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Clueless | Ⓒ Paramount Pictures
Clueless | Ⓒ Paramount Pictures
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The 9 Best Coming-Of-Age Films That Are Quintessentially American

Picture of Bethany Currie
Updated: 17 October 2016
The coming-of-age genre generally refers to films that feature the transition from childhood to adulthood, or simply portray the main character maturing and learning life lessons. It can range from classic comedies to heart-wrenching dramas. Here’s our pick of the best of them.
The Breakfast Club | © Universal Pictures
The Breakfast Club | Ⓒ Universal Pictures

The Breakfast Club

A 1980s classic, The Breakfast Club is the story of five high school students each from different cliques, who find themselves spending a Saturday detention with each other. During their detentions, they realize that they don’t have to be confined to what their clique labels them as, and they walk away at the end with a new outlook on life. While the students are from different social groups, in reality they all struggle with the same issues, such as parental pressure and the importance of fitting in while unsure of their identity. The film is considered to be one of the best high school films in history.

My Girl | © Columbia Pictures
My Girl | Ⓒ Columbia Pictures

My Girl

My Girl follows the story of a young girl as she matures into a teenager, and experiences the emotional and physical changes that come along with it. At the same time, she faces the prospect of a new step-mother, which she can’t seem to accept. The film lulls viewers into a false sense of security with some comedic moments, but then springs some truly sad scenes on them too. The film is appropriate for both young and adult viewers, and adults especially will enjoy the reminders of their own childhood that the film brings back. The two main characters are also portrayed perfectly, and are played by very young actors, which makes their acting ability even more impressive.

Clueless | © Paramount Pictures
Clueless | Ⓒ Paramount Pictures

Clueless

Loosely based on the novel Emma by Jane Austen, Clueless is a comedy set in Beverley Hills and centered around a group of wealthy high school students. The main character, Cher, is superficial and shallow but means well, and finds satisfaction in match-making her friends. However, Cher’s plans backfire and she is forced to re-think her priorities and what is really important to her, and by the end of the film she has greatly matured. Clueless was a surprise hit when it was first released back in 1995, and it has since come to be considered as a cult classic.

Stand By Me | © Columbia Pictures
Stand By Me | Ⓒ Columbia Pictures

Stand By Me

Stand By Me is based on the short story The Body by Stephen King, and tells the story of a group of middle schoolers who go in search of a missing boy’s dead body in order to become local heroes. The story focuses mainly on their friendship and camaraderie, and the innocence of twelve-year-olds before their lives become too complicated. The film is praised for being relatable, as audiences can identify with both long summers away from school and various problems that kids go through growing up: sibling rivalry, bullies, or family tragedies. The acting is near-perfect, and the structure of the film as a series of narrated flashbacks is an effective way of bringing the audience into the story.

Almost Famous | © Columbia Pictures
Almost Famous | Ⓒ Columbia Pictures

Almost Famous

A high school student gets the opportunity of a lifetime to spend his summer following a famous rock band, writing an article for Rolling Stone magazine. During the summer, the teenager experiences the adult world for the first time, and gets a taste of the difficulties of life away from high school. However, it’s not only the teenage protagonist that grows up during the film: the band members and their entourage live a self-destructive lifestyle, and end up changing their ways. The film is based on real experiences from the life of the director (Cameron Crowe), and has been consequently praised for its realism and accurate portrayal of the 1970s rock scene.

Boyz ’n the Hood | © Columbia Pictures
Boyz ’n the Hood | Ⓒ Columbia Pictures

Boyz ’n the Hood

Written off by many as simply being another gangster movie, Boyz ’n the Hood focuses more on the experiences of a group of boys growing up in a poor neighborhood in South Central LA. Although there are some gangster elements to the film, it is more about the boys growing up in an environment surrounded by violence, racism, and few opportunities to better themselves. Each of the boys ends up taking a different direction, and the film shows how both external circumstances and their own decisions can have an effect on their lives as they mature into adults. The film was one of the first to focus on African-American ghetto life from such a profound standpoint.

American Beauty | © DreamWorks SKG
American Beauty | Ⓒ DreamWorks SKG

American Beauty

One of the few coming-of-age films that focuses on an adult as its main protagonist, American Beauty stars Kevin Spacey as a bored suburban father going through a mid-life crisis. The plot centers around the father of the family developing a crush on his daughter’s best friend, an infatuation which saves him from slipping into depression due to his mundane existence. The situation forces him to re-assess his life, his work, his marriage, his family, and he gradually starts trying to become somebody that he wants to be, rather than what society expects him to be. Although the film has its witty moments, on the whole it is rather heavy and involves some intense but brilliant performances.

Boyhood | © IFC Productions
Boyhood | Ⓒ IFC Productions

Boyhood

Boyhood was filmed at various intervals between 2002 and 2013, before being released in 2014 as a film depicting a boy growing up between the ages of 6 and 18. The events are fictional, but there was never a full script – the director changed the direction of the plot depending on how the filming went of the previous segment, or whether the cast wanted to incorporate their own real-life experiences into the film. The film was originally released on a limited basis, but showings were then greatly expanded due to the film’s popularity. The way that the film is shot, portraying only certain intervals in the protagonist’s life, is effective in showing how certain experiences can be seemingly unrelated, but together add to a person’s character and make them who they are.

Good Will Hunting | © Lawrence Bender Productions
Good Will Hunting | Ⓒ Lawrence Bender Productions

Good Will Hunting

Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who also star, Good Will Hunting is about a 20-year-old trapped in a job for which he is far too intelligent, and who has not managed to achieve his full potential. As part of a wonderful job opportunity he begins talking to a therapist, who forces him to reassess where he wants to be, what he wants to do, and who his friends are. The dialogue is praised for being realistic, as well as for not being simplified just for the purpose of reaching larger audiences; one of the themes of the film is the protagonist’s intelligence, and this is clearly reflected in how the script and plot have been constructed.