What does it mean to grow up? What do we learn along the way, and how do we know when we’ve really reached the threshold that means we’ve come of age? In real life, it’s an often nebulous distinction, which is why we so often turn to art to help us articulate it.
The coming-of-age movie is a well-tested, familiar, and deeply evocative type of film that transcends genre, age, historical period, and so much more, all to deliver to the viewer a sense of the universal experience that is passing beyond childhood. There are, of course, numerous masterpieces in the field, but if you want the best of the best, these are 25 of our favorites.
1. The 400 Blows (1959)
Driven by a wonderfully naturalistic performance from a young Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel, François Truffaut’s seminal film about a boy from Paris who searches for freedom at all costs remains as powerful today as it was more than 60 years ago. From the way Truffaut shoots a boy’s eye view of the city streets to the remarkable depths of human indifference and passion it shows in equal measure, it remains a masterwork from one of France’s finest filmmakers.
Leaud and Truffaut would go on to collaborate several more times, with Leaud portraying Antoine Doinel in four other films, which traced the character (who was a stand-in for Truffaut) at various other points throughout his life: Antoine and Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970), and Love on the Run (1979).
2. The Last Picture Show (1971)
Peter Bogdanovich took the story of two small-town friends in a dying Texas oil burg and made it into an elegiac, black-and-white masterpiece about the things we’re forced to leave behind, and the things we’d rather forget. The Last Picture Show, which is full of beautiful visuals and driven by an astonishing young cast that includes Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd, remains a haunted, and haunting, movie about goodbyes in all their forms. In 1990, Bogdanovich managed to reunite most of the original cast for a sequel, Texasville, that failed to live up to the critical acclaim of the original.
3. American Graffiti (1973)
American Graffiti, George Lucas’s pre-Star Wars masterpiece, unfolds over a single summer night in the 1950s, as several American teenagers make one last (often desperate) attempt to hold onto childhood just a little longer before adulthood sets in. It’s one of the ultimate hangout movies, so laidback and slick that you often don’t see the emotional gut punches until they’ve already hammered you. The movie shares several things in common with Happy Days—including a star (Ron Howard), a theme song (“Rock Around the Clock”), and even a title font—but there’s no connection between the two.
4. Badlands (1973)
Terrence Malick’s directorial debut shows off early flourishes of what would become the director’s signature lush visual style wrapped around a story of how violence often kickstarts a person’s understanding of the world. In this case, that person is a young woman—played with brilliant subtlety by Sissy Spacek—who comes to discover that the man she loves (Martin Sheen) is an unhinged killer. The audience witnesses how that realization shapes her view of the world through a combination of submission, justification, and finally, resignation. The film is loosely based on the real-life story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, who reportedly killed 11 people between December 1957 and January 1958.
5. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Australian filmmaker Peter Weir is the only director on this list twice, because he somehow managed to make seminal coming-of-age films starring both boys and girls. Picnic at Hanging Rock—an adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel—is Weir’s mystical, often disturbing ode to the mysteries of girlhood, as both the girls themselves and the people around them reckon with the fallout from the title event. There are great depths to this story, but at its core, it’s a tale about how growing up sometimes means that the version you know of certain people can literally vanish into thin air. In 2018, Amazon adapted Lindsay’s novel into a six-part television series starring Game of Thrones’s Natalie Dormer.
6. The Breakfast Club (1985)
If there’s any central message to the teen comedies of John Hughes, it’s that all of us—no matter which clique we fit into or how well we do at the local parties—are human when we go home at the end of the day. The Breakfast Club and its story of five students who become unlikely friends over the course of one pivotal day is perhaps Hughes’s purest distillation of this lesson, and his most enduring. The actors do deserve some of the credit, though: The famous library scene, where each character shares their darkest secret, was mostly improvised.
7. Stand by Me (1986)
Stand by Me, Rob Reiner’s portrait of a group of friends who head out to see a dead body and encounter much more along the way, is many wonderful things. It’s a great Stephen King adaptation, a great ensemble movie, a great meditation on early encounters with real-life death, and a great reminder that memories of a “simpler time” are, when we’re honest, usually anything but simple. Flashdance (1983) and Fatal Attraction (1987) director Adrian Lyne was originally attached to the project.
8. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Few films have ever expressed the transformative power of cinema quite like Guiseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso. The story of a successful filmmaker who flashes back to his childhood worshiping at the feet of the local projectionist, it’s a film that’s as much about the magic of movies as it is about the magic of childhood. In fact, in the end it barely draws a line between the two, and that’s exactly the point. Tornatore based much of the film on his own childhood, and even shot the movie in his hometown of Bagheria, Sicily.
9. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Hayao Miyazaki has made many wonderful films about childhood, but this film—about a young witch who sets out on her own to begin her training—might be the purest in terms of coming-of-age magic. It is, like all Miyazaki films, visually stunning, and the story of Kiki’s journey from emboldened child who can barely fly to young woman who learns to soar in her own way remains dazzling. In 2016, a real-life bakery modeled on the eatery featured in Kiki’s Delivery Service opened in Japan’s Ōita Prefecture.
10. Dead Poets Society (1989)
Peter Weir’s film about a group of boys enraptured by their new English teacher could have come off as something deeply preachy, the story of young men who “come of age” simply by following the instructions of an older man. Thanks to Weir’s precise direction, and Robin Williams’s remarkably nuanced performance, it instead becomes a dialogue, a story of the boys teaching themselves, and extension teaching their teacher, as they learn to become passionate men. The film’s script, which won the 1990 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, was partly based on screenwriter Tom Schulman’s experiences at Montgomery Bell Academy, a prep school in Nashville, Tennessee.
11. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
John Singleton’s debut film remains both an essential portrait of a particular time and place in American life, and a timeless exploration of the burden that American society puts on young Black men who are each trying, in their own way, to rise up. From the ensemble cast to the ways in which the past mirrors the future in Singleton’s two-part narrative, it all still works, and it’s all still essential. Singleton approached Steve Nicolaides to produce the film because of his previous work on Stand By Me, which was one of Singleton’s favorite movies. “It was an homage,” Nicolaides told Reiner during the making of A Few Good Men. “I mean, the fat kid wears a striped shirt in it, too.”
12. Little Women (1994)
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a timeless classic that’s been adapted for the screen several times, but many would argue that it’s never been done better than when Gillian Armstrong marshaled an all-star cast led by Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Christian Bale, and Claire Danes. Visually, the movie is steeped in the cozy textures of idyllic childhood even when the March girls are facing hardship, and emotionally it’s a deeply layered portrait of the phases of growing up, even the ones where growing up itself is cut tragically short. Though Bale was hardly a household name at the time, he became what some might consider an early prototype of “The Internet’s Boyfriend,” with an online fan club that attracted nearly 60,000 visitors per week at a time when few homes had internet service. In 1997, Bale told Movieline that all the attention left him “mortified.”
13. The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Sofia Coppola’s feature directorial debut is a movie with a deep and thorough obsession with both the time and place in which it’s set and the emotional elasticity of its plot. The story of a group of boys and the local family of sisters with which they’re fascinated, it’s a movie that takes on an almost mythic quality as the story goes on. By the end, it feels like a local legend you would have heard growing up, one that taught you as much about life as anything you actually experienced firsthand. Coppola offered a role in the film to a then-14-year-old Scarlett Johansson, who found the content to be a bit too intense for her age. Four years later, the two worked together on Lost in Translation.
14. Almost Famous (2000)
Inspired by writer/director Cameron Crowe’s own early years as a Rolling Stone journalist, Almost Famous has the requisite killer soundtrack for a movie about a boy who learns to be a man by following a band across the country. But it also has so much more, from heartbreakingly beautiful performances by Kate Hudson and Philip Seymour Hoffman to one of the great quotable insights in movie history: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
15. Ginger Snaps (2000)
Werewolf stories are inherently about transformation, so it makes sense that the subgenre merges perfectly with coming-of-age stories. With Ginger Snaps, John Fawcett and Karen Walton took the teenage werewolf story way beyond Michael J. Fox, crafting a tale of two sisters (played by Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins) obsessed with death, who soon find themselves face-to-face with it as their bodies and minds change into something else entirely. It’s a remarkably effective metaphor, and a great horror film to boot. The film became a cult hit and spawned both a sequel and a prequel, both of which saw the return of Isabelle and Perkins. In 2008, the actresses reunited once again to play sisters in a very different kind of movie: the Disney Channel’s Another Cinderella Story.
16. Y tu mamá también (2001)
Part road movie, part meditation on the fine line between sex and death, Alfonso Cuarón’s handheld masterpiece might be best remembered for its sex scenes. But beneath that often clumsy adolescent sultriness there’s a deep sense of emotional weight, as two young men reckon with the passage of time and life in ways they never imagined while they’re just trying to impress an older woman. The film’s script, which Cuarón wrote with his brother Carlos, earned him his first of 10 (and counting) Oscar nominations.
17. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Wes Anderson turned his knack for creating magical worlds out of seemingly mundane scenarios into coming-of-age gold with this whimsical film about two kids (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) who decide to run away together, and the way their community reacts to their flight. In a career full of astonishing visual flourishes, it might be Anderson’s most beautiful film. It also features some of his most delicate moments of intimacy and yearning. Anderson originally set out to write the script on his own. When, one year later, he had only completed 15 pages, he enlisted the help of Roman Coppola. Together, they were able to complete the script in about a month, and earned an Oscar nod for their work.
18. Boyhood (2014)
Richard Linklater famously filmed Boyhood in pieces over the course of 12 years (during which they shot for about 45 days), producing a movie that’s essentially a series of snapshots of a young boy’s (Ellar Coltrane) life as he moves from first grade to adulthood. But this is a film that’s so much more than its gimmick. It’s Linklater and his cast paying off the gambles they took year after year time and time again with a lyrical, unpredictable journey through the mundane and the profound.
19. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
Marielle Heller’s bold, unapologetically open look at one teen girl’s sexual awakening and subsequent reckoning with her own choices is anchored by Bel Powley’s fearless work in the leading role. Funny, quirky, and a little heartbreaking, it’s one of the most honest movies you’ll ever see about growing up that manages to be universal despite its particular, intimate focus. The film is adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, which Heller originally turned into a one-act play, in which she also starred.
20. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
Taika Waititi’s ode to the kids who don’t fit in, Hunt for the Wilderpeople thrives on the chemistry between stars Julian Dennison and Sam Neill as a mismatched foster kid child and reluctant foster father who venture out into the wilderness together. What they find along the way is a series of life lessons, of course, but life lessons viewed through Waititi’s own beautifully strange lens, creating a kind of enchanted landscape alongside the realities of loss, change, and redemption. The movie marked the first New Zealand-made feature to earn $1 million at the New Zealand box office in its opening weekend.
21. Moonlight (2016)
More than half a decade after its release, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight remains one of the most remarkable cinematic achievements of the 2010s. Visually gorgeous, thematically balanced, and built on a narrative through line that never wavers even as the faces change, it’s a haunting and deeply moving portrait of a Black boy becoming a Black man who still struggles to embrace who he really is. Naomie Harris, who earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Moonlight, shot all of her scenes in just three days, which was all the time she could afford as she was in the midst of a global promotional tour for Spectre, Sam Mendes’s 2015 James Bond movie.
22. Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Perhaps the most honest thing about Luca Guadagnino’s Italy-set romantic masterwork is the way it depicts attraction emerging from fumbling, often brutal, teenage judgment. The story of a boy (Timothée Chalamet) who grows up through his budding love for an older man (Armie Hammer), it’s both a beautifully made film and a deeply truthful one, portraying an adolescent feeling that happens gradually, then comes on all at once, with thoughtful emotional precision. When the movie screened at the 2017 New York Film Festival, it received a 10-minute standing ovation—the longest of any movie in the festival’s more than half-century-long history.
23. Lady Bird (2017)
Greta Gerwig’s often hilarious, often heartbreaking mother-daughter two-hander works extremely well, and not just because Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf work incredibly well together. Their chemistry is paramount, but everything about the way Gerwig crafts the film, from the visuals to the tonal shifts it’s able to build into each moment, make it a remarkable ode to the growing pains of parent-child relationships as the child transcends their old role. The film received a total of five Academy Award nominations, including one for Gerwig for Best Director—making her only the fifth woman in history to earn the accolade.
24. Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)
Tigers Are Not Afraid, Issa Lopez’s haunting urban fairy tale about street kids fighting to survive in a Mexican city devastated by drugs and violence, is a portrait of that particular time in childhood when everything seems imbued with a kind of magic. If you know what you’re doing, you can use that magic, but it often has a cost. This is a film about that cost, and what you learn when you experience it, and it’s as powerful as it is magical.
25. Eighth Grade (2018)
Writer/director Bo Burnham was uniquely positioned to make a film that’s as much about the online personas kids craft as it is about the raw brutalities of how those personas are smashed to pieces in real life. In his hands, and thanks to Elsie Fisher’s beautifully vulnerable lead performance, Eighth Grade becomes both a fascinating time capsule of growing up in the 2010s and a heartfelt ode to young people everywhere who are figuring things out in the open, whether they want to or not. Fisher filmed the movie in the summer following her real-life eighth grade experience.