7. Somersault (2004) Dir. Cate Shortland
Developing sexuality is a big part of puberty and its often confusing, especially for idealistic girls. Australian director Cate Shortland tackles the topic with great beauty and sensitivity in her 2005 indie Somersault.
Heidi is a lovely, curious teenager just beginning to tap into her sexuality. In a moment of impulsiveness she kisses her mother’s boyfriend and is consequently kicked out of her house. She travels to the mountain town of Jyndabine, sleeps around for shelter before eventually finding lodging in a motel. There, she strikes up a relationship with a handsome but emotionally distant young man.
Abbie Cornish brings an element of purity and sweetness to role of Heidi. In other hands, the character may just come off as irrational and promiscuous, but Cornish conveyed an undermining sense of shame and pervasive longing. All in all, a wonderful film about human nature and redemption.
6. Sixteen Candles (1984) Dir. John Hughes
It was difficult to put only one John Hughes movie on here as his name has become synonymous with coming-of-age and adolescent experience, and rightly so. Sixteen Candles, however, might be his best.
In general, a lighthearted and humorous take on growing up, the movie provides many hilarious moments as well as an excellent supporting performance by Anthony Michael Hall. Yes, the movie may have a preposterous, idealistic ending, but all the same, there is some true validity here.
Molly Ringwald brings a lovely authenticity to the gawky and “utterly forgettable” high school sophomore Samantha. We’ve all crushed hard on that unattainable boy and we’ve all gazed at him awkwardly (and obviously) during class. Most of us have shed some tears at a high school dance and we’ve all been embarrassed by our families.
Sixteen Candles is and undeniable classic and its not to be missed. Just try to ignore the obscene racism written into the character of Long Duc Dong and remember…it was the 80s.
5. Turn Me On, Dammit! (2011) Dir. Jannicke Systad Jacobsen
Female sexual autonomy is rarely seen in film. There are a few early frontrunners; Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home are a few examples, but the number of these films are miniscule when compared to the plethora of sexually voracious men present onscreen. For some reason the sight of a woman enjoying herself or taking sexual pleasure into her own hands is still relatively taboo.
Jannicke Systad Jacobsen broke all those taboos with her revolutionary 2012 film Turn Me On, Dammit!. In some ways, this movie is like the female answer to American Pie, but with more sensitivity and less crass humor.
Here, we see Alma masturbating to telephone sex hotlines, we see her sexual fantasies and not just the ones about the boy she likes, but also her bitchy friend and her gross middle aged boss. We see her sit on a roll of coins when she is bored at work. Alma’s mind frequently wanders and like many teenagers (male and female) is often wanders to sex, often in unpredictable ways. This movie does not apologize for what it has to say and nor should it.
4. Crooklyn (1994) Dir. Spike Lee
Coming of age gets the Spike Lee Treatment in this stunning, nostalgic, criminally underrated film. Lee takes a nostalgic look as his own adolescence growing up on 1970’s Brooklyn.
Like all of Lee’s films, it’s filled with vibrant local color and quirky characters (Lee himself has a cameo as the glue sniffing, disillusioned youth Snuffy) but the primary focus is on 9-year-old Troy (Zelda Harris) Carmichael and her rambunctious but exceedingly loving family. At the beginning of the film she is chastised by neighborhood peers as “Troy the boy,” she suffers from night sweats, runs from bullies and is an occasional instigator of neighborhood and family skirmishes.
As the film progresses however, life experiences disturb the wooly cotton comfort of her life; her parents’ temporary separation, her first sighting of a transvestite, a visit to her family in the south, and ultimately, a detrimental family tragedy. By the end of the film however, Troy emerges from these experiences with coltish poise; grounded and on the cusp of maturity. This film depicts growing up with so much tenderness; it makes your heart ache.
3. Thirteen (2003) Dir. Catherine Hardwicke
Before Catherine Hardwicke’s name became tarnished by the cinematic abomination that was the Twilight trilogy, she directed and co-wrote a little indie powerhouse called Thirteen.
In brass tacks, the plot revolves around 13-year-old Tracy’s (Evan Rachel Wood in a star making performance) rise and fall within the social ranks of her middle school, her intense, infatuous friendship with queen bee Evie (Nikki Reed) and her consequential loss of innocence. However, the story is also anchored by Tracy’s complex relationship with her mother Mel, a recovering alcoholic (Holly Hunter, who nabbed an Oscar nod for the role).
Thirteen was one of the first films of its kind in terms of graphically depicting underage sex, drug use and self-harm and because of this, it was released under much controversy. Much of the film’s authenticity could be owed to the fact that Reed co-wrote the script with Hardwicke based on her own experiences as a teenager.
Also, both of the girls were very near the age of their characters (14 at the start of the shoot), which is something of a Hollywood rarity. Additionally, though the film was shot with low budget equipment and film, Hardwicke used color saturation techniques in her editing to echo the emotional arch of the story.
2. An Impudent Girl (1985) Dir. Claude Miller
In the opening scene of An Impudent Girl, 13-year-old Charlotte stands with her peers in a queue behind a diving board in gym class. As she trembles, she looks anxiously up at its towering height. One by one the kids jump off, performing tidy dives as the instructor blows his whistle.
When it comes her turn to take the plunge, she freezes on the precipice, biting her nails before covering her eyes and clumsily jumping in. When she emerges from the water, her classmates chastise her cowardice. Few scenes in film have so succinctly characterized the awkwardness of growing up.
The story follows Charlotte Castang. Having grown up without a mother, she lives with her working class father and older brother in a modest house. Her best friend is a sickly young girl named Lulu. Charlotte is intensely dissatisfied with her life and walks around with a chip on her shoulder to say the least.
Made in 1985, An Impudent Girl features the now esteemed Charlotte Gainsbourg in her first major role. She is spectacular in the film. Her androgyny adds to her gawky otherness and her subtle conveyance of longing and ennui foreshadow the considerable skill she would continue develop throughout her admirable career.
1. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) Dir. Todd Solondz
A Todd Solondz film is not for the faint of heart. He is a brutal filmmaker. Brutal in his frankness, brutal in his humor and especially brutal in his language.
Solondz developed the idea for his debut feature Welcome to the Dollhouse after watching and episode of the Wonder Years. “I had been told it was a popular show. I tuned in, and even though its set in a time when I grew up, it bears so little resemblance to the era I knew. So I wrote this script…and put it in a drawer because I was certain it could never be made.”
Indeed, Welcome to the Dollhouse is a far cry from the nostalgic fuzziness that is The Wonder Years. The story follows Dawn Weiner (the fantastic Heather Matarazzo), aka “Weinerdog” a homely, hapless geek awkwardly beginning to wade through the muck of puberty.
She is teased mercilessly at school and overlooked at home. But there is a quiet bravery and strength to Dawn’s character that is fiercely admirable. Despite the merciless nature of the film, it is saturated with black humor and wit. Easily on of the best films about growing up ever made.
Author Bio: Torie Gehrig lives in Chicago. She has been a film buff since childhood and hopes to make one of her own one day.