The coming-of-age story in film

The coming-of-age story chronicles the journey from adolescence to adult. It explores the young person’s changing perception of the world — from a simplistic and naive notion, to a more rounded, experience-based understanding. These stories cover: sexual exploration, conflict with the adult world (hypocrisy, and power structures), friendship, personal identity, and self-reliance.

The genre predates film, going back into the world of literature: The Telemachy in Homer’s Odyssey (8th Century BC), The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759). The Catcher in the Rye (1951) sets the tone for more recent stories, with a naive central character, an informal, conversational first person narrative, and an unreliable narrator — all ingredients of the more recent The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003).

In Stand by Me (1986), a classic coming-of-age story, an adult writer reminisces about his childhood friends, his bitter-sweet commentary, drawing on hindsight and nostalgia. It’s a story about loss: four adolescents go in search of a dead body in the woods (mirroring the death of the narrator’s brother in a recent accident). The story explores mortality, change, the end of an era, and ‘moving on’. While the narrator observes that his friends are imprisoned by the town, he is a prisoner of his memories.

Set in 1959, in a small town, in the classic era of Americana, Stand by Me is steeped in nostalgia for the past: ‘50s music, juvenile banter, ridiculous fireside stories, adolescents trying to act like adults, and the mystery of the road ahead. The four friends face a series of challenges that reveal their core identity — what and who they will become as adults: the low achiever; the misfit; the leader and problem solver; and the sensible observer.

Metropolitan (1990) combines a comedy of manners with an end of an era story. Adolescents are momentarily brought together — in this case through their affluent, middle class backgrounds and social networks — and go through a rite of passage, a kind of social purgatory, where the central character must decide what he wants, which turns out to be the realisation that he is attracted to a female character that he was dismissive of. The atmosphere — like Stand by Me — is one of transience and change. The entry test into the adult world — and self-actualisation — is being able to deal with a bully, before finally moving on.

Other examples of coming-of-age films include: American Graffiti (1973), and Dazed and Confused (1993) where the rite of passage occurs over the course of a single night; Empire of the Sun (1987), Boyhood (2014), and the television series The Wonder Years (1988 – 1993) take place over an extended period; Y Tu Mamá También (2001) emphasises sexual discovery; The Inbetweeners Movie, (2011), Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008) and Superbad (2007) send their main characters on quests to earn themselves a romantic relationship, and to gain worldly experience (beyond merely acting like adults); and Max Fischer in Rushmore (1998) must reconcile his idealised, romantic preconceptions of the world with hard-won friendships and relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.

Coming-of-age films often rely on a main narrator, who looks back at their experience, commenting with a sense of nostalgia, drawing on the wisdom of hindsight, tempering youthful emotion and excitement with a sense of perspective that can only be gained through the passage of time. And while their youthful experiences are brought to life with exciting encounters and adventures, their memories are tinged with the melancholy of acknowledging the loss of innocence, youth, and early friendships.