20 Of Our Favorite Coming of Age Movies

I've compiled a list of 20 of our favorite coming of age movies. In no particular order:

1. Sweet Sixteen (2002) directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty

This is a bleak, realistic film -- y'know, what you'd expect from Ken Loach. Liam (Martin Compston) is a Scottish teen from a rough background. Underneath his veneer of toughness, he has a tremendous place in his heart for his mother, even as she involves him in drug dealing schemes from her prison cell. He eagerly anticipates her release from prison, making plans for their future together. He hopes to save her from her boyfriend, who is a nasty drug dealer, and his hateful grandfather, and he has plans to create a home for them.

To make his scheme work, he agrees to work with his mother's boyfriend in the heroin trade. He tries to find his footing -- and not lose sight of his dream -- while navigating this slippery slope. Meanwhile Liam's sister, who is working hard to create a normal, healthy life for her own baby, tries to save him.

Martin Compston was incredibly compelling in this role. Actually, the whole cast was amazing. This is a gut wrenching movie, yet I couldn't look away, and it somehow manages to be hopeful as well as relentlessly grim.

Memorable Quote: If she stays with Stan, she may as well get a season ticket for where she is.

2. An Education (2009) directed by Lone Scherfig and written by Nick Hornby based on a memoir by Lynn Barber 

This wonderful film brought young Carey Mulligan into the spotlight and earned her an Oscar nomination. (I thought she was a stronger contender than Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side, but ... whatever.) Jenny Mellor is a sheltered fifteen-year-old, dedicated student, and musician. Disappointed in his own life, her father pushes her to achieve. Nevertheless, Jenny finds space in her life for her own passions, including her love of France, and she longs for freedom, adventure, and romance.

An alluring older man manages to charm both her and her parents. This is a terrific movie about youth, naivety, and yearning, as well as a memorable coming of age story about a bright young woman. I love the way it captured that restlessness and longing, that somehow defines adolescence, which I remember so well.

Memorable Quote: "I don't want to lose my virginity to a piece of fruit." (Well seriously, who would? :-))

3. Billy Elliott (2000) directed by Stephen Daldry and written by Lee Hall

No matter how many times I see this movie, I never get tired of it -- I wish I'd had the opportunity to see it on stage. It's sad, funny, upbeat and joyful, all at the same time.

Growing up in a struggling working class family in Northern England, young Billy discovers he has a love of and gift for ballet. Meanwhile, his father and brother work in the mines and participate in strikes, which lead to violent clashes with police. To pursue his dream, Billy must break away from their world, a grueling life of dangerous work and political struggle, and overcome his family's and community's narrow definition of what it is to be male. This is a multi-layered story that touches on growing up, finding one's purpose and passion, gender identity, parental love, and the impact of socioeconomic differences.

Memorable Quote: Dad: Listen, have you noticed anything weird about our Billy lately? Tony: What are you after like, a list?

4. Juno (2007) directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody

Juno is a precocious teen whose smart mouth and edgy wit camouflage her aching vulnerability. When faced with an accidental pregnancy, she seeks the perfect adoptive parents for her unborn child. I love this movie, and I can watch it again and again. It's funny, quirky, and has a lot of heart.

Memorable Quote: Well, honey, doctors are sadists who like to play God and watch lesser people scream...

5. Pariah (2011) written and directed by Dee Rees -- reviewed here

Alike is a successful student and aspiring writer. She hides her homosexuality from her schoolmates -- even as she watches them closely, she keeps her distance. She also stays closeted from her parents. Both parents clearly sense the truth but don't want to face it, so everyone is stumbling around the elephant in the room.

In the midst of this struggle, she deals with first love, planning her future, and breaking away from her family to pursue her own dreams. I loved this movie -- it was definitely one of my favorites among the films I've seen this year.

Memorable Quote: Heartbreak opens onto the sunrise for even breaking is opening and I am broken, I am open. Broken into the new life without pushing in, open to the possibilities within, pushing out. See the love shine in through my cracks? See the light shine out through me? I am broken, I am open, I am broken open. See the love light shining through me, shining through my cracks, through the gaps. My spirit takes journey, my spirit takes flight, could not have risen otherwise and I am not running, I am choosing. Running is not a choice from the breaking. Breaking is freeing, broken is freedom. I am not broken, I am free.

6. Fish Tank (2009) written and directed by Andrea Arnold

Fifteen-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) lives in a housing project in Essex, has a distant relationship with her mom -- the struggling single mother of two girls -- and is estranged from her peers. Her tough facade thinly veils her vulnerability, loneliness, and compassion, which surfaces when she comes across an ailing horse.

Mia forms a bond with her mother's charming, attractive boyfriend, Conner (Michael Fassbender), who takes an interest in her and encourages her dream of becoming a dancer. However, it quickly becomes clear to the viewer that Conner's boundaries with Mia aren't what they should be. This painfully real yet somewhat dreamy film does a beautiful job of capturing life through Mia's eyes.

Memorable Quote: Don't forget to text me! Say hello to the Welsh for me!

7. Ma Vie en Rose (English title My Life in Pink) (1997) directed by Alain Berliner and written by Alain Berliner & Chris Vander Stappen

This Belgian film has stuck with me tenaciously since I saw it years ago, largely because I found it so heart-wrenching. Ludovic is a transgendered child whose parents face increasing pressure to force him to "be a boy." This is a beautiful film, but I'll never watch it again. I found his parents' and community's inability to accept and honor Ludovic for who he really is -- and the effect this had on the child -- too painful.

This isn't, strictly speaking, a coming of age movie, since Ludovic is still quite young at the end. However, given the difficult journey he takes in the movie, which probably ages him beyond his years, I feel it qualifies.

Memorable Quote: To make a baby, parents play tic-tac-toe. When one wins, God sends Xs and Ys. XX for a girl, and XY for a boy. But my X for a girl fell in the trash, and I got a Y instead. See? A scientific error! But God will fix it and send me an X and make me a girl and then we'll get married, okay?

8. Shine (1996) directed by Scott Hicks and written by Jan Sardi and Scott Hicks

I loved this movie, based on the life of troubled pianist David Helfgott. The first half of the film can be considered a coming of age film, as we see young David (Noah Taylor) grow up and battle for his independence. Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar for his role as the older David, but Noah Taylor was just as good -- his performance tore my heart out.

Memorable Quote: America. You know, land of the free, home of the brave. You know, Mickey Mouse.

9. The Chosen (1981) directed by Jeremy Kagan and written by Edwin Gordon, based on the novel by Chaim Potok 

It's been many years since I saw this film and read the novel from which it's adapted, but the story, and its themes of faith, conflicting values, loyalty, and friendship, will always stick with me. Two adolescent boys -- one an orthodox Jew and the other a reformed Jew -- bond during a pick-up baseball game in 1940's New York. The rift between their worlds becomes increasingly apparent, threatening their friendship, especially when their fathers are on opposite sides of the debate over the creation of the state of Israel. If you haven't seen or read this already, I highly recommend it.

Memorable Quote: There is a story in the Talmud about a king who had a son who went astray. The son was told, 'Return to your father.' The son replied that he could not. The king then sent a messenger to the son with the message... 'Come back to me as far as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way.

10. This Boy's Life (1993) directed by Michael Caton-Jones and written by Robert Getchell, based on the book by Tobias Wolff

This film is based on the memoir of writer and literature professor Tobias Wolff -- I really liked both the book and the film. Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds his life changed when his mother (Ellen Barkin) is charmed into marrying Dwight Hansen (Robert DeNiro). Dwight makes it his personal mission to make both his wife and stepson submit to his will and reform the rebellious boy. DeNiro is chilling as the domineering stepfather ("Kill or cure!") and young DiCaprio really shines here.

Memorable Quotes: Yeah, you pull that hot shot stuff around me, and I'll break every bone in your goddamn body. You understand me? Yeah, you're in for a change, mister, a whole 'nother ball game.

11. Kes (1969) -- Directed by Ken Loach and written by Barry Hines

Billy Casper (David Bradley), a 15-year-old living in Yorkshire, is bullied at school and by his abusive half-brother. He's academically unsuccessful and engages in petty crimes and acts of mischief. Billy's own mother calls him a "hopeless case," and he fears being trapped in a life as a coal miner. Billy has nothing positive in his life until he takes a kestrel from a nest and teaches himself to care for and train it. This is a bleak, realistic film which offers a clear view of life in working class England.

Interesting Quote By Ken Loach: Why do they say I hate my country? And what does that even mean? Am I supposed to hate my town, am I supposed to hate all English people, or my government? And if I do hate my government, does that mean I hate my country? It's a democratic duty to criticize the government. (I agree with that last sentence. :-) -- Steph)

12. Precious (2009) -- Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Geoffrey Fletcher based on a novel by Sapphire

In 1987 Harlem, 16-year-old Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) lives with her abusive mother Mary (Mo'Nique) and is pregnant, for the second time, by her father, who has molested her since she was a baby. Removed from school because of her pregnancy, she gets a second chance through an alternative school.

Many things -- including strong story-telling and powerful performances by Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique -- elevate this movie above a mere "issues" story. It's both brutally heart-wrenching and hopeful. By the way, Mary rates top billing as the worst movie mother of all time. She makes Joan Crawford look like someone you'd gladly invite over to mind your children.

Memorable Quote: (Precious taking an assessment test) There's always something wrong with these tests. These tests paint a picture of me with no brain. These tests paint a picture of me and my mother, my whole family as less than dumb. Just ugly black grease, need to be wiped away, find a job for.

13. What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) Directed by Lasse Halstrom and written by Peter Hedges

In a dead-end Iowa town, Gilbert tries to carve out a life for himself while looking after his mother and mentally disabled brother. This is a smart, funny movie about growing up and the conflicted feelings we have for the people who need us, although we love them unconditionally, and the yearning for love and freedom.

Memorable Quote: We don't really move. I mean, we'd like to, but... my mom is sort of attached to the house. Attached is, I guess, not the right word. She's pretty much wedged in.

14. El Bola (2000) -- Directed by Achero Mañas and written by Achero Mañas and Verónica Fernández -- review here

from Sarah's review: Shortly into El Bola, the twelve-year-old protagonist overhears a woman at his family's shop tell his father that "if we were Pablo's age, we wouldn't have any problems." If only that were true. Not only is that false in general terms (cartoonist Bill Watterson once said that "People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children"), but Pablo is living with a load that would be unbearable for anyone, in a household where breathing could get one beaten.

 El Bola is a full-blooded film about child abuse, yet lacking cheap shock value (Joan Crawford smudged with face cream, screaming "NO WIRE HANGERS!" while her little daughter cowers, comes to mind) ... this movie concentrates on the children affected. Not only that, but it directs these performances well, which is hard to do.

15. Cachorro (English title: Bear Cub) (2004) -- Directed by Miguel Albaladejo and written by Miguel Albaladejo and Salvador García Ruiz

Strictly speaking, this isn't really a coming of age film, though this nine-year-old boy's difficult journey seems to qualify. Or maybe the "coming of age" isn't actually done by nine-year-old Bernardo but by his adult uncle, Pedro, who for the first time must live for someone other than himself. "Coming of age" can happen at any point in life, can't it?

As a favor to his hippie sister, who has gone off to India, Pedro (José Luis García Pérez), a gay dentist, has agreed to look after his nine-year-old nephew, Bernardo (David Castillo) for a few days. His nephew’s presence forces Pedro to take a respite from his extremely active sex life -- he was beginning to tire of his string of superficial relationships anyway. Then six weeks pass with no word from the boy's mother, forcing Pedro to make some difficult decisions.

This is a wonderful movie offering realistic glimpses of life and rich, flawed characters.

16. Stand By Me (1986) -- Directed by Rob Reiner, written by Raynold Gideon based on a novella by Stephen King

This adaptation of Stephen King's "The Body" is both funny and sad. Twelve-year-old Gordie (Wil Wheaton) hangs out with three friends: Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), who carries the albatross of being from a family of criminals and alcoholics, Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), who is eccentric and physically scarred by his mentally unstable father, and Vern Tessio (Jerry O'Connell) who is overweight, timid, and often picked on. Vern overhears his older brother talking about finding the body of Ray Brower while dumping a stolen car, and the boys embark upon a journey to see if they can find Ray's body and become local heroes.

Memorable Quote: Wish the hell I was your dad. You wouldn't be goin' around talkin' about takin' these stupid shop courses if I was. It's like God gave you something, man, all those stories you can make up. And He said, "This is what we got for ya, kid. Try not to lose it." Kids lose everything unless there's someone there to look out for them. And if your parents are too fucked up to do it, then maybe I should.

17. Ordinary People (1980) -- Directed by Robert Redford and written by Alvin Sargent, based on the novel by Judith Guest

Conrad (Timothy Hutton) returns home from a four-month stay in a psychiatric hospital, after a suicide attempt. He feels alienated from his friends and family, especially his mother (Mary Tyler Moore). The family is desperately trying to find some version of "normal" after the accidental death of Conrad's older brother and Conrad's hospitalization.

Memorable Quote:  Feelings are scary. And sometimes they're painful. And if you can't feel pain... you won't feel anything else either. You know what I'm saying?

18. Whale Rider (2002) -- Directed by Niki Caro and written by Niki Caro based on a book by Witi Ihimaera

Twelve-year-old Paikea Apirana ("Pai") (Keisha Castle-Hughes), an aboriginal New Zealander, is the only living heir to the tribal chief. However, Pai is female and technically cannot inherit the leadership.

Her grandfather, the leader of the tribe, has a close bond with her. At the same time, he is bitter over losing his grandson, Pai's twin brother who died at birth, and being left with a "worthless" female. She is determined to prove herself and win her grandfather's unconditional love and respect.

This is a beautiful and heart-wrenching movie. When Pai stood up and tearfully offered a presentation in honor of her grandfather, my husband and I were both in tears. :-)

Memorable Quote: A long time ago, my ancestor Paikea came to this place on the back of a whale. Since then, in every generation of my family, the first born son has carried his name and become the leader of our tribe... until now.

19. Ben X (2007) -- Written and directed by Nic Balthazar-- review here

from Sarah's review: At the beginning, we are introduced to Ben (superbly played by Greg Timmermans), a teenage boy with Asperger's Syndrome who lives with his well-meaning mother and younger brother. Ben spends all his free time playing Archlord, a fantasy role-playing game where he becomes Ben X and plays alongside Scarlitte, a teenage girl who is impressed by his gaming skills. The game gives him a sense of purpose in a world that becomes increasingly out of control.

Memorable Quote: It's hard to explain. It's hard to explain myself. But I never tell lies. Everything I say is true, even when I don't say a thing.

20. Adventureland (2009) -- Written and directed by Greg Mottola

In the summer of 1987, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), graduates from Oberlin College with a degree in comparative literature. He is looking forward to touring Europe for the summer and going to Columbia University for graduate school in journalism, when his parents break the news that they won't be able to help him financially. The only summer job he can find is at Adventureland, an amusement park in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In spite of -- or maybe partly because of -- James's frustrating immaturity and sense of entitlement, he won me over. He was wholly believable as a young man reaching the end of adolescence and yearning for love, freedom, and experience.

Memorable Quotes: Look, am I gonna get in trouble? No one's ever supposed to lose a giant-ass panda.

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