What is a coming of age movie? This often heartfelt and nostalgic genre is much beloved, but pinning down exactly what defines one can be a bit of a challenge. In this post, we’ll be doing exactly that. We’ll look at how to define the coming of age genre, then we’ll examine some of the staples of the genre, and finally, we’ll close things out by looking at examples of both traditional and alternative types.

Watch: Breaking Down Coming of Age Movies

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What is a Coming of Age Movie

Let’s define coming of age movie

The coming of age genre is one of many film genres. You can learn about them all in our ultimate guide to movie genres. Like any genre or subgenre, this one has its tropes and cliches. But when done right, these movies can be woven into the cultural fabric for an entire generation.

Coming Of Age Movies Meaning

What is a coming of age movie?

A coming of age movie is centered around the themes of youth, growing up, and maturation with a strong focus on a central character arc. These films follow a singular protagonist as they “come of age,” meaning they progress into the next stage of their life. Protagonists are typically young and facing the first major dilemma, ordeal, or awakening of their life. The genre often centers around major shifts or milestones in a character’s life as they grow up. The coming of age genre can also be found in literature such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Coming of Age Characteristics: 

  • Focused on the arc of the protagonist
  • Typically young characters just before adulthood
  • Centered around major life changes and milestones

What Does Coming of Age Movies Mean

Staples of the coming of age film genre

Coming of age films always include dramatic elements and often inject elements such as comedy or music. They may even blend in other genres such as action or horror, though this is less common.

Most coming of age films include a degree of romance — often the protagonist’s first romantic experience. However, there are exceptions such as Lean on Pete, which contains no humor nor romance, yet is a coming of age film regardless.

Is Lean on Pete an anti-coming-of-age film?  •  Coming of age movies examples

Transitional periods in life are a common focal point for coming of age films. The awkwardness and uncertainty of youth are frequent areas of exploration for the genre as well.

The common themes and pacing of coming of age films lend themselves well to slice-of-life narratives and to highly personal stories. This is why many coming of age films take on an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical nature.

They also often use the writer/director’s own life and experiences as the basis for the protagonist’s journey. Below is a breakdown of Booksmart, one of the best examples to come out in years.

An analysis of Booksmart, a modern coming-of-age classic

Whether a film contains all of the hallmarks of the genre or just a couple of them, there is one aim that all coming of age films strive to capture...

Coming of Age in Movies

The experience of growing up

The act of growing up and all of the trials and tribulations associated with it provide the stomping ground for all coming of age films. High school is likely the most focused-on period of life that coming of age films like to explore.

Movies like Superbad, Juno, Rebel Without a Cause, Lady Bird and Edge of Seventeen all use high-school-aged protagonists.

Why Lady Bird is so great  •  Coming of Age Film

The opening and closing scenes of Booksmart highlight the evolution the characters have gone through, but also shows us that some things will never change. Check out one of the first scenes of the movie, which we imported into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software.

Booksmart script

Here, the writers establish that Molly and Amy are inseparable. Now, take a look at the final scene:

Booksmart screenplay

The first scene is mirrored, emphasizing the duo’s progression. Molly is now driving, and the two are ready to start building their own lives. But the final lines, where they decide to get pancakes before they part, shows us that their friendship is still strong.

That being said, high school isn’t the only period in a protagonist’s life that coming of age films like to explore. Growing up can happen at different ages and in different stages throughout a lifetime.

Characters can be younger, such as in The Fits, the Apu Trilogy, or the absolutely fantastic Eighth Grade.

Why Eighth Grade works so well

Or, the protagonist can be older, and the film can explore slightly different themes involving maturation. For example, the transitional period between high school and college in Everybody Wants Some, the search for purpose post-college in The Graduate, or the awkward shift into adulthood in the instant classic Frances Ha.

Watch our video breakdown of The Graduate's iconic ending. The moment Benjamin and Elaine share is a perfect example of characters unsure of how to handle the next phase of their lives.

The Graduate Video Essay •  Subscribe on YouTube

In the case of Boyhood, all transitional stages of the protagonist’s life are explored from the time when he was six years old all the way into the start of his freshman year of college.

In a way, Boyhood might be the most “complete” coming of age story ever told, and the use of the real passage of time and the aging of the cast all enable the story to be told with unfettered authenticity.

The power of Boyhood  •  Movies about coming of age

We’ve already looked at quite a few examples of coming of age in movies, but let’s close things out by looking at a few more examples and dividing them up into two distinct categories: traditional and alternative.

Define Coming of Age Movie

Traditional examples

Traditional coming of age films are a sort of “you know it when you see it” breed of movie. They have a particular feel, mood, pacing, and general aesthetic. Young characters navigating major life changes, often with comedy and romance blended together with the drama.

This includes films like Almost Famous, The Way Way Back, Submarine, 20th Century Women, and Sing Street amongst many others. Coming of age films frequently make use of great needle drops.

And nowhere is that more evident than in the one-two punch of the musically centered Almost Famous and Sing Street.

Almost Famous video essay  •  Coming of age movies examples

For more coming of age examples, be sure to check out our rundown of the best coming of age films ever made.

Next, let’s examine a few alternative examples.

What is a Coming of Age Movie

Alternative examples

Outside of the more traditional look and feel, we find a number of alternative coming of age films. These are movies that hit the hallmarks of the genre while subverting others or combining elements of other genres like action or horror. 

Badlands injects neo-western and action elements into an alternative coming of age romance. While Let the Right One In, Raw, and Ginger Snaps all use the horror genre to tell coming of age journeys.

Is Raw a masterpiece?  •  Coming of age film meaning

Some alternative coming of age films use the horror elements as clever allegories for matters inherent to the coming of age genre and the awkward process of growing up and maturing.

Raw uses cannibalism to explore budding sexuality, while Ginger Snaps presents a link between turning into a werewolf and the start of menstruation.

Take a look at this conversation between Ginger, her sister, and their school nurse:

Ginger Snaps script PDF

Here, writer Karen Walton utilizes the werewolf/menstruation parallel for comedy. The girls are talking about Ginger becoming a werewolf. The nurse is talking about Ginger becoming a woman.

As Ginger Snaps shows us, coming of age movies don’t just take one form. They can be any genre, any tone, and any style– as long as they show us a character maturing.

Up Next

The Best Coming of Age Movies Ever

Now that you have a thorough understanding of what exactly a coming of age film is, it’s the perfect time to explore the best films that the genre has to offer. Learn more about some of the films mentioned in this post and discover a whole bevy of additional coming of age movies, up next.

Up Next: Best Coming of Age Movies →
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