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Coming of age movies that should be required viewing

Everybody remembers how it feels to be a teenager ... even if they'd prefer to forget those years entirely. Whether you cherish your memories of high school or would rather pretend they never happened at all, there a movie out there that captures the adolescent experience in a way that will resonate. High school comedies and dramas have been a staple of the cinematic landscape for years, but the very best ones tug at your heartstrings, remind you of what it's like to grow up, and maybe even introduce a teenage perspective you've never personally experienced. 

Coming of age movies run the gamut: Adaptations of classic novels, raunchy high school romps, and stories from the Black and LGBTQ+ communities can all be found under this umbrella. Though many of these films are wonderful, hilarious, and heartening, some stand head and shoulders above the rest. These are the coming of age movies that should be required viewing for all, whether you're looking for a snappy comedy, a doomed love story, an adaptation of a beloved book, or an Academy Award-winning drama.

Lady Bird

After years in front of the camera in films like Jackie and Frances Ha, indie star Greta Gerwig took to the director's chair in 2017 for her debut solo effort, Lady BirdThe film, which stars Saoirse Ronan in the title role, tells the story of high school senior Christine McPherson, who goes by the name "Lady Bird," and her strained relationship with her mother Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf. Lady Bird struggles to find herself in a variety of ways: She gains and loses crushes, interrupts school assemblies, and fights with her best friend. By the time she gets to college, she realizes she actually misses her family and hometown, despite the fervor with which she longed to escape both for years. The film ends with a phone call home, in which she thanks her mom for everything she's done for her.

Lady Bird scored a slew of Oscar nominations, a tidal wave of critical praise, and an impressive box office. It's no mystery as to why: The movie boasts Beanie Feldstein, Tracy Letts, and Timothée Chalamet (who would go on to collaborate with both Ronan and Gerwig again in Little Women) in supporting roles, a heartfelt script, and an impeccable eye for detail. Lady Bird is a funny, touching, and raw retelling of what it really feels like to be a teenage girl, and what it really feels like to move on — and discover you're not quite as grown-up as  you thought.

Edge of Seventeen

Kelly Fremon Craig's directorial debut, 2016's The Edge of Seventeen, absolutely dazzles. Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine Franklin, a sarcastic, angry teenager living in the suburbs of Portland, who feels deeply resentful of everyone in her life after her father's untimely death. As far as Nadine is concerned, she only has two people on whom she can fully depend: Her best friend, Krista, and her teacher, Max Bruner, who begrudgingly listens to her complain between classes. When Nadine tries to embark upon the world of dating, she finds herself overwhelmed and inexperienced — and horrified to discover that her popular brother Darian is dating Krista. Nadine spirals, her spite and isolation overtaking her as she detaches from everyone she cares about. She's in desperate need of companionship and understanding, but in the moment, she'd rather die than let anyone get close.

The Edge of Seventeen was highly praised upon its release, especially for Steinfeld's anchoring performance and strong supporting turns from Woody Harrelson as Bruner and Kyra Sedgwick, who plays Steinfeld's long-suffering mother. If you're looking for a funny, scathing, thoroughly emotional story of unmoored girlhood, The Edge of Seventeen is a perfect pick.

Little Women

Louisa May Alcott's beloved 1868 novel Little Women has been adapted many times, but few adaptations have been as deftly done as Greta Gerwig's 2019 effort. For her second feature film, Gerwig teamed up once again with Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan, who plays the inimitable Jo March, alongside a stellar cast that includes Emma Watson as Meg March, Florence Pugh as Amy March, Eliza Scanlen as Beth March, Laura Dern as Marmee, Timothée Chalamet (another Gerwig regular) as Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, and screen legend Meryl Streep as Aunt March.

By employing a non-linear narrative, holding tight to the original novel's feminist bent, and using quotes and details from Alcott's own life to flesh out the script, Gerwig gave the world a truly original take on a familiar story, earning Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress for Ronan, and Best Supporting Actress for Pugh. You may have seen other Little Women adaptations before, but you've never watched the March sisters' come of age in such an innovative way.

Booksmart

Raunchy high school comedies are nothing new, but they rarely focus on teenage girls. Enter Olivia Wilde's 2019 directorial debut, Booksmart. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, two best friends about to graduate from high school and go off to their dream colleges, Yale and Columbia — though their school has a strict policy that seniors must keep their college destinations to themselves, lest they make other students feel inadequate. Both Molly and Amy are intensely proud of their achievements and optimistic about their futures, until they realize that all the popular kids also got into A-list colleges, meaning Molly and Amy spent all their time in high school following the rules when they could have been having fun. With one last night before graduation left to them, the best friends set out to have a wild time, seduce their crushes, and make the most of their dwindling teen years.

With a supporting cast that includes a scene-stealing Billie Lourd as Gigi, one of the school's most erratic partiers, as well as familiar comedic faces like Jessica Williams, Wilde's real-life husband Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow, Booksmart is as heartfelt as it is edgy. If you want a great ode to teenage friendship, Booksmart is for you.

Eighth Grade

The first feature-length film from stand-up comedian Bo Burnham, 2018's Eighth Grade is one of the most honest and unflinching looks at the teenage experience you're likely to find. Starring newcomer Elsie Fisher as Kayla, the movie tells the story of the end of Kayla's eighth grade year as she struggles with anxiety and tries to find a way to fit in. By day, Kayla attempts to bond with her classmates before they go off to high school, and by night, she works on motivational video blogs, which she keeps making despite her ultimately toxic relationship with social media.

By casting real middle school kids and crafting a grounded, melancholy tale, Burnham's semi-autobiographical film offers up one of the most realistic portraits of teenager-dom around, thanks in large part to Fisher's intensely brave performance. It is impossible not to feel one's heart lurch with feeling as Fisher sheds tears over hurtful social media comments, carefully applies makeup, and asks her single father if she makes him sad. Though it's meant to represent a generation of young adults dependent on the Internet for survival, Eighth Grade is a stunning depiction of the universal struggle to feel at home during some of the most turbulent years of your life.

Superbad

One of the defining teen comedies of its era, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's 2007 film Superbad was a long time coming: According to the screenwriting duo, they'd been working on the script since they were 14 years old. Michael Cera and Jonah Hill play fictionalized versions of Evan and Seth, respectively, as the duo embark on one legendary night right before they graduate from high school. They travel from party to party as they try to buy alcohol with a super-fake I.D., courtesy of their dim-witted friend Fogell, or "McLovin," attempting to impress their crushes and achieve their high school dreams in just a few short hours.

With a supporting cast rounded out by Rogen himself, Bill Hader, and the debut film performance of future Oscar-winner Emma Stone, Superbad succeeds thanks to its simple premise, joke-packed script, and earnest portrayal of adolescent friendship. Superbad may have a raunchy exterior, but underneath all the dirty humor, its got plenty of heart.

Call Me by Your Name

Falling in love is a vital part of coming of age stories, and few films tackle the subject better than 2017's Call Me by Your Name. Over the course of a single summer, the film charts a secret, intense romance between Elio, a professor's son, and Oliver, a graduate student who joins the family to work for Elio's father. As the two get to know each other, they fall in love, but must stifle the truth of what lies between them. After an affair that unfolds across Northern Italy, culminating in three romantic days in Bergamo, the two part ways forever. 

This elegant film, beautifully acted by Chalamet and Hammer and perfectly directed by Luca Guadagnino, is a simmering stunner. Telling it from Elio's perspective is a particularly brilliant stroke: It makes it a unique coming of age film, in addition to a love story. Watching this young man come to terms with himself as he falls in love for the first time is a pleasure and privilege. No wonder it took home an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Moonlight

Moonlight might have become briefly infamous for the snafu involved in the presentation of its Oscar for Best Picture, but in the years since, it's become clear that that anecdote will not obscure the film's sheer brilliance. Spanning years of a young, gay Black boy's life, Barry Jenkins' 2016 masterpiece focuses on Chiron, played by three separate actors: Alex Hibbert as young Chiron, Ashton Sanders as teenage Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as adult Chiron. As Chiron explores his identity while struggling with his mother's addiction, the death of a beloved mentor, and his first romantic experiences, Jenkins carefully peels back the layers of this wonderfully complex character, allowing audiences to grow along with him as he reaches adulthood.

Thanks to strong performances across the board, especially an Academy Award-winning turn from Mahershala Ali, as well as Jenkins' superb script and direction, Moonlight is one of the most moving films of the 21st century so far. It is subtle, impassioned, elegiac, utterly gorgeous, and absolutely worth your time.

Love, Simon

Coming of age is difficult for anyone, but if you're struggling with your sexual identity as well, things get decidedly more difficult. This all-too common experience provides the focus for 2018's Love, Simon. The film follows Simon Spier, a closeted high schooler trying to keep a low profile, who finds himself unexpectedly blackmailed over his sexuality by a mystery classmate. But that's not the only engimatic figure in Simon's life: He's also been chatting with Blue, an anonymous classmate, under the pseudonym Jacques. Their bond deepens, until Simon realizes he's fallen in love with Blue — without knowing who, exactly, he is.

Not only does Love, Simon boast a stacked supporting cast including Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, and Katherine Langford, it earned the distinction of becoming the first major Hollywood studio film to focus exclusively on an LGBTQ+ teenage romance. This decision paid off: A few years later, the film spawned a spin-off series, Love, Victor, on Hulu, proving that this story is popular enough to enthrall fans around the world.

Boyhood

There's only one major film that follows one boy as he comes of age before our very eyes, and that's Richard Linklater's 2014 opus, BoyhoodThis landmark film took a whopping 12 years to film, and tells the story of one boy's life as he learns, lives, and grows. Developed by Linklater alongside frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke — who, in addition to playing the boy's father, would have finished the film if Linklater couldn't — the movie was filmed in installments. Every summer of these 12 years, Linklater and his cast and crew would come together to make a bit more progress on Boyhood.

Boyhood's unique conception might have come off as a gimmick, in the hands of a lesser team. Happily for audiences everywhere, this was very much not the case: Boyhood is a high point of a number of already impressive careers. Coming of age stories come and go, but thanks to its one-of-a-kind filming process, Boyhood stands the test of time.

Juno

One of the quirkiest coming of age movies in recent memory, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman's 2007 film Juno made a star out of Ellen Page and quickly consumed the zeitgeist, thanks to its clever script, excellent performances, winning soundtrack, and smart direction. The story of Juno MacGuff, a 16-year-old who discovers she's pregnant, Juno explores the ups and downs of adolescence under duress with grace and wit. Eventually, Juno meets Mark and Vanessa Loring (spectacularly played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), who seem to have the perfect life ... until Juno uncovers the cracks lurking just below the polished surface.

Most people remember Juno for its extremely specific slang and Page's pitch-perfect performance, but if you revisit this thoughtful film, you'll discover a story of uncommon introspection. Juno lives in the grey areas of teen life: Between popularity and misfit status, between blue collar and white collar, and between childlike crushes and adult relationships. You can't pin Juno down into one box, despite how tempting it might be to do so — she's just as insecure and uncool as she is funny and outspoken. That's what makes her story so special, and what's made it endure long after we all stopped asking each other, "honest to blog?"

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Based on the hit novel by Stephen Chbosky, the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower stars Logan Lerman as Charlie, who spends the entire narrative writing to an unseen, unnamed friend as he wends his anxious way through high school. Along the way, he meets Sam (Emma Watson), a beautiful senior, and her eccentric yet lovable stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller), who become his closest confidantes. However, before long, a trauma from Charlie's past surfaces and threatens to derail everything he's built for himself.

The film boasts an impressive supporting cast, with big names like Joan Cusack, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, and Paul Rudd all making an appearance. Ultimately, whether you're a fan of the original novel, someone looking for a lo-fi high school story, or interested in Charlie's journey specifically, you're sure to be charmed and affected by The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Stand by Me

In 1986, acclaimed director Rob Reiner helmed an adaptation of a Stephen King novella entitled The Body, and Stand by Me was the successful result. With a cast that includes Wil Wheaton, the late River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O'Connell in his first ever film, this movie tells the story of four best friends who go on a hike, only to find a dead body that turns out to be a missing boy. Together, they try and decide whether or not they should report the body to the authorities, dealing with their own respective baggage and trauma along the way.

This classic tale of friendship, bereavement, and growing up has become one of Stephen King's most popular film adaptations over the years. It's not hard to see why: By mixing King's macabre plot with a coming of age story, Stand by Me becomes a stirring film about the ties that bind, for viewers of all ages.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

One of the most famous high school movies of all time, Amy Heckerling's 1982 film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, stands strong today as a truly delightful coming of age film. Written by Cameron Crowe (who actually went undercover at a San Diego high school to give the movie its realism),  Fast Times spends a year with high school sophomores Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), as well as their older friends Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates) and Mike Damone (Robert Romanus).

In addition to the core cast, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is beloved for featuring some of Hollywood's most famous faces before they were stars. We've got Sean Penn (in a memorable turn as stoner Jeff Spicoli), Forest Whitaker, Eric Stolz, and Anthony Edwards here, in fine form — even if they are a little untested. By using the viewpoint of two high school sophomores to tell the stories of several different characters throughout this year in their lives, Heckerling braids the storylines into something stronger than the sum of its parts. If you're looking for one of the most important high school stories in cinema and one of the most truly enjoyable, Fast Times at Ridgemont High certainly won't disappoint.