Every generation gets a handful of “coming of age” films to hold on to as they do the same. Kids of the eighties got such classics as Risky Business and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The ’90s gave their teens the likes of American Pie and Election.
However, the past 20 years have proven an especially fruitful era for the “coming of age” subgenre. Licorice Pizza exemplifies this, going the route of films like Dazed and Confused and Stand by Me, looking decades back to capture that sense of growing up.
For audiences looking for more contemporary offerings, take a look below for 20 great coming of age movies released in the past twenty years. Anyone still growing up, just hitting adulthood, or decades away from their teen years can find something on this list that will entertain, challenge, and connect with you. Prepare to even get a little choked up.
Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are best friends, ’90s hip-hop enthusiasts, and, well, nerds growing up in The Bottoms, a neighborhood in Inglewood. Malcolm has his eyes on Harvard after graduation. His guidance counselor, despite being doubtful, sets up an interview with local businessman and alum Austin Jacoby (Roger Guenveur Smith) to improve Malcolm’s chances.
However, before Malcolm can even get to that interview, he gets sucked into a drug deal gone bad that sticks him with several bricks of powdered molly and a gun. A variation of the “one crazy night” subgenre sees Malcolm and his friends careening all over town in an attempt to stay alive and satisfy all the competing interests gunning for them.
For Malcolm, the film ultimately proves a journey towards integration. He finds a way to accept all aspects of himself. He can feel both a part of the world he grew up in and recognize how he’s ready to move on to different things. Finally, he learns to fight for himself, standing up to the school bully, refusing to give up on a relationship just because someone with power tells him to, and—as these movies strangely often have their protagonists do—blackmail an adult.
Another take on the “one crazy night” formula, Booksmart finds best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) on the eve of their graduation. Four years of “perfection” have gotten them into their top choice schools, and their plans for the future—like 20-year plans—seem like smooth sailing.
Except it’s never that easy.
In this case, the cracks start to form with their classmates’ graduation eve blowouts. Molly wants in on a social scene she never allowed herself. However, Amy remains actively skeptical of any such endeavors. Meanwhile, Amy has secretly altered her plans for her first year after graduation without telling her friend, a fact inevitably exposed.
The friends grow apart throughout the night before realizing they can be their own people and remain friends. They don’t need to walk in lockstep to stay close.
Still, the best coming-of-age moment for this writer comes when the duo realizes that it would’ve been possible to both experience high school fun and still achieve their goals. Booksmart captures that sensation of realizing you missed out unnecessarily in a heartbreakingly grounded way. The movie also features a hilarious, scene-stealing performance by actress Billie Lourd as a cracked-out influencer.
Perks of Being a Wallflower
Charlie (Logan Lerman), a kid coming back from a stay at a locked mental health facility, begins his freshman year. Depressed, already marked as different, and no longer having his best, doesn't look forward to the experience. Still, a chance encounter with seniors and step-siblings Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller) leads to his inclusion in their group of unconventional, artsy friends.
Struggling to navigate romantic relationships, Charlie soon finds himself back on the outside looking in. Alone with his thoughts once again, it becomes quickly apparent that Charlie struggles with a lot more than clinical depression, much of it connected to his late and beloved Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey).
Charlie’s coming of age happens on nearly every possible level in this film. Relearning how to have friends, learning how falling in love feels and how it feels to try to fake love, learning to accept his trauma and more. It takes big swings and may leave some turned off by the melodrama. For most, however, it recalls nothing as closely as to how it feels to be a teenager and finally realize how little—and how much—we can control in our own lives.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Minnie (Bel Powley), like many (most?) 15-year-olds, has a developing interest in sexuality and her own desirability. So, she begins to chronicle her thoughts and misadventures in an audio diary. Around the same time, she starts a sexual relationship with her mother, Charlotte’s (Kristin Wiig) boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). A very talented cartoonist, she also attempts to capture her feelings and experiences in her artwork.
Minnie continues to seek sexual experience and validation with encounters with a boy at school, anonymous hook-ups, a tryst involving her best friend and another boy, and a brief lesbian relationship. Each encounter excites her but leaves Minnie disappointed, disrespected, or worse.
The film’s denouement takes the subtext out of Minnie’s journey a bit, but that doesn’t make the preceding film any less bracing in its honesty. Navigating objectives, developing self-esteem, and doing so without external validation. To see Minnie do it, mainly on her own, can sadden, encourage, and breed giggles, often all at once.
Following Chiron from childhood (Alex Hibbert) through adolescence (Ashton Sanders) and into adulthood (Trevante Rhodes), Moonlight tries to capture the experience of coming age as a gay person surrounded by family and a community that doesn’t accept that reality.
The film never lapses into cruelty or pollyannaish proclamation, filled with unexpected humanity balanced against moments of intense emotional and physical brutality. Supporting the Chiron trio includes Mahershala Ali as a Juan, a drug dealer and father figure, Janelle Monáe as Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend who tries to be a healthy figure in child and teen Chiron’s life, Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mom, and Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland, as a trio of actors depicting Chiron’s friend and love interest Kevin. Each gives a wonderful performance, as honest as the film itself. Harris scored an Oscar nomination for her work, while Ali won the golden statue.
Director Barry Jenkins has a breathtaking ability to find beauty without shying away from the pain. Moonlight is one of those rare, unimpeachable Best Picture Oscar winners.
Leave No Trace
Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) has grown up living off the grid with her PTSD-wracked father, Will (Ben Foster). Spotted living in a national park, officials catch and bring father and daughter to social services. Tom wants to make a go of living with people in a home, but Will repeatedly shows that he both won’t and can’t, thanks to his condition. Its intensity prevents him from even attempting to address it any other way.
Tom struggles to live in both worlds, to find a way to reconcile her hunger for a life connected with others and remain with her dad. Trace captures the often-painful realization that our parents aren’t perfect and, moreover, there may be nothing we can do to help them without losing ourselves too.
McKenzie gives a knockout performance in the part. Foster, too, does great work. Director Debra Granik and Cinematographer Michael McDonough create a vision of the film that captures the beauty of the places Will favors without ever glamorizing the behavior.
Charismatic loser Charlie (Anton Yelchin) has one parent (Hope Davis) too consumed with her mental health issues to help him and another entirely absent. After getting kicked out of yet another private school, he ends up in a public high school, immediately catching the eye of the biggest bully Murphy (Tyler Hilton). While their relationship starts with Murphy blackening Charlie’s eye, the two soon go into business together.
Charlie starts to win people over through an almost supernatural ability to ignore others’ opinions of him. Soon, he acts as the school’s secret psychologist/psychiatrist and falls in love with Susan (Kat Denning). However, principal Nathan Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), already uncomfortable with his administrative role and feeling his relationship with his daughter slipping away, begins to develop a significant distaste for Bartlett.
Many coming-of-age films tell stories about growing up and realizing the limitations of the adults in charge. Bartlett certainly has that element. However, it also concerns Charlie learning his limits. Coming of age for him is almost as much about accepting his real age as it is about becoming an adult.
The To-Do List
Like Minne in The Diary of A Teenage Girl, Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) has sexuality on her mind. After a brief, mistaken makeout session with her crush, Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), she creates the titular list. She’s convinced that if only she had more experience, he’d have kept kissing her. So if Brandy checks off everything on the list by summer’s end, surely she can get another shot at Waters.
Of course, things don’t go exactly as easily as Brandy expects. Feelings get hurt, friendships get damaged, jobs are lost. Despite a predictable script, a deep bench of supporting talent, including Bill Hader, Allie Shawkat, Rachel Bilson, and Clark Gregg, more often than not elevates the material. List’s attitude towards an approach to intimacy as something for enjoyment and not just something to accomplish helps as well.
The Edge of Seventeen
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has been stuck in many ways since her father died almost four years earlier. She still attempts to use his passing to excuse missing homework assignments. Her social circle consists entirely of her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). She still resists connecting to either her mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), or her brother, Darian (Blake Jenner) as she did her dad.
Unfortunately for her, no one else has decided to stay stuck with her. That becomes clear when Krista and Darian begin a relationship, leaving Nadine feeling alone and betrayed. She begins to act out, treating them poorly, stealing her mom’s car, and sending an ill-advised provocative text to her bad boy crush, Nick (Alexander Calvert).
A trauma narrative of sorts, Nadine has to permit herself to move beyond her father’s death. Until she does that, she can’t accept herself or begin to evolve along with everyone around her.
Blinded by the Light
Jared (Viveik Kalra) lives in England during a time of economic downturn and increasingly expressive racism, both of which land hard on his working-class immigrant family. His father’s increasingly rigid views begin to grate on Jared, who wants to write.
The better Jared’s writing gets, the more it drives a wedge between him and his father. Jared’s discovery of Bruce Springsteen only fuels this conflict, encouraging the teen to struggle harder for independence. Finally, things come to a head when a wedding, a racist act, and an attempt to get concert tickets converge disastrously.
Besides the excellent soundtrack, Blinded is especially interesting because it covers a considerable portion of the maturation process. So many movies end with individuation, creating an identity that exists apart from friends and family. Here, Jared does that and then works his way through the next step, reintegrating into the family unit while maintaining his identity integrity.
While we tend to think of coming of age in terms of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, the truth is everyone consistently comes of age throughout life. Inside Out captures an earlier period of transition, the one from childhood to the complicated churn of early adolescence.
While most of the action happens in the somewhat mystical realm of feelings within tween Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), the movie never loses track of the reality of Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness’s (The Office‘s Phyllis Smith) journey. The girl’s life is expanding, and with that comes painful and thrilling complications.
Still, if the movie only focused on the Feelings, it wouldn’t work. Instead, the glimpses of Riley’s memories and her attempt to run away (literally) from the complexity of her new life give the film that extra bittersweet snap.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
A quartet of four friends, Lena (Alexis Bledel), Carmen (America Ferrera), Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), and Bridget (Blake Lively), find a magical pair of pants before they separate for the summer. They send the pants around, so each gets to wear the perfect-fitting jeans for a quarter of the break.
Admittedly, it sounds like one of the odder and thinner concepts on the list. However, the pants offer an excuse to deliver what amounts to an anthology film. Each friend deals with some aspect of growing up—making choices about who to love, confronting mortality, accepting family changes, worrying about becoming their own parents, regretting romantic choices, and so on. It is also one of the darker movies on the list despite a generally sunny palette and upbeat marketing with mental health questions, the deaths of children, and power/age imbalances in sexual relationships, all explored in fairly open ways.
Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) are two tweens on a New England island. Suzy grew up and lives there with her family, and orphan Sam attends camp. After meeting briefly the year earlier, the two have planned to run away together. They succeed initially, but before long, a Boy Scout-like group, their scoutmaster, her family, and the police mobilize to search for them.
As one would expect from a Wes Anderson film, the movie has a sweet, gentle sensibility and looks gorgeous. Gilman and Hayward embody the fumbling of tweens trying to express attraction to one another. The rest of the cast is stellar, including an actually caring Bruce Willis.
The coming of age here is admittedly mild, and the film does cap it off with a nearly fairy tale-esque happy ending for the kids. Nonetheless, it impeccably observed the start of the kids’ journey into growing up. Additionally, Sam’s life of tenuous and brief connections to adults is just honest enough without being exploitative.
Olive (Emma Stone) doesn’t have to do much to separate from her parents when it comes to coming of age. As embodied by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, they are the coolest but still deeply present and involved parents in film history. Thus, that’s no need for conflict there.
Instead, her coming of age is more of grappling with society and others’ expectations situation. For example, when she lies to her best friend about her sexual history in the hopes of not embarrassing herself, she’s overheard. The lie ends up being far more embarrassing than the truth as a result. She soon sees herself cast as the school’s floozy pariah.
Not one to back down from a fight, she keeps digging herself deeper, literally donning a red “A” like she’s starring in a remake of The Scarlet Letter. However, Olive eventually realizes that she’s worrying more about being right than getting what she wants out of life, and she attempts to seize control of her own narrative.
Unfortunately, Olive has to see a lot of others’ hypocrisy exposed along the way, including her best friend, her guidance counselor, and one of the school’s “waiting for marriage” superstars. On the other hand, it does affirm the honesty support of other people in her life. In the end, Olive learns who she can count on and who she can’t and comes out both happier and sadder on the other hand. Like most of us.
The film that gave us McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has a lot more going on than just that very poor fake ID with that very unlikely name.
Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are best friends about to graduate high school. But, unlike the Booksmart duo, they already know they’re headed in different directions come fall. They both love one another, and they’re both scared about staying friends while going to different colleges, but neither will talk about it. Still, a night of partying brings everything to the surface, and makes the friends angry with one another, unable to access the bigger feeling beneath that anger.
Besides sharing the two best friends right before graduation and a sibling (Hill and Feldstein are brother and sister in real life), Superbad also mirrors Booksmart’s journey, albeit with two far less mature protagonists who seem to lack the extensive language to describe what they’re going through.
As long as Q (Nat Wolff) has known his former friend Margo (Cara Delevingne), he harbored a crush on her. When she got popular, he didn’t. So, despite being neighbors, they barely talk anymore. However, one night, she drops in on him again to ask him for help getting revenge on her boyfriend and friend, who have hooked up behind Margo’s back. He joins in, and they seem to have chemistry again.
The next day, she disappears. Q, high on the endorphins of that night and his crush roaring again, convinces himself Margo wants him to find her. So he, along with his friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair), and Margo’s best friend—not the cheater—Lacey (Halston Sage) head off on a trip to follow the “clues” to her whereabouts.
The road trip doubles as a last hurrah for the best friends before graduation, and Q finally grows up enough to perceive people around him as individuals, not just characters in the story of his life. Margo features heavily in this realization as he’s spent years idealizing her and refusing to acknowledge her treatment of him or her own self-destructive behaviors.
Christine (Saoirse Ronan) wants her mother (Laurie Metcalf) to call her Lady Bird. Her mother refuses, which only makes Christine…err…Lady Bird want it more. And that more or less summarizes their relationship to each other.
Besides dealing with a mom she feels doesn’t understand her and won’t even try, Lady Bird tries for an East Coast college, convinced that’s where the “real” culture lives. Additionally, she explores her romantic options with much disappointment and little fun.
As with Blinded By The Light, Lady Bird has to achieve two goals. First, she has to find her own place in the world. Second, she needs to reconcile with her family while holding that place. While not a faith-based film, the simple bittersweet moment in a New York City church that brings her to tears is more effective at selling the importance of community than any Kirk Cameron starring joint.
The Spectacular Now
Sutter (Miles Teller) is the kind of kid who peeks in high school. Popular, charismatic, and pretty clearly already an alcoholic, the only type of hardship he can think of to write about on his college application is getting dumped by his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson).
When he wakes up one more on Aimee’s (Shailene Woodley) lawn, the two start to get to know each other, first via her tutoring him in geometry, then developing a friendship, and finally starting a romance.
However, Sutter’s demons, like his drinking and unresolved issues with his dad, keep getting in the way. He wants to be better for Aimee, but he can’t seem to even be better for himself. One often unexplored aspect of coming of age is being honest about your own flaws. Now does that work, forcing Sutter to literally declare himself his own worst enemy before he can get on with his life. But, most impressively, even after he does it, the film refuses to let him off the hook. There’s a glimmer of hope in the final moments, but only a glimmer.
Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), Sam (Gideon Adlon), and Julie (Kathryn Newton) have been best friends since the first day of kindergarten. Now their Senior Prom arrives. They’ve decided to make it memorable by pledging to all lose their virginity on Prom Night.
When their parents read the text message referring to the pact, Julie’s mom Lisa (Leslie Mann), Kayla’s dad Mitchell (John Cena), and Sam’s dad Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) make their own pact to stop it, all for different reasons.
Besides just being very funny, Blockers makes the list in large part because it depicts both a coming of age for the girls and the parents. Mitchell, Lisa, and Hunter have to accept their kids are about to be adults, and whatever parenting errors they made are too late to fix now. The resolution of the pact is also a tricky maneuver well done, affirming that either choosing to “go all the way” or not is fine as long as the decision works for the person making it. Also, again, just a hilarious film.