By Avery Benbow
Coming-of-age… it’s real, relatable, and all too relevant for those graduating or taking on new responsibilities at this time of the year. Whether it’s a story that makes you well up or fist-pump in the air (or maybe both), the coming-of-age genre is a quintessential aspect of pop culture, but a deeply complicated one. So, what is this genre, and why is it important? Look no further for answers, and to quote one of the best coming-of-age movies of all time (of which I will include a list), How to Train Your Dragon, “Let me show you.”
What is the coming-of-age genre?
The coming-of-age genre contains stories, whether as movies or books, that are “defined by the loss of childhood innocence” [The Beat, 2022]. This occurs as the protagonist explores formative and challenging experiences, usually for the first time as a rite of passage. While the protagonist is usually a young person in high school on the edge of adulthood (or 17), this isn’t always the case as growing up isn’t confined to a set point in life and a specific process.
The beauty of the aforementioned rite of passage lies in the fact it could be lighthearted or controversial, universal or individual. Whether it be a first love, coming to an awareness of sexuality, death, or the world, forming relationships or growing personally. This allows for versatility through blending traditional genres, like comedy, drama, action, and horror, due to the sheer diversity of an authentic “transition from innocence to experience” [The Spartan Shield, 2021].
This variety comes from the non-static nature of our continuously evolving senses of self as humans. This gives the genre the potential to achieve “a deeper spiritual meaning or epiphany within the protagonist’s journey” [Raindance, 2018], through greater commentary on humanity, relationships, self-acceptance, and society.
How has the coming-of-age genre evolved?
Like anything, the genre has evolved, becoming more inclusive in its protagonists and focus. This has furthered “the universality of coming-of-age” [The Stanford Daily, 2019], whereas previously on-screen representations of teenagers were a rarity.
Initially, literature was the sole method of telling coming-of-age stories, and early film depictions were often adaptations of that literature, for example, Little Women. These tended to be quite one-dimensional, focusing on the struggles of audiences of the time, but always with societally “successful” outcomes. Later, the emergence of coming-of-age as an independent genre that took place in the 1970s-80s allowed it to feature more diverse stories and outcomes. Additionally, this period created many of the tropes that influence modern-day coming-of-age movies, and many remain classics.
These ‘70s films usually focused on protagonists coming to an increased awareness of difficulties in mature relationships and the decline of their hometowns, for example, in George Lucas’ American Graffiti. The ‘80s paved the way for the critical and commercial hits of John Hughes, with Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off providing examples of the increased number of films featuring teenagers. This increased popularity also allowed for further exploration of “heavy topics with comedic flare and authenticity” [The Beat, 2022], such as in Stand by Me and Dead Poet’s Society, which both dealt with death as a main theme.
However, while there are some gems, humour used in some older “coming-of-age movies relating to consent, sexual assault, and homophobia wouldn’t be appropriate in today’s time… [using] minority characters as punchlines rather than depicting them as three-dimensional humans” [Kevin Gaffney]. As a result, recent coming-of-age films and books have been becoming more inclusive and diverse of underrepresented stories, despite decreases in blockbuster success. For example, further explorations of race, mental health, and sexuality have taken place in films like Moonlight and Dear Evan Hansen.
Overall, there is progress to be made in inclusivity, however, coming-of-age has remained grounded, as seen for example in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. And this has given it the potential to continue evolving towards an authentic and inclusive presentation of an experience shared by all of humanity: growing up.
Why is the coming-of-age genre important to me?
Finally, my reflections on the importance of the genre. Graduation is here (again), and while that creates happiness and hope, it also symbolises the greater constants of growing up and moving on (willingly or otherwise). At this time in our lives when emotions are “amplified by the intensity of the “blossom of youth” [The Stanford Daily, 2019], it’s comforting to know that there is a method for me to look back on the difficult and confusing years of growing up with a fond familiarity.
Because despite the troubles life throws in the past, present or future, I’ve found coming-of-age to strongly demonstrate that the journey matters more than the outcomes. And while I haven’t found one perfect book or movie that has encapsulated the essence of my youth, that doesn’t matter. This is because the little pieces of myself and others that have been captured in coming-of-age books and television have also captured my heart. And I do not doubt that these stories will continue to give those who hear, read or watch them the chance to stay forever young.
At the end of the day, this is because it doesn’t matter whether the experiences I bear witness to are mine or that of someone completely different to me. Coming-of-age is capable of blurring the lines between universality and individuality, whether through the disillusionment of adolescence, the empowerment of graduation, or any number of things. It lets me come home to my inner child, teenager, and adult, and let them reconcile through the reality of the struggles, and joys, of what it is to be human.
Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for… my recommendations (and why). For the record, this is an intensively selective list, privy to my preferences and pop-culture exposure, and even so, there were many I wanted to include but didn’t make the final cut. That being said, I’d highly suggest checking any/all of these out on your next movie night/reading session, I have seen and read a lot of coming-of-age, so this list comes from experience. Also, if you think I’m going to be listing the Kissing Booth, you are wasting your time.
The Book Thief: my favourite book of all time (if anyone references the movie in front of me just know you were warned), it’s a heartfelt insight into both the cultural context and personal journey of a foster child in WWII Germany. Spanning over the years, character growth is facilitated more by the passing of time in a complex environment than by a concentrated event. This creates a very authentic story, despite the extreme circumstances, creating more character-reader connections than I have ever experienced in reading literature.
To Kill a Mockingbird: This timeless classic, while not including the comedy and romance that coming-of-age often does, is similar to The Book Thief in its exploration of defining moments in a young person’s life. Extending throughout protagonist Scout’s childhood, this book delivered, what was at the time of publishing, groundbreaking social commentary on racism in the American South. This was provided along with a heartbreaking journey taken as the protagonist comes to a gradual understanding of the complex world into which she was born.
The Outsiders: a thought-provoking novel that captures the bitter-sweetness behind “teenage angst,” which was written by a 17-year-old herself. Following a young ‘greaser’ and his friends through their lives on the wrong side of the tracks, as he combats authority, the law, and rich ‘Socs,’ we get to know Ponyboy as he tries to come to terms with the childhood innocence he feels doesn’t have any remaining place in his life.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: While whether or not Christopher, the protagonist, has autism (it’s debated but we love any neurodivergent representation), the book presents quite an underutilised view of the world, providing a refreshing delve into personal development. Overall, an interesting and enjoyable read, outside of the murder mystery plot, which is exciting in and of itself.
Little Women: an obvious groundbreaker for the coming-of-age genre, by being focused on women (imagine!), specifically on heart-warming female relationships and the course of four sisters’ lives.
My Brilliant Friend: essentially the same female centrality as Little Women, except more gritty and complicated in relationships, character growth, plotlines, and basically everything, also very Italian. In any case, at the end of the first book, my jaw dropped - the drama is INSANE.
Blueback: Imagine a story taking place throughout a lifetime, now imagine a beautiful mother-son relationship, now imagine incredible Australian ocean imagery and wildlife protection. I present to you: Blueback, arguably the best work of Tim Winton (nobody thinks that but me, thanks a lot Cloudstreet) - a simple, calming presentation of coming home, and the relationships, human or not, that last a lifetime.
The Rabbit Proof Fence: This heartbreaker of a book (there’s also an incredible film - both were based on a true story) follows three Indigenous girls as they attempt to return home after being stolen from their families. Their incredible adversary in the face of exposure to the brutal world is nothing less than inspiring, and one can do nothing but root for them throughout.
The Librarian of Auschwitz: a personal favourite of mine that follows a young Jewish prisoner of Auschwitz, Dita, as she grows in herself, surviving throughout the trials of concentration camp life. A testament to the power of hope and beauty in the darkest of places, something I think the world needs to appreciate more.
Bridge to Terabithia / Because of Winn Dixie: While I know this is quite irrational, in my head these are essentially the same book. I read them at similar times, and they’re both small-town America, pre-pubescent protagonists, heartbreaking, yet sweet, simple reads. Also, in both of the movie adaptations the main character was played by AnnaSophia Robb, so I think I can be forgiven for the confusion.
Fairly obvious ones I feel need no explanation or haven’t read yet:
The Hate U Give
Anne of Green Gables
Where the Crawdads Sing
The Secret Life of Bees
Stand by Me: This part-adventure story of 4 boys going in search of a dead body (don’t worry, no graphics) is my all-time favourite movie. It’s a timeless classic with so much heart, brilliantly showcasing character bonding and their experiences both as a collective and as individuals. I love this film so much for its humility in not trying to be more than what it is, while simultaneously stepping up to the challenge of dealing with darker issues of death, bullying, and socioeconomic discrimination. And while it doesn’t end with all things, if anything, resolved, it takes you on a journey that will leave both you and the characters changed forever.
Now and Then: This is essentially the female version of the above movie, however, takes place throughout a summer, rather than in one journey. Dealing with similar themes, it provides an alternate take on finding your place among friends, and within yourself.
Booksmart: a brilliant example of wide relatability coming from a very specific social situation, as two studious best friends decide to break the rules and party before graduation. Though only released in 2019, many consider it to be a modern classic, through both its relatability in the two girls’ experiences and general memories of high school, as well as through its fun self-awareness as the plot spirals into somewhat insanity.
Any Hayao Miyazaki film, for example, Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo: do these need an introduction? In my opinion, anything Miyazaki is coming-of-age gold, with their young protagonists navigating often complicated dilemmas or family dynamics. In any case, they’re complex, beautiful, and worth a good watch.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Following the story of shy and slightly awkward Charlie through his first year of high school, this film provides a sensitive representation of mental health, trauma and bullying in the lives of him and his friends. And while it doesn’t speak to everyone, I found the frankness behind the characters’ journeys made the hope that was present all the more profoundly enjoyable, yet heartbreaking, to watch.
Bend It Like Beckham: I enjoyed this movie for its thoughtful depiction of a teenager fighting for her passion, soccer, while also dealing with the conflicts it creates within her family. Outside of the romance, definitely a fun watch.
How to Train Your Dragon: The fact that I’d even have to explain this one feels absurd to me, but why not? A quick summary of the three movies is “A Boy with his Dragon”. But that doesn’t do the movies justice, because they are truly perfection (and so is their soundtrack)! The first one is about finding yourself, the second one is about growing up, and the third one is about letting go overall, incredible movies should be a standard bucket-list item.
Fairly obvious ones I feel need no explanation or haven’t seen yet:
The Karate Kid
Dead Poets’ Society
Any John Hughes films, e.g., Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club