Growing up was full of ups and downs and contained some of the best moments of our lives. Yet the sting of heartbreak, high hopes, and crushed dreams also prevailed. Despite those prolific ups and downs, that time remained one of the most transformational periods as we came into our young adult and adult existence. Everyone has those special movies that they keep close to them, and when they turn them on, things instantly seem better (for just a few hours). With this list, I have narrowed down the eight movies that left a lingering impact on me. From the early ‘80s through 2020, these are some of the formative coming-of-age films that haven’t left my mind since watching them.
Stand By Me (1986)
Based on the short story “The Body” by Stephen King, Rob Reiner’s faithful adaptation of the classic work is a coming-of-age masterpiece. The film is carried effortlessly on the backs of its talented young cast: Wil Wheaton (Gordie Lachance), River Phoenix (Chris Chambers), Corey Feldman (Teddy Duchamp), and Jerry O’Connell (Vern Tessio).
Stand By Me is one of the few coming-of-age movies that effectively conveys the cruel, unfair, and grotesque nature of the world and interweaves it with everyday issues such as abuse, loss, grief, and grappling with masculinity. As four friends embark on a daring summer adventure to find a missing classmate, they discover unforgettable truths about life and friendship along the way.
Almost Famous (2000)
Based on his personal experiences as a rock journalist in the 1970s, Cameron Crowe’s heartwarming tale of self-exploration and discoveries made while journeying on the road tugs on all the heartstrings. The perfect blend of soul and comedy never misses a beat (and the iconic soundtrack made me feel like I was experiencing 1970s Americana at its most culturally important). Music and its magical qualities are truly at the center of Crowe’s film.
Aside from putting together a complimentary cast (Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup) with incredible chemistry, Crowe has a knack for creating nostalgic moments through simplistic camerawork and naturalistic lighting. It’s a tangible sensation that those who never lived during that period could relate to and understand.
Based on parts of his life, Greg Mottola’s witty coming-of-age comedy takes place during the summer of 1987 in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania suburb. Jesse Eisenberg plays a down-on-his-luck recent college graduate who planned to embark on a European adventure with his friends. To make matters worse, Columbia University’s grad school is also holding a spot for him. Unfortunately, his parents’ money troubles prevent him from going on the trip, and he is forced to work a crappy job at the local theme park called Adventureland to pay for the rest of his tuition costs.
Enter Kristen Stewart as his quirky love interest, Em, who is struggling with her own issues. Em is having an affair with a married man, has a stepmother whom she hates, and an oblivious father. Mottola imbues charm and depth to the lead characters searching for themselves and figuring out who they want to be. Not only is the script funny and truthful, but the message is clear: Go after what you want, and don’t hold back.
The Spectacular Now (2013)
Based on the novel of the same name by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now is one of the more unconventional teen coming-of-age films out there, and seeing it was a defining point in my life. I had one more year until graduating high school and was thinking about where I wanted to go to college and what I wanted to study.
Miles Teller (Sutter) and Shailene Woodley (Aimee) embody characters from completely different sides of the social spectrum. Sutter is the popular party boy and Aimee is shy and reserved. When their paths cross, his outlook on life changes forever. Once selfish and aimless, Sutter realizes what’s truly important after falling in love with Aimee. Sometimes you have to let go of what you love for it to come back to you again. The one aspect of this film that stands out is that the teenage characters engage in believable conversations and talk like real teenagers.
Cooper Raiff’s magnetic directorial debut hit home for me. Raiff is Alex, a depressed college freshman who grapples with being on his own for the first time thousands of miles away from family. While at a party at S***house, Alex connects with RA Maggie (Dylan Gelula), developing a loving relationship.
Connection and belonging are the core themes of Raiff’s coming-of-age movie, which he handles seamlessly and unapologetically. Alex (who is very much a mirror of Raiff himself) goes on a journey of self-discovery and transformation as he breaks out of his shell, uncovering the meaning of his life. Maggie helps him figure out the kind of son and brother he wants to be while aiding in his awkward yet revelatory identity exploration. The film is witty, charming, emotional, and insightful. Cooper Raiff made an unconventional college movie that hit me right in the gut.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Amy Heckerling’s timeless Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with a screenplay written by Cameron Crowe, depicts coming-of-age in Southern California. Much like Richard Linklater’s classic Dazed and Confused, the movie was the springboard for virtually unknown actors whose careers skyrocketed after its release. Dealing with themes such as drugs, abortion, sex, heartbreak, and the typical high school social hierarchy (shown in countless other teen films of the decade), Heckerling and Crowe handled these matters by fusing comedic elements with immense care and delicacy of the other sensitive topics.
Crowe’s script is a testament to the fact that the problems the characters face are (mostly) universal and things haven’t changed all that much since the early ‘80s. It also remains a truthful snapshot of life during those times. Plus, let’s not forget Sean Penn’s legendary performance as surfer stoner Jeff Spicoli—one that could certainly rival Matthew McConaughey as Wooderson in Dazed.
The Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012)
Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel served as the basis for the 2012 film adaptation which was directed and written by him. I will never forget when this movie came out and it was the primary subject my peers (and the internet) were discussing. For those who weren’t familiar with the novel, the movie was the catalyst for impacting many people’s lives (including my own). Charlie, an introverted outsider played perfectly by Logan Lerman, is the protagonist that I deeply related to—I wasn’t popular in high school and didn’t feel like I fit in.
When Charlie becomes close with the social butterfly, Sam (Emma Watson), and the closeted, eccentric Patrick (Ezra Miller), his comfortable existence turns upside down as he experiences life in a way he never had before. Full of poignant moments and memorable performances from the entire cast, the movie has a definable beating heart and teaches many important lessons for teenagers, young adults, and adults. And, the material is chock full of the most quotable lines.
Reality Bites (1994)
Reality Bites says everything about Gen-X post-grads figuring out themselves and navigating life and love in 1990s Houston, Texas. Winona Ryder stars in the titular role of documentary filmmaker Lelaina, who videotapes her peers in a mockumentary style, following their lives. When Lelaina meets and develops feelings for a big-time music video producer, Michael (Ben Stiller), she must decide what she values most: giving in to the yuppie-centric MTV-like world to make a living or the down-to-earth realism of her philosophical best friend and romantic interest, Troy (Ethan Hawke).
No matter what time you are from, the movie has profound messages that anybody can appreciate and value. It’s an authentic, funny, true-to-life study of how 20-somethings imperfectly navigate a changing world.