Of all the genre types there is one that doesn’t quite fit into any other bucket of movies. These movies themselves are complex and rarely made, but when they are done right they tend to bridge popular audiences and critical acclaim. They are about people who also don’t quite fit. They are often referred to as “coming of age” movies, and with such a lame title it’s no wonder there is not a giant video header at the rental stores for “Coming of Age” movies.
Some of these are really just “teen angst” movies. Some of the best of these for mid-teens, documenting the high school experience, are Clueless with Alicia Silverstone, 10 Things I Hate About You with Heath Ledger, The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles with Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald, Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden with James Dean, West Side Story, Tex with Matt Dillon, Crossroads and The Karate Kid, both starring Ralph Macchio, and even The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland, where Dorothy establishes a defining piece of the genre–dreaming of “getting out of Dodge” (OK, Wichita, so close enough).
A younger teen focus subset of these films, where kids are either turning into teens or otherwise encountering adult situations at a young age, include Bless the Beasts and Children, Lucas, Stand by Me, Angus, The Sandlot, A Christmas Story, Explorers, the Harry Potter films, Super 8, and a superb superhero genre crossover called Sky High, that is one of those movies that pulls itself apart from the typical kid-centric flick by brilliantly delving into kids’ relationships with each other.
One film proves we probably shouldn’t stop with three subsets of the coming of age film, and reflects the universal nature of life in change. A film that covers the same themes yet for the transition from college to the “rest of life” is Buck Henry and Michael Nichols’ The Graduate. The Graduate launched the careers of Dustin Hoffman (All the Presidents’ Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, Midnight Cowboy, Rainman, Tootsie) and Katherine Ross (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives, Donnie Darko). The subject is simple, yet believable and accessible, stuck in a rut, not ready to move onward, a recent college graduate needs some impetus to get moving forward. In the 1960s of this movie, Hoffman and Ross’s characters step forward at the end, but you get the feeling the “coming of age” for them is still far outside their reach. Similar elements of angst, alienation, and change are reflected in films of the older set, like St. Elmo’s Fire, Do the Right Thing, Lords of Dogtown, Wayne’s World, Shaun of the Dead, and even the 1976 movie Car Wash.
The subset of the genre targeted at older teens, those teens at the end of high school transitioning to “the rest of their lives” (or at least trying to) stand separately as their own class of film. The greatest of these reach cult status, and often include all-star casts before they were to become stars. Very likely it is these films that propelled the young actors into bigger roles as a next step in their careers because we, the audience, love these characters, and when we like characters we latch onto the actors that portrayed them. Sometimes these themes cross into other genres that take over the film, such as the sci-fi film The Last Starfighter–where a teen must decide not whether to stay in town and work or go to college, but be a starfighter and save the universe. Let’s look at a few of these classics that should be on your must-see list:
AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973). Even if George Lucas never came up with Star Wars he would have been remembered for creating this masterpiece of cinema. All the key criteria of the genre are covered here: (1) fascination with cars, including races and chases; (2) incredible music, both as soundtrack as well as being listened to by the characters throughout the film; (3) teen rebellion, like pulling the rear axle off a police car (!), drinking, smoking, etc.; (4) alienation–one or more nerds, here exemplified by Charles Martin Smith’s Terry, who does the impossible, getting not only a girl, but THE girl, here Debbie (played by Candy Clark), and contrasted with the “cool kids,” (5) fitting in and not fitting in; (6) angst–Richard Dreyfuss’s Curt is the archetype for angst-ridden teen, not knowing his own abilities, uncertain and nervous about the next step in life: college; (7) life choices: Go to college? Go to which college? Join the military? Work in the garage at home?, (8) teens dealing with sex, and (9) an all-star or before-they-were all-star cast, launching careers: Here that includes Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Harrison Ford. Why do audiences of all ages relate to these themes? Is it because we all continue to go through choices, decisions, and angst every day moving forward?
GREASE (1978). The PG-13 rating really reflects components of all the films on this genre list: “sexual content including references, teen smoking and drinking, and language.” Showing that you can successfully deal with the transitional phases of life in musical version like West Side Story (who doesn’t like music at any level in these movies?) here the 1970s portrays the 1950s again (this time 1959) as did American Graffiti. Social strata, growing up rich or poor, from the south or west or north or east side–it all has meaning in the genre. Like Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story this is focused on high school teens–yet Sandy is thinking about college and Danny and Sandy each need to figure out who they want to be when school is out.
FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982). With American Graffiti documenting the American teen experience of the 1950s in the 1970s, Fast Times reflected the day. Who is more of a classic rebel than Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli? Full of both nerds and chock full of household name actors to-be, like Penn, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Nicholas Cage, Forest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards, Judge Reinhold and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Fast Times included another piece of the genre, generational slang.
THE OUTSIDERS (1983). Probably the biggest film to launch careers of teen actors is The Outsiders. Francis Ford Coppola was harassed by a high school class to make this film and finally agreed to do it. Socs vs. Greasers. Literally kids from opposite sides of the tracks. Matt Dillon plays Dallas, the ultimate teen anti-hero. C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio again, the poster actor of the genre, play the alienated unlikely rebels with heroes within screaming to get out. This one launched the careers of Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, and Diane Lane. For teens who think they are alone, that the crap piled on them only happens to them, like the other films on this list, The Outsiders illustrates that everyone is an outsider sometime.
FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986). Although it is Matthew Broderick’s character Ferris Bueller’s sister Jeannie, played by Jennifer Grey, that really shows the teen experience in the high school of 1986, it is Bueller and his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), that are soon moving away to separate colleges. Bueller rebels differently than most characters in this genre, yet is he really any different from Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times or Curt in American Graffiti?
SAY ANYTHING (1989). You don’t have to have an ensemble cast to make your point and here a small cast illustrates dealing with adult issues early, struggling with who you want to be and what you want to do. If you don’t want to make something bought or sold, sell anything made or bought or buy anything made or sold, John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler feels your pain. Cusack, Ione Skye and Lili Taylor form a great team to reflect angst and confusion. Dobler standing at the Gas and Sip with a bunch of “losers”–and Dobler leaving them behind, is what the genre is all about. And blaring your stereo from the street so the girl of your dreams hears you to apologize outside her window–again, music is key to a classic like this one and made that single image iconic.
DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993). Here the 1990s plays the 1970s, almost cementing the cyclical nature of these themes as a part of the genre. The highs and lows of partying, friendship, and rebellion. Every bit as much a classic film as American Graffiti, with authentic (not so cool) clothing and very cool cars, this movie probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves from a huge cast of good young actors. Like some of the other films above, this one was an early film for later big names, like Milla Jovovich, Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, and Parker Posey.
ORANGE COUNTY (2002). Orange County is one of those films you can watch over and over, with Colin Hanks’s Shaun Brumder a wanna-be writer whose high school guidance counselor (Lily Tomlin) sends the wrong stats to his college of choice. His girlfriend wants him to stay home. His brother (played by Jack Black) chose to stay home and shows Shaun what he doesn’t want. A mentor emerges in the form of a professor played by Kevin Kline at just the right time. Like Ron Howard in American Graffiti, Shaun makes a different choice from his friends, a different path than he’d originally planned.
SUPERBAD (2007). Christopher Mintz-Plasse takes Charles Martin Smith’s alienated nerd full circle in Superbad as the self-named “McLovin.” Despite being the third wheel in the film, he manages to conquer all the roles of the myriad of characters throughout all the above films. Speeding along with Van Halen’s “Panama” blaring as he buddies up with two local police officers, McLovin practically gets arrested trying to buy beer, and ends up setting fire to a police car in a near parody of the genre. And he gets the girl. Future Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill and pal Michael Cera show what good friends will and won’t do for each other as Hill’s character learns Cera’s character will be rooming with McLovin at college. Yet it all works out somehow, after the “quest for beer” and obligatory party, and Hill’s character giving his girlfriend an inadvertent black eye. Superbad proves the genre stays strong, and that the themes of life in transition remain universal and accessible to movie audiences.