When a caterpillar grows it becomes a butterfly, when a teenager grows it becomes an adult. For either species it’s a big deal. A pop star from the 1950s called Dion once lamented, “Each night I ask the stars up above, why must I be a teenager in love?” And teenagers have often asked, “Why must I be a teenager at all?”
Easy! So people could make great coming-of-age movies about you. Being a teenager is not all about hormones, acne, dodgy haircuts and being misunderstood, it’s also all about friends, rites of passage, being cool, being completely irresponsible and having the time of your life.
Movies that capture that elusive and transitory period of pain and change which sees a carefree teenager step into the hell and horror of adulthood make for compelling viewing. Done right they can also define the look, vibe and attitude of a generation. Here’s Screen Rant’s list of 10 Coming-of-Age Movies That Defined A Generation.
Stand By Me (1986)
If you were a kid in the 1980s, then chances are that you and your friends were forever seeking to have your own road trip into the great unknown, much like the gang of misfits in Stand By Me.
Based on Stephen King’s novella The Body, Stand By Me uses a journey into the wild as a metaphor for personal transformation. Enhanced immensely by the fact it’s set in the 1950s, when America was experiencing a coming of age of its own, Rob Reiner’s masterpiece follows the bookish and sensitive Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss), the troubled and aggressive Chris (River Phoenix), the strange and geeky Teddy (Corey Feldman), and the bullied and insecure Vern (Jerry O’ Connell), as they set off to find the body of a boy who had been hit by a train and killed.
After nearly being killed by a steam engine, attacked by a dog, eaten by ravenous leeches, and butchered by some rock n’ roll psychopaths, the gang find the body and, in the process, themselves. The body itself, which symbolizes the loss of innocence and the death of youth, is reported anonymously to the authorities by the gang as they say goodbye to one another with a touching finality. As Gordie, the film’s narrator, says as an adult looking back, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.”
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Although reminiscent of the 1980s in the same way as hairspray, shoulder pads, and bad dance moves are, The Breakfast Club is the gift that keeps giving when it comes to each generation looking for a jock, a nerd, a cool dude, a prom queen, and a complete misfit to call their own. Although it made Simple Minds far bigger than they might have been otherwise, thanks to the film’s defining song “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” we can forgive director John Hughes this little discretion for what may be his finest film.
The Breakfast Club is all about stereotypes and prejudices and how damming they can be to a nation’s youth. The film works by throwing five distinct characters into detention where they are forced, by hard ass assistant Principal Vernon, to write a lengthy essay describing “who you think you are.” Instead of putting pen to paper, the five characters lock horns in a series of confrontations before coming to the universal realization that they’re not so different from one another after all.
Friendships are formed that probably won’t last a minute once class starts again, but the knowledge that you cannot judge every book by its cover will hopefully stick with each of these individuals as they go their separate ways into a 1980s culture riddled with status, governed by power and obsessed with the maxim of divide and conquer.
Let’s be honest, sex is big issue in any teenager’s life. There are a host of coming-of-age films that play on those inescapable hormonal feelings one gets in their adolescence. Superbad may be one of them but it boasts an endearing quality many others appear to lack. It may be because scriptwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg began work on the script when they were both 13, that the film is both genuinely funny and authentic when it comes to depicting the social awkwardness and existential despair of the high school virgin. Either way, Superbad hit a chord with a lot of people out there.
Like American Graffiti, Greg Mottola’s movie takes place over the course of one day, but oh what a day. Childhood friends Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are on the eve of going to college. Only trouble is they don’t want to go as virgins. Cue the adventure. Offering a steady diet of parties, drunken encounters, comical misunderstandings, and embarrassing encounters, Seth and Evan’s odyssey to bust their cherry ends with the battle won wisdom that friendship and genuine relationships are far more important than bragging rights.
Mean Girls (2004)
Like the last days of Rome, the last year or two of high school is often rife with treachery, corruption and the unnerving smile of a friend who embraces you while plunging a knife in your back.
After Cady (Lindsay Lohan) is groomed by Regina (Rachel McAdams) as a possible member of “the Plastics,” the most exclusive clique in school, she is persuaded by her old friend Janis (Lizzy Caplan) to infiltrate their lofty circles and bring about their downfall. However, as German philosopher Nietzche once said, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” And that’s exactly what happens to Cady as spite and superficiality corrupts her core.
Yet just like a good teacher, Hollywood loves to give lessons. Cady and Regina both get their comeuppance in their own different ways, and the girls find redemption in being nice to one another and everyone else. In reality they would probably end up on a Real Housewives of [insert geographical area] show, as their materialism and bitchiness becomes more savage with each passing year, but that pill is probably a little too bitter to swallow for most audiences.
American Graffiti (1973)
Before he single-handedly conquered the world with Star Wars, George Lucas was responsible for American Graffiti, a film guaranteed to make that baby boomer in your life nostalgic for the golden era of rock n’ roll. Unfolding over the course of a lazy summer’s evening, the characters of the film, recently graduated from high school, are stuck in the twilight zone between carefree youngsters and fully grown adults with at least three headaches and a stomach ulcer’s worth of responsibility.
American Graffiti follows a group of friends who are desperately trying to fill at least one more evening with some fun cruising and high times before the whole place goes up in smoke. The film revolves around all those tricky coming-of-age decisions that often force a person’s hand, such as leaving an environment you know and love for the new beginning that is college, and the saying goodbye to old friends and flames before they drag you down into a stagnant and stale rut.
In many ways, American Graffiti is a fond farewell to an era that doesn’t really exist outside of nostalgia, but it still packs a powerful punch, particularly in the form of the mysterious blonde lady (Suzanne Sommers) in a white 1956 Ford Thunderbird that Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) spends the evening pursuing. He never catches up with the blonde, but as his plane takes off and he leaves his old town for college for good the next day, he spots the Ford Thunderbird and thinks of what could have been.
This Is England (2006)
England in 1983 was a pretty grim place. In the wake of the Falkland Island’s conflict, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was still waging war on the poor and the unemployed and dividing Britain in terms of the “haves” and “have nots.” It was a violent and divisive time, and this was reflected in the youthful subcultures founded themselves up and down the country. Although the original skinheads shared a love of ska and 1960s Caribbean immigrant culture, they were more associated with white nationalists by the time the 1980s rolled around.
Shane Meadows’ This Is England captures the era and its divisions with all the flash and dash of a Fred Perry polo shirt or a box-fresh pair of cherry Doc Martens. Shaun, played perfectly by Thomas Turgoose, is a 12-year-old who falls in with a group of skinheads led by Woody (Joseph Gilgun), who is all about the clothes, music, and identity of being a skinhead, without carrying any of the associated racial prejudices. Everything is rosy until along comes Combo, played with charismatic menace by Stephen Graham. Fresh out of prison, Combo becomes a father figure for Shaun and begins a war with Woody for the soul of young Shaun.
Thankfully, Shaun eventually sees that Combo is no hero, but a victim of his own background and hatred, and all he can ever offer as a mentor is violence and destruction. This Is England ends with Shaun throwing the Saint George flag Combo had given him into the sea in a symbolic gesture.
The Outsiders (1967)
Any film which features a young Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, and Ralph Macchio has got to be worth its salt, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders doesn’t fail to deliver. Based on the book by S.E. Hinton, and set in Oklahoma in the mid 1960s, The Outsiders is all about how money, or the lack of it, dictates the opportunities you are given and the choices you make growing up, and how those same choices can govern the rest of your life.
Our heroes, the “greasers,” are a gang of working-class teens with a love of denim, leather, and catchy nicknames such as “Ponyboy,” “Two-Bit,” and “Dallas.” The villains of the piece are the “Socs” (pronounced with a soft “c,” like “social”), the wealthy kids from the other side of town who dress like their dads and swan around the place with an almighty sense of entitlement. Johnny (Macchio) accidentally kills one of these privileged posers after his friend Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell) is attacked by a gang of them. On the run from the police, the two take refuge in an abandoned church where they spend their time playing cards and reciting Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
After rescuing a group of children from the church when it catches on fire, Johnny is left with severe burns, a broken back, and a manslaughter charge. Dying of his injuries, he appears to advise Ponyboy to lead a better life and leave all of this petty gang violence behind him by telling him to “stay gold.”
Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
If there is anything cooler than James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, God has obviously decided not to release it yet. Would the 1950s have made such an impact without Nicholas Ray’s landmark classic? Who knows! Elvis Presley was so captivated by the persona of Jim Stark (Dean) he would often recite whole chunks of the film’s dialogue for the entertainment of others, and if ever there was a film which heralded the commencement of war between the generations, Rebel Without A Cause is it.
Brooding, aloof, angry, scathing, wounded, fragile, Dean ticks all the boxes that are guaranteed to appeal to teenagers the world over. Stark looks at his parents and doesn’t like what he sees, he looks at his fellow teenagers and doesn’t like what he sees, but in reality he’s just like every teenager that’s ever existed, alone and trying to make sense of a world that has seemingly turned upon him in all its savage complexity.
Rebel Without A Cause ends with the police shooting one of Stark’s few friends, Plato, who waves an empty gun at them. Meanwhile, Stark, who emptied the chamber of Plato’s gun earlier, screams “I got the bullets! Look!” Just before the end credits roll, Stark’s father Frank rushes to comfort his son and make the promise to be a stronger father, but you get the impression it’s too little too late, as the 1960s sit in the wings waiting to happen, and like he said, Dean still had the bullets.
The mods stormed through Britain in the early to mid 1960s like a horde of pill-popping, immaculately-attired, music-loving, scooter-riding, short-haired beings from another planet. Franc Roddam’s 1979 film Quadrophenia captures the suited and booted youth subculture that The Who sung to perfection in “My Generation.”
Based on The Who’s album of the same name, Quadrophenia tells the story of Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels), a young mod about town who likes wearing zoot suits, parkas, riding his Lambretta scooter, and amphetamines. Yet during a bank holiday trip to Brighton for a mass rumble with the Mods’ traditional enemy, the greasy-haired, leather-jacketed, Harley-riding “rockers,” things start to go wrong for Jimmy in a big way. After being arrested alongside the “Ace Face” (played by Sting) for rioting, Jimmy returns to London only to lose his job and get thrown out of his home by his mum. To make matters worse, he loses the love of his life (Leslie Ash) to his best friend Dave, and his scooter gets smashed up in a road accident.
Taking vast amounts of pills and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, Jimmy applies some seriously heavy eye mascara and returns to Brighton to steal his former idol, the “Ace Face’s” scooter and ride it off a cliff in a final act that signifies Jimmy’s disillusionment with teenage subcultures, and symbolizes the mod’s final rite of passage from troubled youth to adulthood. Such was the power of Quadrophenia that it helped launched a mod revival in the UK nearly 20 years after the original suited and booted crew chanted, “We are the mods!”
Big Wednesday (1978)
The ocean is a potent tool for symbolizing the passage of time, the indifference of nature, and the illusory nature of change. As a movie, Big Wednesday is well aware of this. The primal power of the Pacific runs through the surfing drama like a lead actor in its own right.
John Milius’s ode to youth and friendship opens with three friends walking down to the beach in the summer of 1962 to greet the swell and ride the waves. As they hop on their boards and rush out to embrace the breakers, so begins the story of the three surfer dudes and their loose circles of pals as they ride the tides of change through crazy house parties, alcohol fueled surf trips to Mexico, the Vietnam war, marriage, and conformity. Although the talented-but-reckless Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent), the fun-loving party animal Leroy “The Masochist” Smith (Gary Busey), and the mature and responsible Jack Barlowe (William Katt) all go their separate ways, the ocean reunites them all for the “Great Swell of 1974” which nearly kills one of their number, but fortunately they all live to surf another day.
Big Wednesday captures the vibe of that one special lost summer of everybody’s youth perfectly, and leaves you with an overriding sense of a fleeting beauty passed. Gary Busey would later resurface in Point Break as an overweight and middle-age FBI Agent called Angelo Pappas in a nod to Big Wednesday’s cult appeal.
Of course there are many more movies about the tribulations of adolescence out there, as it’s usually the most memorable time of anyone’s life. Did we miss anything that defined you or your generation? Let us know in the comments below!
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