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10 best coming-of-age movies of all time, ranked

Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight (2016)

Coming-of-age movies are widely celebrated and beloved for their ability to capture the universal experience of adolescence. Full of relatable characters going through familiar paths full of joy and challenges, these films tell heartfelt and transformative tales that depict various winding journeys toward adulthood and all that entails.

From the nostalgic classic Stand by Me to the award-winning masterpiece Moonlight, the best coming-of-age movies ever made tell moving stories of self-discovery from different perspectives. Honest, emotional, and empathetic, these films are meant to reflect a shared experience and tug at viewers’s heartstrings in the process. Whether these are young teens looking for narratives that resonate or more mature audiences craving a trip down memory lane, there’s something for every kind of cinephile among the greatest coming-of-age movies of all time.

10. Boyhood (2014)

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in Boyhood (2014)
IFC Films

A truly one-of-a-kind film that took 12 years to make, director Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is both a unique epic and a groundbreaking coming-of-age drama. It follows the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from childhood to adulthood, capturing both his milestones and mundane moments. Along the way, Mason’s relationships with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), father (Ethan Hawke), and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), change as he matures.

Linklater’s ambitious project aimed to show the passage of time convincingly, with the same actors coming back to shoot scenes for Boyhood from 2002 to 2013. There was no set script, as the director wanted to write the story based on how the actors transformed in real life, adding yet another layer of authenticity. Linklater even went so far as to allow the main stars to contribute to the writing process by using their real-life experiences to form part of their characters’ arcs. This visionary approach would pay off and result in the universally acclaimed film.

9. Almost Famous (2000)

Kate Hudson and Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous (2000)
DreamWorks Distribution, LLC.

Almost Famous is an essential movie about the power of music to thrill and inspire, with it centered on 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit), who gets a dream assignment to write for Rolling Stone. His task is to interview the hottest new band called Stillwater, tagging along for their cross-country tour in the process. Before he knows it, William is fully immersed in the world of rock and roll and has some of the most eye-opening experiences of his life.

Director Cameron Crowe’s celebrated work makes excellent use of its early ’70s setting, using era-specific visuals and hit songs from bands like Simon & Garfunkel and The Who to create an immersive viewing experience. Its main storyline is used more as a vehicle for the cast members to shine, with the chemistry between stars like Fugit, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman elevating the coming-of-age tale.

8. The Breakfast Club (1985)

The main cast of The Breakfast Club sitting together in school.
Universal Pictures

The quintessential 1980s teen movie, The Breakfast Club had a huge influence on the genre despite its simple premise of depicting five high school students spending a single Saturday in a library. The students come from different cliques but are all enduring detention together, with the group made up of the jock Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez), the popular girl Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald), the rebel John Bender (Judd Nelson), the brainy Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall), and the outcast Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy).

Director John Hughes created an instant hit, with the film earning over $51 million worldwide against an estimated budget of just $1 million. The Breakfast Club appealed to such a wide audience because of how well it captured teenagers at that time, including how they talked, the pressures they faced, and the similarities they all had. The film also subverted overused tropes in the category by steering clear of sex and violence, which would go on to inform future entries in the teen and coming-of-age genres.

7. The Graduate (1967)

Dustin Hoffman looking at Anne Bancroft as they lay in bed in The Graduate (1967).
Embassy Pictures

The Graduate is a coming-of-age movie for adults, or soon-to-be adults who aren’t quite ready yet. Directed by Mike Nichols, the film follows recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who feels lost and pressured by new expectations. During this uncertain time, he starts an affair with an older married woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), which soon takes a complicated turn when he falls for her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross).

The 1967 film expertly blends the coming-of-age drama and romantic-comedy genres, with the result being a darkly satirical take on modern disillusioned youth. Benjamin’s struggles and anxieties are just as relevant as ever, which have helped cement The Graduate as a timeless classic that captures the rough transition between aimlessness and rebellion to self-awareness and responsibility. Mrs. Robinson is also an intriguing and increasingly sympathetic character whose narrative has taken on a life of its own and has been parodied in shows like The Simpsons.

6. Stand by Me (1986)

The four main kid characters from Stand by Me standing outside, one pointing at something.
Columbia Pictures

Directed by Rob Reiner and adapted from Stephen King‘s novella The Body, Stand by Me is a nostalgic coming-of-age movie that takes place in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Oregon, in 1959. It revolves around four young boys: Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton), Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), and Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell). When they learn about the whereabouts of a missing boy’s dead body, they go out to find it, learning crucial details about each other’s lives on their journey.

Stand by Me is remembered for its simple yet stirring story that underscores the importance of friendships made at such a young age. The details of the characters’ complicated lives unfold in emotional ways, from the effect of the death of an older brother to the insecurity and anger caused by an unfair stigma. These darker aspects are seen through the eyes of innocent children, making them that much more profound. King himself called the movie “the best film ever made out of anything [he’s] ever written,” confirming that “it is autobiographical” and praising it for having accurately captured his story.

5. Y tu mamá también (2001)

Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, and Maribel Verdú in Y tu mamá también/ And Your Mother Too (2001)
20th Century Fox

Before director Alfonso Cuarón would create crucial hits like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Gravity, and Roma, he crafted an important coming-of-age film called Y tu mamá también. The title is Spanish for “And Your Mother Too,” with the movie telling the story of two teenage boys, Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), who go on a road trip with an older woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú).

Y tu mamá también is a landmark work in Mexican cinema, becoming a box office success despite being hit with the country’s most restrictive rating. To complement its political undertones that reflected the nation’s critical shift toward democracy, the 2001 film would embrace sexual freedom that eschewed toxic masculinity in favor of openness and inclusivity. Its representation of varying classes among the three characters adds to this layered commentary, too, with all of it coming together in the movie’s frank portrayal of a carefree trip on the open road.

4. Dazed and Confused (1993)

Matthew McConaughey, Sasha Jenson, Jason London, and Wiley Wiggins in Dazed and Confused (1993)
Gramercy Pictures

Dazed and Confused is another coming-of-age classic by director Richard Linklater, who famously disliked the film’s reputation as a must-see stoner comedy. Like several of the filmmaker’s works, the 1993 movie has a loose plot, and it mostly captures the shenanigans of a graduating class on their last day of high school. These interconnected storylines include snapshots of hazing rituals, a packed pool hall, and no shortage of liquor.

Featuring familiar ’70s rock music and a laid-back vibe, Dazed and Confused offers a nostalgic view of a once-in-a-lifetime moment when rowdy teenagers say goodbye to their high school years in memorable ways. Through candid conversations and clever portrayals of a variety of teenage archetypes, the film gives audiences an authentic and entertaining depiction of a relatable phase in everyone’s lives. Linklater’s work is also notable for featuring a stellar ensemble cast that includes future stars like Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey.

3. Lady Bird (2017)

Saoirse Ronan looking up in church in Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is a renowned coming-of-age drama that follows the story of the high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who’s in her final year at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. Lady Bird is sick of her rural hometown and constantly annoyed by her pragmatic mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). She wants nothing more than to move to the East Coast to attend college, but soon learns that it’s not all she hoped it would be.

The 2017 film greatly benefits from Greta Gerwig’s direction, as the filmmaker infuses the award-winning movie with wit, intimacy, warmth, and humor. Saoirse Ronan is impeccably cast as Lady Bird, with the actor perfectly playing the role of the painfully relatable teen who grew up in a conservative small town. The character’s realizations and disappointments serve as important reflections of those specific yet shared experiences on the big screen. Another key part of the film is the messy mother-daughter relationship that eventually becomes part of what Lady Bird misses the most.

2. Moonlight (2016)

Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight (2016)

Directed by Barry Jenkins based on an unpublished semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is a visually stunning entry in the genre. It chronicles the experiences of a young Black man named Chiron, whose character is played by three different actors during the varying stages of his life. The film is divided into three chapters, each focusing on a different phase of Chiron’s life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Moonlight‘s shocking moment at the 89th Academy Awards, where it took home the Oscar for Best Picture, hasn’t changed its lasting legacy as a stunning coming-of-age film that boldly and thoughtfully tackled race and gender. Chiron’s long journey is ultimately a deeply intimate and introspective exploration of masculinity and sexuality within the context of a community rife with intolerance and abuse. The 2016 film is a vital contribution to the genre, with its powerful storytelling successfully showcasing self-discovery from a different perspective.

1. The 400 Blows (1959)

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows (1959)

The 400 Blows is a seminal coming-of-age film that served as director François Truffaut’s film debut. It depicts the tumultuous life of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a troubled adolescent growing up in post-war Paris. It has a simple plot revolving around Antoine’s experiences with petty crime and delinquency, which soon lead to his incarceration in a juvenile detention center.

Despite premiering 65 years ago, The 400 Blows has lost none of its impact, with Truffaut’s influential stylistic choices and powerful message about societal indifference still as relevant as ever. The film’s critique of the state of the country in the 1950s resonated with audiences and critics, and its success would bring more attention to the French New Wave and French cinema as a whole. It’s impressive to think that such a straightforward story could influence the genre and filmmaking as much as Truffaut’s work did, but there’s no denying that The 400 Blows has cemented its place among the best in cinematic history.

Editors' Recommendations

Hannah Saab
Saab whips up SEO-optimized articles as a writer for Digital Trends and updates top-performing articles on Collider.
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