Along with many other landmarks reached by Moonlight‘s Oscar victory this year, it was also the first coming-of-age film to win Best Picture. To finish the month of celebrating the firsts that Moonlight achieved, here is a list of the best coming-of-age movies that I’ve seen. I’m saddened to say that all of these films are primarily the coming-of-age of male characters. I did have Ida on here eventually but then saw Breaking Away for the first time after so I replaced it, but Ida is the only one I even know of, so if anyone knows any great female coming-of-age films, please let me know.
10. Small Change (1976)
François Truffaut introduces to a classroom in almost a voyeuristic sense. We watch the children relate to other, learn from each other, learn about themselves. We see some learn from their mistakes and others repeat them, all as they start to grow up.
9. A Christmas Story (1983)
For Ralphie, a Red Ryder B.B. gun is a right of passage. He plots, schemes, and fights to in every way he knows how to get his gun, what will in his mind make him a man.
8. Breaking Away (1979)
Dave (Dennis Christopher) needs to “break away” from his family and the friends that are called “cutters” in order to live the life he dreams of. Cycling is the way he tries to do that, but when it doesn’t do all that he wants it to, he also drifts into a fantasy world where he believes himself to be Italian. It’s not so much of a lie or an evil trick when he gets a college girl to like the Italian version of himself, as it is an ignorant attempt to be who he thinks he really is supposed to be. Probably the funniest of all these coming-of-age films other than A Christmas Story, Breaking Away finds great humor in the common struggle of learning who we are.
7. The Lion King (1994)
Run from your pasts, your anger, your hurt, your guilt, your mistakes, your enemies, and from the truth or learn to live? The universal question that all coming-of-age films ask may be told with animated lions, but that doesn’t make it any less of a human story.
6. The 400 Blows (1959)
Another François Truffaut film, The 400 Blows follows a boy who left without any parental attention, guidance, or discipline. We watch him delve into delinquency and eventually a sense of hope as he discovers a way to grow up despite the difficult environment, much like this year’s Oscar winner Moonlight.
5. Captains Courageous (1937)
With an absent but rich father and deceased mother, Harvey is left to grow up with nothing but money until a traumatic event that initially seemed tragic but allowed to meet Manu (Spencer Tracy in the best performance of his career) who became a father figure to him, who modeled life and genuine manhood for him.
4. Boyz N the Hood (1991)
Just coming into adulthood, three young men have to decide if their futures will be determined by their cultural surroundings, their families’ beliefs, their past personal hurt and baggage, or their own desires and pursuits. Watching them navigate these decisions to see whether or not each of them will choose a healthy, productive way of life or a gang life is as intense and riveting as a thriller.
3. Boyhood (2014)
Following the same actor from age 6 to 18, Richard Linklater’s landmark masterpiece shows us its character’s coming of age in a way so unique and so profound that was probably thought impossible before Boyhood.
The theme of family dysfunction and absent parents is common in the coming-of-age films. E.T. is no different as Spielberg said that the movie is his most personal being a child of divorce. The movie for him is not about aliens or anything foreign to the world as we know it but is a movie about divorce. Thankfully, it’s much more than that, it’s a movie about hope that children like Elliot and Spielberg himself can find to grow up in a way that is not defined by the decisions or failures of their parents. Like many of the other movies on this list, Elliot needed help to do that, and his friendship with E.T. gives him that help.
Just like the boy in Captains Courageous, Billy Ray’s family situation has left him stuck as a teenager without a parent willing or able to model healthy development and decision-making. Left for the summer with his father’s girlfriend’s parents, he develops a relationship with Norman (Henry Fonda in the best performance of his career) that gives him what it takes to start coming of age in a more normal sense. The scene where he drives the boat shows him finding independence for the first time in his life; it’s a beautifully shot scene with the perfect music accompanying it. This special coming-of-age moment is one of the greatest scenes in movie history.