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Criticwire Survey: Best Coming-of-Age Stories

Criticwire Survey: Best Coming-of-Age Stories

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

This week’s question: In honor of The Spectacular Now, what’s your favorite coming-of-age story?

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Tor.com

My favorite coming-of-age story has, since I was about the age of its protagonist, been John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. It’s just lovely. From “that word is special” to “What do you do with four daughters… a string quartet was the only thing that came to mind” I just smile like a doof the whole movie. Well, not the sad parts. Or that amazing Brief Encounter pastiche Boorman cooked up as a parody of “grownup” movies for his alter ego to be bored by. (Of course, when one grows up one realizes Brief Encounter isn’t boring at all, but he’s a kid.) Just a beautiful, wise movie about being a kid, learning the difference between reality and fantasy, and that they aren’t always mutually exclusive.

Alyssa Rosenberg, ThinkProgress, Women and Hollywood

These Happy Golden Years, now and forever. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series is a masterful chronicle of the changing American West, but the final book, These Happy Golden Years, operates at another level. It captures the fear of being on your own as Laura takes her first job teaching school where she boards with an isolated, unhappy family, the uncertainty of burgeoning love as Almanzo Wilder begins courting Laura, and the joy of starting a home of your own. Laura’s a teenager when the book begins, but she’s having life experiences that many of us have delayed well into our twenties. It may be filed as a children’s book, but it’s one of my favorite memoirs, and I still re-read These Happy Golden Years every year.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

As a reader, a three-way tie among Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and My Brilliant Career — the latter two beautifully adapted by Gillian Armstrong into indelible films. Anne, Jo and Sybilla leap off page (and screen), dreamy and self-deprecating, perfect embodiments of chance-seizing, imperfect girls who develop into unfinished women.

Mike D’Angelo, Las Vegas Weekly, The Dissolve 

Don’t know that it’s really my favorite coming-of-age story, but given the pang I felt not long ago hearing that E.L. Konigsburg had died, I’ll use this space to pay tribute to what is surely my favorite young-adult novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The story, for those unfamiliar, is about a teenage girl and her younger brother who run away from home and spend some time living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; looking back after decades of hardcore cinephilia, it’s easy to see why I identified with Claudia Kincaid’s desire to escape her dull, ordinary life and hide amongst other people’s expressions of beauty. 

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

I could rattle off a bunch of stuff I love that’s familiar because everyone knows already how great it is. Instead, I’ll pick a few things that deserve far more widespread enthusiasm. First is Boaz Yakin’s 1994 debut film Fresh, a terrific tale of a young drug courier that also had Giancarlo Esposito doing quiet malevolence nearly 20 years before Breaking Bad. Then there’s Richard Thompson’s brilliant song “Read About Love” (from his 1991 release Rumor and Sigh), which hilariously captures the unhealthy ways that most young men learn about sex. And finally there’s a young-adult book I just discovered, Loser by Jerry Spinelli, which offers a heartbreakingly unique twist on what it means to come of age realizing that you’re kind of weird. Which I’m sure none of the people responding to this survey could relate to. 

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 215 Magazine

Though my parents will likely want to disown me for not immediately saying The 400 Blows, I think I would have to instead go for Bill Forsyth’s gentle, breezy early ’80s film, Gregory’s Girl. In addition to being laugh-out-loud hilarious — there are a myriad of jokes tucked away in the background of Forsyth’s frame — it carries such a sweet, undramatic ode to our first romantic experience, I get enraptured every time I see it. Perhaps it’s allowed to be so low-key because it doesn’t involve actual sex (unless you happen to count dancing while lying down in the grass), but not every COA story has to end up with the bitter disillusionment of its protagonist. There aren’t many films that capture the sweet innocence of youth without eventually turning it against their participants; this is one of them.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle might just be the ultimate coming of age tale. Through four feature length films and a short we see Doinel tackle a challenging childhood, fall in love for the first time, marry, become a father, divorce, become a deserter, work as a private eye and shoe-store clerk, and all manner of other things. Such is the ubiquity with which actor Jean-Pierre Leaud is associated with the role of Doinel (in spite of a second, parallel oeuvre of work that was just as important and impressive) that I like to hypothesize that the character has crossed over in to Leaud’s other work (What is the aged actor’s mean-spirited child-catcher in Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre if not an inverted and bitter M. Doinel?). I’m actually on the record for suggesting that Truffaut and Leaud’s collaboration on Doinel may very well be the single greatest achievement in all of the cinema. There’s nary a greater shame in all of the movies than the knowing that we’ll never see Truffaut’s best known creation live out his winter years on-screen. 

Ernesto Diezmartinez Guzman, Grupo Reforma, Noroeste

Of course, The 400 Blows. There is no greater movie about it.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

This is the part when I say, “The Catcher in the Rye,” and almost everyone groans. Yes, it’s a cliche, but it’s the first title that came to mind and I wouldn’t be true to my Salinger-loving self if I chose something else. Far deeper than mere teenage angst and ramblings, Holden Caulfield’s resistance to adulthood and the changes of post-WWII New York grow richer with each reading. As Holden struggles with the death of his brother Allie and is reminded of the world’s goodness through his little sister Phoebe, the complexities of growing up tenderly shine through. Now, please excuse me while I go read it again.

Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club

I’d normally have trouble calling The Catcher in the Rye a “coming-of-age story,” because I don’t know that Holden Caulfield actually comes of age in it, per se, but when I revisited the book as an adult, I was surprised by the gulf between the Holden depicted in the events of the story and the slightly older, slightly wiser Holden who is narrating those events from across the gulf of memory. Holden is an irascible little shit — and I know a lot of people who hate the book for that reason — but J.D. Salinger is so smart at showing us indirectly how he’ll grow out of that, as well as depicting in the book’s tremendous final sections how he’s already understanding that he needs to move past himself and move on. The book was a huge touchstone for me as a teenager, but I mostly sympathized with Holden’s endless entreaties against phonies. As an adult, I feel something different, more protective toward him, who likely would believe himself not in need of my protection.

Kevin Lee, Sight & Sound, Fandor

Whether it’s the apotheosis or the ultimate antithesis of the coming-of-age film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence haunts the genre like no other. From the ostensible premise, “Can a child come of age if it isn’t really a child?” an unsettling proposition emerges: the odysseys of youth aren’t so much chronicles of nascent maturity as dramatizations of preprogrammed fixations (a point borne out by the overfamiliar source code embedded in most Hollywood/Sundancewood depictions of youth self-actualization). How bizarre that a film that shows how much a child *can’t* grow yields a breakthrough in the cinematic Bildungsroman. 

Robert Greene, Hammer to Nail

My favorite coming-of-age story is Elem Klimov’s Come and See because adolescence is really difficult and nothing explains what it’s like to be lost in a forest of teenage pain like the scene where the kid walks around with his ears ringing for 10 minutes. Life is the worst, etc.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker.

When someone asks, “Where did you grow up?,” I’m inclined to answer, “I didn’t.” The coming-of-age stories I keep coming back to are ones that set the bar unbearably high. Henry Roth’s four-volume masterwork, Mercy of a Rude Stream, packs a New York immigrant childhood with metaphysical terror. It’s the work of a man in his seventies and eighties who hadn’t published in fifty years — and the devastating force of the novel is its horrific illumination of the silence, by way of incest. No coming-of-age book approaches sex as combustibly, as terrifyingly, as he does; the harshly detailed reminiscences of poverty and family antagonism, of tight but rough friendship and school striving and a struggle for a place in the hardnosed and combative New York of the teens and twenties, and the awakening of a literary calling, come under the cloud of a curse of nearly Biblical curse. He writes in two voices — the one of youth and the one of the old man, a pariah looking back at cosmic ruins of his own making; it’s Oedipus at Colonus with subways and kreplach. It’s strange that the work next in line for me — Ernest Hemingway’s story “The Last Good Country” — is also incestuous (nearly). And a footnote: one of the gaping wounds of American literature is Norman Mailer’s failure to write about growing up as a nice Jewish boy in Brooklyn.

Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies, Some Came Running

Years ago, at the Eccles Center at Sundance, a critic friend screamed in the lobby, “If I have to sit through one more sensitive-male coming of age story I’ll puke,” or words to that effect, right after a screening of Garden State. Which, believe it or not, had not at the time been deemed universally puke-worthy. I felt her pain. And despite my undying admiration for Rushmore, and Adventureland, I still do. To the extent that I am actively DREADING seeing The Spectacular Now. Seriously. So I’m maybe the wrong person for this question.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, Press Play

Blue Velvet counts, right? Not only does David Lynch’s neo-noir initiate its college-age protagonist, aspiring detective Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), into the hidden sexual underworld of his sleepy town, but it also subverts the tropes we associate with coming-of-age stories. Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy Vallens is the sexually experienced older woman, but she’s developed a yen for BDSM as a result of considerable trauma. The paternal figure Jeffrey most resembles and must overcome (both literally and in Freudian terms) is the monstrous, oxygen addicted Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a perverted, drug dealing, sexual extortionist. Even Laura Dern’s relatively innocent Sandy discovers she’s got a thing for a peeping Tom in the form of Jeffrey and fantasizes vicariously through him.

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

My favorite coming-of-age film is C.R.A.Z.Y., Jean-Marc Vallee’s extraordinary drama about gay teenager Zachary’s (Marc-Andre Grondin) rites-of-passage in 1970s Montreal. I unashamedly sob uncontrollably every time I see this film. Hell,  I’m getting teary-eyed and goosebumps just thinking about the scene in which Zachary’s father takes him out to get French fries. C.R.A.Z.Y. pushes all my emotional buttons even though Zachary’s family life and experiences are almost nothing like mine. Such is the film’s authenticity and emotion which resonate deeply with me. C.R.A.Z.Y. is a father-son story, and films about fathers and sons — especially when the son grows up to be a writer–are my cinematic Kryptonite. I lose all critical faculties watching fictional characters realizing my childhood dream. I loved King of the Hill and This Boy’s Life, when I saw them. And When Did you Last See Your Father is a terrible film, but it reduced me to a puddle. I should mention two queer coming of age films that were especially poignant to me: Edge of Seventeen and Come Undone. Both deftly capture the awkwardness of coming out and first love. And I have a soft spot for Y Tu Mama Tambien, which I thought was one of the best coming of age films of recent years.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs

The important question is who exactly is the coming-of-age narrative for? The youth who must learn the lessons that will inform his/her future, or the nostalgic adult attempting to remember the promises of youth? Some of the most canonical texts play better to one or the other (probably Cather in the Rye being perhaps the often cited example that doesn’t play well the older you get). I’ll go with something off the beaten track that fits the latter category: Syrian filmmaker Mohammad Malas’s The Night from 1992, which follows the memories of a young boy during the wars near the Palestinian border from 1936-1948. Highly influenced by Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, it’s a surreal tone poem about the perspective of war and politics from a young boy, who sees his village change hands, and the dreams of the honor of his father and the generation before him slowly squandered away. The film’s limited perspective adds to its power, because we never see what the men go through, only what they present to the young boys and families that populate the town. Like Istvan Szabo’s Father (another great choice), it’s perhaps the most important lesson one learns as one ages: to accept the faults of one’s elders, to not seem them as neither heroes nor villains, but simply human. Add to that its very frightening vision of the political state of Syria, and how the various changes in power mean little to the people, and it’s truly one of the masterworks of Arab cinema. 

Kenji Fujishima, In Review Online, Slant Magazine

I don’t know if I’d call this my favorite coming-of-age story, per se, but since I saw it again recently, I’ll go with it for now: David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, which is essentially a grand historical epic about naive young British academic who, in the film’s second half, gradually comes upon the limits of his own romantic ambition when he eventually comes face-to-face with the kind of political and emotional realities that seemingly couldn’t contain him in its more immediately exciting first half. For a spectacle that has become famous over the years for things like its sweeping Panavision imagery and rousing Maurice Jarre score, Lawrence of Arabia ends on a surprisingly downbeat note: in the reflective look of a man who has learned the ways of the “real” world and has decided he’d rather withdraw from it, more or less. It’s not exactly a upward trajectory, but it’s still a “coming-of-age” tale in its clear-eyed charting of the bitter maturation of its main character’s worldview. 

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

I have to pick just one? Then, I’m going with The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s remarkable take on his own parents’ divorce. Very much a love story, this affecting, vivid drama shares not just the traditional pangs of adolescence, but also the essential relationship we have with our mother and father. That’s a meaty subject often given back burner treatment in coming-of-agers. Jesse Eisenberg, in one of his first leading roles, is pretty terrific, so is Laura Linney, as his mother. The one who knocks my socks off, though, is Jeff Daniels, sensational as the myopic father, who’s self aggrandizement comes very much at the expense of others. While there are several other movies that nail the genre (special shout-outs to Igby Goes Down, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Breaking Away),  this is the only film that seems to haunt me. Sure, I listen to a lot of classic rock, but every time I hear Pink Floyd’s “Hey You, I can’t help but summon up that wonderful scene where Walt shares “his” composition with his family, lyrics so mature even his usually doubtful father’s impressed. For a while.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

Thinking on the idea of the coming-of-age narrative, what comes to mind are fragments: bits and pieces from various media, haphazardly taped or tacked onto posterboard (or a mirror, a la Elm Street 4). It’s only in backing away and trying to see everything as a continuum that the edges don’t seem so ragged and things coalesce a bit. The humiliations of Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (and its spiritual sibling, The To-Do List). The close-to-the-bone on many sides slices of Payne’s Election. R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming.” Some moments from The Reflecting Skin and Zulawski’s Possession. Aspects of Sixteen Candles and Elm Street 2 and Stand by Me and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Fleming’s Threesome. Any of those great ’80s books (Cooke’s The Lake, Simmons’ Summer of Night, King’s It) where adolescence coincides with a supernatural crisis. Night of the Hunter. The Magnificent Ambersons. Carrie (book, movie, and musical, but not miniseries). The first Violent Femmes album. The theatrical cut of Donnie Darko is pretty damned close to perfect for me, and its “director’s cut” a horrifying betrayal of everything that makes it interesting or resonant (note: I’ll still watch anything Kelly does for the rest of his career, though, and I don’t begrudge him his need to overexplain everything, though I lament it).  

Alan Zilberman, The Atlantic, Tiny Mix Tapes.

My favorite coming-of-age story is the 1995 film Angus. I saw it at a formative age: I wasn’t yet in high school, but had a dim idea of the trials that lay ahead. On a superficial level, I could relate to Angus better than any character from a John Hughes movie (Hey, he listens to Green Day, too!). More importantly, Angus was not your typical adolescent hero. He was comfortable with who he was, more or less, and instead had to deal with a handsome, sadistic monster who mocked his weight whenever he could. Angus ends with the inevitable public triumph, and the script provides him with an eloquent speech that any high school student should remember when he or she has a rough day. 

William Bibbiani, CraveOnline

The Last Starfighter is a great coming of age movie. Actually, it may be one of the most influential movies of my life, on a profoundly practical level. Nick Castle’s story of a teenager, obsessed with video games, who discovers they are but a training exercise for a very real intergalactic conflict teaches a very valuable lesson (nowadays) that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean putting away childish things. Often, it means turning them into a meaningful career. I make my living watching movies now. Thanks, The Last Starfighter!

Fico Cangiano, CineXpress

Although I adore both The Goonies and Dirty Dancing, I’d have to go with 1984’s The Karate Kid. Out of all the coming-of-age films from the 80s, this was the one that impacted me the most in a time when I was starting to get into films. I mean c’mon, who doesn’t love an underdog story in which the protagonist gets to kick a bully’s ass with karate while learning a bit about himself along the way? Here, Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) gets trained by Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) — a handyman/martial arts master who kinda becomes his father figure too. The film touches upon some great themes and includes some refreshing lessons. The Karate Kid is a well deserved classic. It gave us: “Wax on, wax off” and the crane kick. 

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I looked at a list of coming-of-age films for reference and was overwhelmed. There are so many I could chose from! Even though I don’t relate to their eras and locations, I love American Graffiti and The Last Picture Show. They’re both such amazing personal statements from their respective directors. And I have a deep personal connection with Jason Reitman’s Juno, but I think I already talked about that in a previous Criticwire survey. So, in the interest of making a definitive choice, I’ll pick the one that most affected my own worldview, and that would be The Breakfast Club. I saw it opening weekend in 1985, when I was a disaffected high school junior. That movie gave voice to all the things I was feeling inside but couldn’t articulate. It was almost as though John Hughes peered into my soul and made a movie about what he found there. When it was over, I felt like I understood myself, and my whole high school experience, much better. The Breakfast Club is smart and insightful and relevant. By the way, I was totally an Anthony Michael Hall.

Sean Hutchinson, Latino Review, CriterionCast

The first thing that popped into my head was Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Usually coming-of-age stories are about high school malaise and trying to get the girl that you pine after while learning about your true self, but Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is someone who’s made it past college, was relatively successful and got plenty of girls, but is still yearning for some meaning about his place in the world. It’s not simply a temporal displacement of coming-of-age tropes, but rather the way in which Braddock ends up with the cliched symbols of contentment and still feels incomplete in his search for truth that has always stayed with me. 

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema, Sound on Sight

I’m going with say anything…, the film that kicked off Cameron Crowe’s directorial career and further cemented John Cusack as one of the more affable actors of his generation. There are a lot of great coming-of-age stories to choose from, but the byplay between Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court has always charmed me because it never feels like these two teenagers are caricatures, instead of fully realized people. Cusack and Ione Skye, along with Crowe’s script, are so deft at capturing the awkwardness of being a teenager without overplaying it that much. Plus, Crowe’s willingness to deepen the non-teen characters, specifically Diane’s goodhearted but imperfect father, still stands out to me amidst the morass of teen-oriented films that pretend the characters’ parents don’t exist or are one-dimensional buffoons.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, The New York Movie Klub

I’m always partial to It, the Stephen King novel (I did not see the TV miniseries adaptation starring Tim Curry). The whole reason that children make friends is because being alone is a little frightening: King riffs off of that using the sort of monsters that haunted the movies of his childhood. If not for the awkward orgy at the end of the book, this would be my favorite work of King’s.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

Since Stand By Me was the first title that came to mind I’ll go with it.  Strange how my generation grew up on a movie about the previous generation dealing with getting older.  It set a seed in your brain that maybe someday you’ll actually grow up and have feelings about being a kid, though lacking the necessary perspective this was less instructive and more a hazy sense of things to come.  Wait! Something Wicked this Way Comes! Because carnivals still scare me and the amputee who sees himself in the mirror with his leg restored still makes me cry.  I guess the boys in that come of age by facing evil and the inevitability of corruption. Is that what happened in that movie? Wait! All the Real Girls ahh forget it.  I’m old now.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye for Film

Jessica Chastain’s debut starring performance in Dan Ireland’s Jolene, based on the story by E. L. Doctorow “Jolene: A Life” is the first that came to mind. Jolene does not romanticize the coming of age encounters that are as much about love as they are about survival. An orphaned girl crosses the U.S. “step by step, mile by mile, man by man” as the Cabaret song goes, to grow up in the process the hard way. 

Peter Howell, The Toronto Star 

The late Harry Chapin was one of America’s greatest storytellers, able to tell more truths in a single song than many others could state in an entire album. None of his tunes resonated more for me than “Cat’s in the Cradle.” It’s a coming-of-age song from both sides of the generational divide, father and son. It came out in 1974, long before I was married and had children of my own. I used to listen to it from the son’s perspective. Now I hear it from the father’s side, and try to take it to heart. Never fails to bring a tear to my eye when I hear it.

Christopher Campbell, Film School Rejects, Movies.com

I think the movie is a generic travesty, but C.D. Payne’s original novel of Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp is my favorite coming-of-age work. I read it later in life but still feel like I grew up along with it. Maybe I still did. 

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

I have an incredibly soft spot for coming-of-age stories, in all forms.  As such, I’m cheating and picking a movie, which is Chasing Amy (though I almost just up and went with The Spectacular Now, since it’s, you know, spectacular), a book (Tietam Brown, which is like The Catcher in the Rye on acid, and written by former pro wrestler Mick Foley), and a song (“Bobby Jean,” by Bruce Springsteen).  For me, coming-of-age stories just speak to me in a certain way.  Maybe being a freelance writer keeps you sort of permanently in that coming of age stage, as it were, but for whatever reason, I love them.

Sean Chavel, FlickMinute.com

Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, and I don’t even mind that it has been dubbed into English for U.S. distribution. It out-rabbit-holes Alice in Wonderland and out-feminizes the coming of age theme, too.

Jordan Hoffman, Film.com, ScreenCrush 

I’m about the farthest thing from a Midwestern cycling enthusiast, but Breaking Away tears me up inside just thinking about it. It’s magical. 

Marc V. Ciafardini, Go See Talk, Big Fanboy

For me it’s a toss up between Paul Feig’s Freaks and Geeks and BBC’s show The Inbetweeners. Both portray the ups and downs of navigating high school years and really encapsulate those arduous character building coming-of-age experiences. Beyond the confines of a film’s runtime they both give us empathetic and three-dimensional personalities to root for. But of the two shows, The Inbetweeners‘ stereotypical characters hit closer to home in their truthful, if exaggerated and satirized, accounts of growing up. About as crass as something like American Pie but with infinitely more charm and delivery that is so hilariously endearing. Also it’s a lot more enjoyable watching this foursome grow across seasons as opposed to a mere 90 minutes. Somehow that allows for all the adventures, mishaps and tribulations to feel more natural and genuine.

What is the best movie currently in theaters? 

A four-way tie between The Act of Killing, The Canyons, Computer Chess and Frances Ha.

Other movies receiving multiple votes: Fruitvale Station, The Hunt, Twenty Feet From Stardom

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