don’t completely understand their kids. Additionally, the opposite is also true for Christine and her brother who often ask for more than they should. Lady Bird succeeds in turning back the clock to a time when we couldn’t wait to leave the nest and taste life beyond the horizon.

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