Following the runaway success of Boyhood last year, it’s fair to say coming-of-age films are well and truly back in the mainstream again. In an age where Hollywood is largely dominated by huge action blockbusters, it’s certainly a welcome change to the trend.
Coming-of-age films – movies depicting the often difficult path from teenager into adulthood – have been around for a long time, but the 1980s was when the genre reached its pinnacle. Films such as The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dead Poets Society and Heathers made the decade the golden age of teen angst, friendship and romance.
It looked like coming-of-age films would never tire, but despite some early success in the 1990s with Dazed and Confused, audiences soon started demanding something different. Teen issues became more of a television niche with shows ranging from comedy Saved By The Bell to the far grittier My So-Called Life tackling the genre from various angles.
If you are looking for specific turning points though, two films released in the 1990s really changed killed off the genre in the cinema. First Clueless (1995) came and turned the blueprint upside down with its brash honesty towards teenage girl angst, before the final nail in the coffin was delivered by American Pie (1999) and the behemoth franchise it spawned. For all the subtle emotive beauty in previous teen films, this was in-your-face, provocative nonsense and, crucially, audiences loved it.
Soon Hollywood had divided its teenage output into distinct gender roles – the fluffy sentimental rom-com for the girls (She’s All That, Ten Things I Hate About You, Bring It On) and brash male comedies (Road Trip, Dude, Where’s My Car?, Not Another Teen Movie). As the world became all about exuberance and bravado, so did the film industry, seeing how far it could push boundaries and bleed the teen market dry. As a result the quaint coming-of-age film was pushed firmly out of the way.
The tide, however, has been slowly changing in recent years. As the world readjusts from the latest recession, so the exuberance in Hollywood has declined slightly too. Just as the tiresome sixth American Pie instalment hit cinemas in 2007, another film was being released that marked the first mainstream coming-of-age film in over a decade.
Despite being low-budget, Juno showed all the charm and wit that teen audiences had been deprived of for years and with its huge box office success kick-started a small but significant raft of coming-of-age films back in the cinema. The world was ready for nostalgia again rather than just living for the moment.
There are several common themes throughout the coming-of-age genre that audiences can relate to – many stories centre around a summer that changed everything for its characters, or the difficulty of moving on from high school, with some films even set decades ago to truly evoke memories of the time.
And, of course, that’s the beauty of coming-of-age films – it’s not so much the direct narrative events onscreen within the story, but the connotations with your own formative years that creates such a strong emotional response.
It’s great to have the coming-of-age genre back, and its juxtaposition of sentimentality with strong, emotive storylines and often great comedy. There have been many brilliant films in the last few years, but here’s a few that you might have missed:
Seven great coming-of-age films from recent years:
Starring a young Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, it’s set in the summer of 1987 as a young man with great ambition finds himself having to take a job at a theme park to fund his future plans. The two leads are fantastic, and the whole film evokes great memories of having new experiences in a relatively carefree era.
Easy A (2010)
Emma Stone’s first lead role as the quiet high school student who inadvertently starts a rumour that she’s lost her virginity. She soon becomes the most popular girl at school, but needs to find a way to undo the web of lies she’s created. A truly sassy performance from Stone in a touching but genuinely funny film.
Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut sees the story of a 15-year-old boy struggling with the pains of both his parent’s and his own failing relationships. Set against a bleak Swansea background and with a wonderful score from Arctic Monkey’s Alex Turner, the storytelling is incredibly emotive and the performances from the cast superb, notably lead Craig Roberts.
Super 8 (2011)
The first big Hollywood attempt at a coming-of-age film for many years – written and directed by J. J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, it is wonderfully nostalgic if nothing else. Set in 1979, the story tells of a group of young friends witnessing a train crash that isn’t as accidental as it seems and the fallout which occurs. Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning star as the two young leads who bring a lot of heart to this Stand By Me influenced teen adventure film.
Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
A wonderful tale of teenage friendship and love that sees its protagonists struggling with the journey into adulthood. Based on the hugely popular book of the same name, the film depicts truly emotive central characters (played by the excellent Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller) as you share in their angst and fears of growing up and moving on.
The Way Way Back (2013)
Duncan, a quiet and awkward 14-year-old, is thrust away on a Summer vacation with his mum and horrible new step dad (the excellent Steve Carell in an unusual role), struggling to deal with his ever-changing environment. Soon, though, he’s taken under the wing of the local water park owner – a party-loving bachelor in his 30s – and embarks on a summer that will change his life forever. A film that is both great fun and wonderfully poignant.
The Kings Of Summer (2013)
Echoes of Lost Boys, The Goonies and very pertinently Stand By Me, as three teenage friends spend their summer building a house in the woods, hunting for food and sleeping rough. It’s a modern film, but with a real nostalgic feel and certainly respects its place in the genre. A wonderful mix of forgotten teenage recklessness, sense of inconsequence and no responsibility, with real early adulthood tests of friendship that translates perfectly on screen.