Coming of age is a necessary and fascinating part of life. It’s awkward, messy, and almost never goes the way we planned. First loves, new friends, and the kick start to life ambitions – this time in a person’s life often shapes what they like and who they’ll become. Lucky for us – cinema has been there to capture every step to the way.
John Hughes both lampooned and sympathized high school stereotypes while Cameron Crowe sought out a more sentimental and honest mentality. Richard Linklater seems to try and accurately capture every stage of a young person’s life while Wes Anderson takes a more absurdist approach.
There are and have been so many filmmakers who have entered coming of age flicks into the lexicon, seeking to ignite conversation of the world around us or preserve times, places, and fads that speak to young people.
They comfort us during the troubled times of breakups and bad grades – they make us feel like we’re not alone. These days, films about growing up are standard – with many old and new shaping how people in fact come of age in their daily life. And while there seems to being monthly releases of movies with growing up themes – there are certainly some that ring true or stand out brighter than others.
If you’re a fan of these films, you’ll want to read 101 Most Influential Coming of Age Movies; a colorful index and analysis of the very best films of the genre. Exploring each decade in film and youth history, you can purchase your copy on Amazon.
A decade that changed the way we live – the nineties was full of color, controversy, and the boom of technology. From the official launch of the World Wide Web (viewable on home monitors) to the influx of cellular phones, the switch to digital was fast.
Cinema-wise, epics like Jurassic Park (1993) and Titanic (1997) astounded audiences with never before seen worlds thanks to a little help from computers.
Dark west coast grunge and poppy boy bands filled the airwaves. From Macaulay Culkin to Tom Cruise, the decade offered a mix bag in entertainment. Epics got bigger while a more “do it yourself” approach led to an independent movement that changed what we could both show or see.
Here are the very best coming of age movies of the 1990’s:
1. Mermaids (1990)
Cher was at this point a newly Oscar winning powerhouse actress and Winona Ryder was an up and coming teen star fresh off of Beetlejuice (1988). Here, we get a much softer and well rounded performance from the two. Cher plays a single Mother, trying to raise her two daughters in a rural town during the mid nineteen sixties.
As one relies on her heavily, the other rebels (whilst simultaneously trying to become a nun). The relationships are great here; very fresh since we see a mother confused on why her daughter isn’t as rebellious and outgoing as she was at that age.
Embracing sexual awakenings and the differences we all have, Mermaids seems conventional and straight forward but holds together a sweet story that is wonderfully anything but.
2. Boyz in the Hood (1991)
Director John Singleton became one of the youngest best director nominees of all time (and one of the only African Americans) for his debut film.
A stark look at black violence, we follow a young boy living with his Father (elegantly played by a strong but touching Lawrence Fishburne). He teaches his son about violence and responsibility which forever hangs over his head as he pursues gang life. A career maker for Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Junior – the facts are finely put here.
Unless the cycle of racism and black on black violence ends – there is little hope for ghetto born African American families. A tough question to answer, the film incredibly shows this world without apologies. The children’s drawings of what they see in their neighborhood are almost enough to illustrate the film’s haunting point.
3. My Girl (1991)
There’s a lot going on in this film – an adult romance admittedly broken up by children and two youngsters themselves realizing that opposites attract and love is very much a real thing.
We follow a young girl who has lost her Mother and helps her Father run a funeral parlor. She makes a friend in school that gets on her nerves while eventually tugging on her heart strings.
That boy of course is Macaulay Culkin – the king of nineties kid cinema. His adorable smile and talent for fear, bravery, and of course sweetness launched him into a quick career that gave us some quality children entertainment. He is arguably at his most compelling here. Sweet and old fashioned, My Girl was followed with an admirable sequel three years later.
4. Singles (1992)
Cameron Crowe was just about the go to guy when it came to coming of age flicks in the new decade. Here, he illustrates the trendy west coast lifestyle filled with coffee houses, grunge rock, and slacker mentalities.
We follows six friends in their twenties contend with relationships, success, unwanted pregnancies, and hanging around drinking coffee. Sound familiar? Singles was rumored to have inspired the hit NBC show Friends.
While the film may not be laugh out loud, it still does amuse and strike a chord with people of the same age. Sometimes garage door openers, a dating video (nowadays Tinder) match, or attention from somebody is all we need to aspire to or keep going. A seminal must watch for struggling new adults. Plus Pearl Jam and Tim Burton make bizarre but fantastic cameos.
5. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Arguably the most beloved teenager film – we follow Richard Linklater’s love letter to the seventies by celebrating the last day of classes on May 28th 1976. A group of teenagers, some popular, some not, all head to the same party where they try to get their priorities straight and a good buzz on.
Constantly aided by a killer classic soundtrack, we see young stars like Ben Affleck ham it up. Of course no one is quite as memorable as Matthew Mcconaughey who plays a permanently stoned older dude still cruising after younger girls.
Little is achieved beyond Aerosmith tickets and beer, but that’s exactly the type of goals you would want in a film like this. Identifiable and fun, this one makes younger audiences wish they grew up in the carefree party hardy decade. Laced in all the fun is a few moments of heart and adolescent confusion that is burned away but a haze of marijuana smoke.
6. The Sandlot (1993)
You’re killing me Smalls! A true ode to baseball, the loose flick follows a new kid on the block trying to fit in with the local baseball team. Through their games, they try to harness the power of the Great Bambino while braving the Beast that lives in Mr. Mertle’s horrible war zone of a yard.
Beyond the sporting events is a great lesson on fitting in, making friends, and the limits of how to do so. Even further are some amazing set pieces that highlight the small town innocent fifties setting like tricking Wendy Peffercorn into a kiss and trying not to hurl on the fourth of July fair rides.
Fun, easy going, and structured relatively loosely – the bond between teammates is enviable and certainly quotable. The boys grow up, cherish the simple days before women and responsibility, and get big into the sixties, never to be heard from again.
7. This Boy’s Life (1993)
Leo DiCaprio got his first big role in the little known film – opposite Robert De Niro who apparently taught him a thing or two about acting on set. Leo is young here – barely a teenager who struggles to fit in at school while the absence of a Father haunts him.
When his Mother meets a new man – alcohol plays a factor and turns the man into a raging bull. He abuses and terrorizes the kid which pushes him further into a world of anger and rebellion.
Leo shows off his acting chops early on while De Niro delivers another powerhouse performance. Their relationship is rocky and fascinating, sadly based on the true stories of writer Tobias Wolff.
Falling into a category with other abuse films like Radio Flyer (1992), This Boy’s Life is a necessary and brutal chronicle on the effects fractured families and violence has. While it faded into a bit of obscurity, Leo arrived on scene and began a great run in bold teen cinema.
8. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
What truly cemented Dicaprio’s career was the offbeat drama where he played an autistic teen growing up in a rural Midwest town. Johnny Depp perfectly assumes the role of his quiet older brother who keeps the family afloat.
With the absence of a father figure, a Mother so obese she cannot leave the house, and few friends to get him through the day – Depp’s character Gilbert struggles to keep sane.
When the wonderfully weird Juliette Lewis passes by – Gilbert falls head over heels and embarks on a subtle but life changing romance.
The relationship between the two male actors is priceless – they seem genuine. Dicaprio earned his first Oscar nomination, kicking off his twenty some odd year losing streak. His determination was our gain. This one perfectly nestles in viewers hearts with sweet lessons on family values, small town living, and brotherly connections.