What constitutes coming of age has ranged enormously over time and across cultures. In Medieval Europe, a person's coming of age was primarily a story of spiritual revelation; one need only think of Saint Augustine. In the Victorian period, the coming of age narrative was primarily focused on moral development, while in the post-Freudian era, a coming of age story almost always signifies a story about sexuality and first sexual experiences. Psychoanalysis and cinema were born almost simultaneously and have informed each other since the very beginning; as such it's no great surprise that coming of age on film, in most cases, explicitly deals with romantic and sexual aspirations and experience, the primary focus, along with death, of Freud's understanding of the psyche. The films listed here range from bubbly, charming comedies to one of the single most disturbing movies I've ever seen, but each one portrays the confusions, ecstasies, despairs, and disappointments of coming of age.
L'auberge espagnole (2002)
This likable French-Spanish co-production stars the ever rakishly charming Romain Duris as Xavier, a confused guy following the plan laid out for him by his mentors. Through the ERASMUS program, he goes to Barcelona to study and while there he shares an apartment with other students from Belgium, England, Spain, Italy, Denmark, and Germany. The apartment is the locus of multicultural chaos, with the various roommates struggling to communicate across multiple language barriers. The film, written and directed by Cédric Klapisch, has a certain bouncy sweetness and the friendships, unlike the romantic affairs Xavier pursues with puppyish tenacity, are ultimately quite moving. The film spawned two sequels; the second, Russian Dolls, had a bitter aftertaste that I very much disliked and as a result I did not see the third.
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)
Only Cary Grant could get away with playing Richard Nugent, a womanizing artist who finds himself the object of a schoolgirl crush and is ordered by the teenager's sister, the judge overseeing his charges of disorderly conduct, to indulge her infatuation and actually date her. Any other actor in the role would be creepy, but Grant carries it off with stylish panache and a delicacy that both preserves his sex appeal and convinces the viewer he wouldn't touch 17-year-old Shirley Temple with a ten-foot pole. In the end, sparks fly between Grant and the judge holding his feet to the fire, played by a ravishing Myrna Loy. The screenplay by Sidney Sheldon is a masterclass in the art of the screwball comedy. Though this film could never be made today, given how sensitive (and for good reason) we have become towards the idea of teenage girls in any sort of romantic situation with a grown man, it successfully captures, with an innocent, wide-eyed joy in the sheer messiness of living and loving, the strange seesawing emotional roller coaster of a teenager's life, swinging between childish joys and adult pleasures.
This French-Canadian film is a masterpiece, a poignant and affecting drama that is much more than the coming-of-age tale it purports to be. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the film follows Zac (a drop-dead gorgeous Marc-André Grondin), a gay teenager growing up in the 60s and 70s with a ball-busting father (Michel Côté) who obsesses over Patsy Cline and croons Charles Aznavour songs at family gatherings. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of the movie is the soundtrack, which includes David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis; the music, along with the fabulously evocative costumes, designs, and hairstyles, make this perhaps the best ever period piece set in the 70s. Though the movie's protagonist is gay and the struggles he has to undergo in order to be accepted by both his family and himself are directly tied to his identity, it would be a mistake to marginalize this movie as a gay coming-of-age story. It is that, but its emotional depths are compassionately inclusive without being either sugar-coated or anodyne. Zac doesn't just come out of the closet; he finds both understanding and compassion for himself and for his father, mother, and brothers.
Fat Girl (2001)
Catherine Breillat's notorious film is difficult and only recommended for those with a strong stomach and a steely tolerance for unrelentingly distressing subject matter. No other filmmaker has the guts to examine on film with the same cold-blooded, surgically exact scrutiny the themes that Breillat explores over and over: female sexuality, virginity, teenage sexuality, jealousy, female friendship, sexual violence, body image, and how all these already confusing things intersect. Anaïs Reboux is the fat girl of the title, a cynical teenager who gorges on banana splits and watches with a resentful glare as her thin, Lolita-like sister (Roxane Mesquida) is seduced by an older Italian student (Libero De Rienzo). Breillat's imaginary is ruthlessly unsentimental; teenage girls are tangled up in the impossible mess of desperately desiring, desperately wanting to be desired, being desired in the wrong way, and being vulnerable to the violence perpetrated by men. The lines between sex and rape, consent and coercion, jealousy and protectiveness, desire and disgust, are never, ever clear in a Catherine Breillat film and for that reason she is perhaps one of the most scrupulously honest filmmakers when it comes to depicting teenagers and teenage sexuality.
The Graduate (1967)
This classic film starring an impossibly young Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katherine Ross probably needs little introduction, its iconic imagery (the young Dustin framed by Bancroft's nylon-clad leg), dialogue ("You're trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson" and "Plastics"), and the songs by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel having left an indelible mark on the memory of 60s culture. Though undoubtedly a zeitgeisty film, The Graduate still feels painfully relevant, perhaps even more intensely so in the wake of 2008 recession that left so many millenials adrift and grasping for secure lifelines that had simply disappeared. The film ends ambiguously; the optimist is likely to see a victory and a hopeful beginning, while the pessimist sees a sad effort to grasp the last possibility of a belief in comfortable, sentimental middle-class values, doomed to fail.
The Trouble with Angels (1966)
Ida Lupino's fabulous coming-of-age film set in a Catholic boarding school has been noticed by some feminists, who have recognized its quietly radical politics, but not enough. Hayley Mills and June Harding star as two trouble-making students who render the nuns' lives diabolically unsettled with their antics, while Rosalind Russell plays Mother Superior, their chief adversary. Few films have depicted nuns with such sensitivity and respect; the sisters are complex people with flaws and foibles and their religious vocation is portrayed healthfully and full-bloodedly. None of these women was coerced, or driven to seclusion by romantic disappointment. The film's focus on adolescent girls is equally respectful and complex and it's miraculously free of men and boys. The major relationships are all between women, the major questions raised are squarely focused on friendship, the development of one's character and spiritual beliefs, and religious vocation. The movie is also hysterically funny and improves with multiple viewings.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Though more obviously a romance, Jacques Demy's musical in gorgeous, brightly candy-toned Eastman color is also a coming-of-age story for its protagonists, the young lovers Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Their profoundly utopian romance is marred by familial disapproval, but the real blow to their relationship comes when Guy is drafted and sent to Algeria, while unbeknownst to him, Geneviève discovers that she is pregnant. The film is heartrending, depicting the fracturing of the youthful idealism of a young love when confronted with the thorny adult problems of warfare, social stigma, and the simple need to survive. Not merely a musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is really a pop opera, with all the dialogue sung, accompanied by a lush orchestral score by Michel Legrand.
The World of Henry Orient (1964)
Inexplicably obscure, this film can prove difficult to track down, but it is well worth it. Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth give incandescent performances as teenage best friends who decide to devotedly trail their crush, arrogant and ill-prepared pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers, fabulous as always). The film is a comedy, but it leaves space for genuine pain, as the girls come to understand that adults, whether Henry Orient or their own parents, don't live up to the ideals they imagined. Described thus, The World of Henry Orient might sound hokey, but it's not; the movie is bittersweet in the best sense of the word, an espresso rather than a whipped cream-soused hot chocolate. It also has a delicious parody of contemporary classical music, an especial treat.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Alfonso Cuarón's film achieved a certain degree of notoriety when it was released because of its explicit sex scenes, which was really all to the good, as it focused attention on a film that probably otherwise would have struggled, like all foreign language titles in the United States, for an audience. Starring Maribel Verdú (who was also in Guillermo del Toro's phantasmagoric Pan's Labyrinth), Gael García Bernal, and Diego Luna, Y Tu Mamá También is about two young men who on a whim - and considering themselves free to explore whatever possibilities may arise while their girlfriends are in Europe - invite an older woman on a road trip to an obscure beach. The personal stories of the characters are set like cameos in a kaleidoscopic and highly charged portrait of Mexico in 1999, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party got knocked out of power after over seventy years of control. The performances are sterling, the sun-dappled cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is stunning, and Cuarón was never better.