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The Best Coming-of-Age Movies Ever Made — IndieWire Critics Survey

With "Lady Bird" fresh in their minds (and high on their lists), our panel of critics picks the best films about growing up.

“Lady Bird”

A24

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: In honor of Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” what is the best coming-of-age movie ever made?

Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane), Birth.Movies.Death.

“Lion”

While it may not fit the western paradigm of a traditional coming of age film (neither a high school setting nor teenage angst or confusion find themselves the focus), “Lion” holds the distinction of being a rare modern movie that gets to the root of key questions of dual identity, questions that will only become more prominent in the age of globalism. It’s the most extreme version of having your feet in two cultures; Saroo Brierley (Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel) finds himself uprooted from his rural Indian village and separated from his family, only to be adopted by a couple in Australia. He grows up with a life of comfort, wanting for almost nothing. There is however a hole in his heart, one that can’t be filled until he traces his roots and finds out where he came from.

Merely moving to a different hemisphere of your own volition is cultural head-trip, which makes Saroo’s journey all the more harrowing. He never had a choice in the matter, and he feels like an outsider no matter the social setting. The question of “Where are you from?” is on everyone’s lips, whether they’re white Australians, white Americans, or Indians who moved to Melbourne, and no answer is fully satisfying. He can’t be placed in binary boxes as much he might want it. For Saroo, “Where are you from?” isn’t just a matter of physical place, but a matter of who he is at his core. It isn’t until he reckons with his a past from which he had a clean break that he can be at peace, but “Lion” offers no easy solution to his heart being torn in two. Shots of Google Earth become akin to the sweeping scenery of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth as the journey on his couch takes on a massive emotional scale, aimed not at choosing between two extremes of identity, but at merely accepting the duality within. There will always be two Saroos. Two homes. Two mothers. Two families. That sense of longing will never fade, but it’s in embracing these two disparate halves (and hugging both mothers in the credits’ “real footage” section) that he can finally move on.

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

Rushmore

“Rushmore”

Touchstone Pictures

This is a tough one, since several of my favorite movies of the past few years (“Boyhood,” “Brooklyn,” “Call Me by Your Name”) all happen to be coming-of-age films. We’re living through a golden age of them. For me, the most exquisite part of any coming-of-age movie is the eviction — there’s no better word for it — from the paradise of childhood. No longer do our heroes belong in a world where they once were so comfortable. And the most audacious coming-of-age films really hammer that loss home; they’re more about goodbyes than hellos. In that regard, I can’t pick a better example than “Rushmore.” Max is the little prince who saved Latin, until he’s not.

Kate Erbland (@katerbland), IndieWire

"Lady Bird"

“Lady Bird”

A24

The best coming-of-age movie ever made is “Lady Bird.” Wait, stop screaming, let me finish. As is always the case with these things — and as I so often yelp at my own computer screen when various commenters, aka beloved readers, try to take certain lists to task for not including something or ranking something too high or too low or whatever — all this stuff is subjective. There’s no definitive here, no objective opinion that is “right” or “obvious” or “agreed upon.” That caveat out of the way, the answer is “Lady Bird.” Perhaps the most striking element of the heaps of praise that “Lady Bird” has already picked up over the past few weeks is rooted in various viewers — many of them fellow critics — stunned to see so much of their own experience and attitude reflected in a film that is rooted in filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s own high school experiences. While Gerwig has been a little cagey on just how much of her own life she mined for the film, it’s clear that the broad strokes (location, for one) are real, as are the feelings it inspires. Maybe we all secretly had the same high school experience, maybe that’s why Gerwig’s film is hitting so hard, but I’d like to take this moment to come out full force on this topic: I’ve never seen a film that so accurately reflected my own high school experience.

Like Gerwig, I’m dealing with both broad strokes and deep feelings here. I graduated from a small private Catholic school in Northern California in the early aughts (one big difference: no uniforms for us!), was obsessed with the Dave Matthews Band, was kicking and screaming to get the hell out, felt like an outcast even while I also embraced my more dorky pursuits, had a ton of crushes on seriously unfit dudes, and briefly dabbled with a cool crowd when I came to believe my less popular friends weren’t cutting it. It was miserable and big and weird and great and fun and stupid and formative and I am frankly embarrassed by how much I still think about it. But seeing “Lady Bird” made me remember why thinking about that stuff — and how it shaped me then, how it shapes me now — isn’t stupid or embarrassing. It made it all seem okay, both then, in the moment, in the experience, and now, after so much time has passed.

What do you think Lady Bird is like ten years on? Twenty? I’d hope she’s still mostly the same, that same fire and spirit and willful weirdness. I wish it for her, because I wish it for me, and for everyone who looked up at the big screen at Lady Bird and thought, “hey, that’s me,” because it was.

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Freelance for Vice, Thrillist, Hello Beautiful, Harper’s Bazaar

boyhood

“Boyhood”

“Boyhood.” There have been many great coming-of-age movies where a character comes into their own. And sure, none of them have literally followed an actor from actual boyhood into young adulthood like this film has. But that’s not what makes “Boyhood” so great. It’s watching Mason’s (Ella Coltrane) constantly evolving life affect those around him and seeing them come of age as well, as you would in reality. From Mason’s mom (wonderfully played by Patricia Arquette) to his sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater), and even his dad (Ethan Hawke), “Boyhood” is one of the most effective portrayals of coming into one’s adulthood because it doesn’t just stop at one character. It shows a true progression of everything and everyone around him. That’s what makes it so real, so palpable, like you’re moving through life with them.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

Citizen Kane

“Citizen Kane”

It would have seemed obvious to deem François Truffaut’s  “The 400 Blows” the best of all coming-of-age movies, both for its own merits (lack of sentimentality, incisive view of the rigid wider social order that oppresses children, a profound sense of place, and the best child performance ever, from Jean-Pierre Léaud) and for its own crucial role in the history of cinema, as the breakthrough film of the French New Wave. But a strange echo resounds from another, earlier cinematic modernism, one that was less than two decades old when Truffaut’s film came out but which belongs to a long-vanished, seemingly mythical world: that of Orson Welles’ first two features, “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” both of which are coming-of-age movies, too. Welles and Truffaut both got their start in their mid-twenties; their coming-of-age was recent news; and this trio of films defines cinematic modernity in terms of youth and its blend of aesthetic discoveries and self-discoveries. (If Truffaut’s primordial discovery seems a little less comprehensive than Welles’s, it’s because, unlike Truffaut’s cinematic coming-of-age, Welles’ was also that of a premature aging, a cinema of going past age into despair and death—an omission that Truffaut would more than make up for in the films that followed.)

Manuela Lazic (@manilazic), Freelance for Little White Lies

“Goodbye First Love”

Coming of age movies can show up in unexpected places. Some superhero films function perfectly in that genre: if you understand that the spider bite is equivalent to the sting of puberty, and the spiderweb to a certain bodily fluid… then Spider Man truly is the story of a little boy becoming a man, discovering the weight of responsibilities and the importance that other people and their lives have for him as an individual in the world.

Coming of age tropes are indeed fluid and multiple. If growing up means caring about others for young Peter Parker, for Camille in Mia Hansen-Love’s devastating “Goodbye First Love,” it means facing the nonsensical paths that feelings can take us on. Before even breaking up with her first love Sullivan, Camille is unhappy because of his imminent departure for a long trip: she can’t imagine life without him. Once he’s gone and leaves her for good, she falls deeper into an endless pit of pain and confusion. Why exactly did they separate? How could someone she loves so much, and who loved her just as much, hurt her so badly? Camille keeps calm and carries on with her life with this incomprehension always dormant in her, which actress Lola Créton manifests with a subtlety at once inscrutable and heavy with pain. Hansen-Love is not interested in how Camille could rebuild herself, but instead asks the question: what if you refused to grow up? What if you said no to the common sense and reason that the passing into adulthood teaches you, and instead let your raw emotions guide you, even if they keep pushing you against a wall?

Camille refuses to learn, but the path to survival that she doesn’t take appears in negative to her experience. “Goodbye First Love” is a cautionary tale for those who refuse to become responsible and protect themselves from the harshness of the world. Yet with its tenderness and the beautiful power of Camille’s pain, it also warns us against the risk of letting adulthood block out the sensitivity that makes us hurt and love so hard.

Tomris Laffly, Freelance

Carrie

“Carrie”

My answer is “Carrie”, though “Lady Bird” is also among the greatest coming-of-age films of all time. Greta Gerwig somehow managed to sidestep all the annoying cutesy/whimsical conventions of the genre and significantly improved it by making it her own. I hope the filmmakers who’d like to try their hand at a high-school-set story in the future take note. We don’t want another “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

Just kidding (mostly).

Does Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” count? Because I’d like to say “Yi Yi.” Edward Yang’s final masterpiece is many, many things over the course of its running time — its three hours contain an entire universe — but one of those things is an unforgettably gentle coming-of-age story about a little boy named Yang Yang who likes to take photos of the backs of people’s heads in order to show them a part of themselves they can’t see without his help. Yang Yang is a peripheral character, and his growth over the course of the film is almost imperceptibly slight, but through his ever-widening eyes we feel the whole world expanding.

 

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today

“Persepolis”

My list of top coming-of-age films would include “Captains Courageous” (1937), “Forbidden Games” (1952), “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), “The 400 Blows” (1959). “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), “Closely Watched Trains” (1966), “Picnic at Hanging Rock“ (1975), “Stand by Me” (1986), “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995), “Rushmore” (1998), “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001), City of God” (2002) and more. It is hardly an underserved topic in the cinematic firmament. But perhaps my favorite, at present, is the animated French-Iranian “Persepolis,” co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, and based on the autobiographical graphic novel by the latter. Funny and tragic in equal measure, it is profoundly moving in its exploration of a young woman’s developing self-awareness in a world that would like nothing more than to deny her self and her awareness. Satrapi and her story offer narrative delights both savory and sweet, to be savored at length and repeatedly, over many viewings.

Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), Freelance for Vanity Fair, The Guardian

“Breaking Away”

When I was very young, like under 9, I was strangely obsessed with the movie “Breaking Away.” This is particularly funny considering that if I even look at a bicycle my ankles shatter.

Part of my reason for watching it a lot was merely practical. It was something my parents had taped off of television and was therefore one of the few movies to which I had ready access. It was also something that my older sister would agree to watch if I picked it out, because the boys were cute. (I’d regularly find myself in the position of sounding board as she tried to determine which boy was most cute. Dennis Christopher was the star, and most likable, and was certainly cute, but Dennis Quaid was the hunk and Jackie Earle Haley had a Davy Jones thing going. Poor Daniel Stern.)

Anyway, the movie is terrific, I don’t have to sell you or anyone else wise enough to read Indiewire on that. But an interesting thing for me was watching it again as I got older and realizing it was a coming-of-age movie. I was a dumb kid: these teenagers seemed REALLY grown-up to me! Maybe some 9 year-old will watch “Lady Bird” and feel the same way when they get older.

Ed Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Tracking Board

“Pretty in Pink”

Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar

I think “Lady Bird” would appreciate me going with John Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink” although she would only be 1 or 2 years old when it came out. Coming of age and high school films are my favorite genre so it’s hard to pick just one best, although I would have to include Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude” and possibly “Three O’Clock High” if I were to make a top three.

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “Lady Bird”

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