It’s not easy growing up. Though most of us don’t fight any villains or stop any world-threatening plots as teenagers, we all endure frightening new emotional experiences that make this specific, formative time of life uniquely memorable. That might explain why so many filmmakers make films about something as innocuous and universal as growing up, drawing on their own unique experiences to depict the dizzying emotional highs and lows that characterize adolescence. Every year at least a few films tread the same well-worn territory of the subject, but these six coming-of-age movies somehow manage to find something new and worthwhile to say about growing up.
Superbad may seem like a high school film of the American Pie variety, more concerned with outrageous antics and sexual embarassment than actual character development, but the script by real-life high school buddies Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen has a lot more going on than period blood and phallic fixations. The odd couple at the movie’s center, reserved, awkward Evan and boisterous doofus Seth, spend most of the runtime chasing girls and booze, but the night eventually comes back to their surprisingly touching friendship, the relationship that truly defines their vanishing adolescence.
2. Dazed and Confused
Marketed as a fun party movie about stoners in the ’70s, Dazed and Confused is actually little more than a day in the life of dozens of high school students on their final day of class in 1976. Rather than focus on one character, director Richard Linklater takes a cue from his only earlier film, Slacker, and lets his camera wander between ever-fluid friend groups to capture an all-encompassing view of a very specific adolescent experience that somehow still feels universal. Every character is memorable, and though there aren’t many life-altering events in this decidedly quiet movie, the well-observed detail lets us see the tiny moments of maturation and clarity that can occur over the course of a single night.
3. The Spectacular Now
This underseen indie sleeper stars two of Hollywood’s more formidable young talents, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, as an unlikely high school couple whose romance turns out to be pivotal for both their lives, even if it’s probably doomed to failure from the beginning. Fun-loving Sutter and reserved Aimee come from different friend groups but form an intimate but codependent bond shortly before the end of their senior year. As sweet and dysfunctional as their romance is, this movie is truly about Sutter, a lovable buddy whose young life might soon be derailed by his crippling fear of responsibility and success.
Wes Anderson’s first great movie concerns the maturation of both prep school student Max Fischer and his teacher mentor Herman Bloom, driven by their unrequited feelings for the same woman. As portrayed by Jason Schwartzman, Max is a spot-on depiction of an overly-ambitious wunderkind trying his best to act like an adult when he’s really just struggling to get through his adolescence and transcend a modest home life he’s ashamed of. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Rushmore has a firm grasp on the desperation and selfishness of adolescent infatuation and the unlikely role it plays in helping Max and Herman grow past the facades they put up around themselves.
5. The Last Picture Show
Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show has all the ingredients for a nostalgic look at small town life in the 1950s, but the filmmaker eschews sentimentality in favor of a profoundly depressing honesty. Adolescent life in this tiny Texas town revolves around the movie theater, though the gradual death of the town due to economic depression eventually forces the theater shut down. Friendships and romance aren’t quite enough to keep the kids happy in such a lonely setting, as their sexual encounters are treated more like bland transactions. In the end, Bogdanovich sees little way out for his characters trapped in this tragic town, except maybe joining the army and dying overseas.
6. Ghost World
You probably knew a couple girls in high school like the ones depicted in Ghost World — purposeful anti-conformists who delight in campy pop culture and spend much of their time lovingly poking fun at other people, even people who are supposed to be their friends. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson bring these recently graduated characters from Daniel Clowes’s classic graphic novel to life with a degree of tender sympathy that makes it easy to laugh along with Rebecca and Enid, even as they learn the harm their so-called fun can cause when Enid befriends lovable loser Seymour (Steve Buscemi). By focusing on the summer after senior year, director Terry Zwigoff captures so much about growing up — the slow drift apart of lifelong friends, the difficulty of empathizing with others, the fear of whatever direction your life may soon take, and so much more.