Youth is wasted on the young! Luckily, cinema preserves the joys and terrors of childhood better than other art forms. The coming of age story was a well-established tradition in literature long before filmmakers began exploring the tribulations of adolescence, but as more attention was paid to the inner lives of children in the 80’s and ’90s, it became its own certified genre — pioneered in the art world by creators like Sophia Coppola and Todd Solondz, or in popular culture by Nickelodeon and Disney.
We’re counting down our favorite coming-of-age movies just in time for Summer. Ranging from excruciatingly painful dark comedies to horror classics to lighthearted comedies — here are the 35 (unranked!) best coming-of-age movies currently available to stream.
Critics universally praised Moonlight, a heartbreaking story about growing up gay and black, for its moving statements about masculinity and its devastatingly impactful story and cinematography. The movie won several Oscars and established director Barry Jenkins as a major cinematic voice of the new millennium.
Megan Fox plays the hottest girl in the high school in this teen horror film that puts a nasty feminist spin on obvious monster movie tropes. Fox is incredible as a seductive succubus, and the movie is filled with hilariously quippy, misandrist one-liners.
Certainly, there’s a certain faction of cinephiles who have tired of caped crusaders, but even the most doubtful of moviegoers couldn’t resist this stunningly gorgeous cartoon. Lots of love clearly went into every single frame of this heartwarming adventure. In this continuity, Miles Morales becomes Spider-Man — but he accidentally opens up portals to other timelines, causing several different iterations of Spider-people to team up and fight crime. Stereotypical superhero hijinks ensue, but there’s an actual story about learning responsibility amidst the action.
So much of American Beauty seems problematic nowadays, but the movie is a perfect time capsule of attitudes about sexuality in 1999. Ostensibly a meditation on the pervasive melancholy of American adulthood — with a Lolita-Esque side story thrown in for good measure — American Beauty somehow swept the Oscars that year. But is it cleverly transgressive or just in bad taste? The answer probably depends on the viewer’s patience for voiceover narration.
This Nickelodeon-produced coming of age story stars Michelle Trachtenberg (better known for her roles in Buffy and Gossip Girl) as an emotionally troubled pre-teen who becomes obsessed with solving mysteries as a way to cope with her anxiety. Although it’s fantastical, few movies capture the neuroses of children better than this oddly complex kids movie.
A zany and hyper-stylized horror-comedy by director McG, The Babysitter, explores a young tween’s lust for his buxom caretaker. When he realizes the beautiful high schooler is in a pact with the devil, he struggles to overcome his adoration for the girl in order to defeat a nefarious Satanic cult. It’s a not-so-serious and at times goofily violent film, but you’ll definitely have brainless fun through the entire thing.
Danny Devito adapted the classic children’s novel about a telekinetically gifted child into a sweet and endearing film. Matilda means a lot to millennials who resonated with the main character’s quiet bookishness. The kid power narrative is emblematic of 90’s youth culture, but clever production design and over-the-top acting keep this movie feeling original — even decades later.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis is an autobiographical story about rebellion during Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Emphasizing the importance of youthful revolt, Marjane Satrapi interweaves the personal and the political in this expressionistically animated contemporary classic.
Pretty much every scene from this 80’s movie has thoroughly seeped through into the zeitgeist that it’s hard to imagine our contemporary cinematic landscape without it. Perhaps the most quintessential coming-of-age movie in the Western tradition, not every part of this John Hughes classic has aged particularly well — and quite frankly the goth girl was way cooler before she got her Pink Lady makeover. It’s pretty much impossible not to relate to at least one of the movie’s charming protagonists, but in the year 2021, a lot of the tropes feel endearingly cliche.
An extremely dark depiction of suburban desolation, The Virgin Suicides is Sofia Coppola’s ageless film about family dysfunction and budding sexuality. The movie’s beautiful cinematography perfectly captures both the glory and sadness of teenage girlhood, and Kirstin Dunst is stunning as the film’s quiet protagonist. The title hints at the movie’s tragic conclusion, so don’t expect a happy ending.
Although some found the movie’s depiction of young girls to be too edgy, the film is a critique of the way girls are sexualized from a very young age. The directorial debut of Maïmouna Doucouré, the film shows how a young Senegalese immigrant is forced to adapt to a culture that she finds both intriguing and frightening.
Despite its gaudy late-80’s fashions and color palette, there’s a real darkness to Heathers, a beloved cult classic. Caustic one-liners and casual cruelty are ever-present in this story about a teenager’s struggle against the most popular kids in school. As her boyfriend starts exhibiting psychotic tendencies, she ponders how to survive the horrors of small-town Ohio.
You know that girl in middle school that everyone made fun of? This is a movie about her. Like much of director Todd Solondz’s work, Welcome to the Dollhouse explores the seedy underbelly of America and the darkness that lurks behind suburban politeness. No one seems to care about pathetic protagonist Dawn Weiner’s struggles — including her own parents — and the indifference she faces keeps her isolated and confused about how to cope with reality. Both movingly painful and darkly hilarious, her sad adventure is a bitter tribute to the loneliness of adolescence.
Based on a Japanese fairy tale from the 9th century, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a stunningly gorgeous, hand animated movie about a magical princess from the moon. Often considered an early example of sci-fi, the story shows her imparting wealth upon her adopted family — before rejecting several suitors. A Buddhistic meditation on the pressures of becoming an adult, Kaguya’s surreal ending has left audiences both mesmerized, enchanted, and baffled.
This extremely violent and hypnotically beautiful French horror film is about a pair of sisters compelled to cannibalism. While attending a cutthroat school for veterinarians, the duo must deal with their carnivorous urges while navigating various sexual possibilities. Their desire for human flesh may or may not be a metaphor for unbounded lust — but beware of this movie if you’re sensitive about bloodshed, either way.
Director Gregg Araki’s films often depict the sex lives of queer punks and the hopeless world they inhabit. In the auteur’s most esteemed masterpiece, Araki focuses instead on a male prostitute and a young adult obsessed with alien abductions. Both boys’ lives have been significantly impacted by sexual trauma and the two bond as they discover a shared dark secret. Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking movies ever made, Mysterious Skin’s depictions of sexual violence are hard to stomach but deeply empathetic.
Based on the eternal folk tale of the vagina dentata, Teeth uses an age-old story of monstrosity to capture the terror of sexual awakening. Fluctuating between campy scenes of excessive violence and more subdued moments of character development, Teeth is a strange little horror film that never quite settles on one tone. That being said, there’s never been another movie quite like it — for better or worse!
Based on the dystopian novel by Koushun Takami, Battle Royale is about a near-future Japan in which youth rebellion has become the nation’s biggest problem. To discipline the out-of-control children, the government initiates a program in which classmates from various high schools are forced to fight to the death. The concept was pretty much stolen by the author of The Hunger Games, but this movie is far better than anything Suzanne Collins has created. Although the film’s depictions of teenage murder and suicide are the main motif, the story is also about the indomitable spirit of youth.
Few movies have generated as much intellectual discourse as the controversial and emotionally moving 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. Jennie Livingston explores New York City’s ballroom scene — a subculture of queer people competing in fashion competitions and dance battles for trophies and glory. The film showcases the resilience of LGBTQ+ kids and the struggles they endured following rejection from their biological families.
Horror movies have long dealt with the trauma of puberty and sexual burgeoning, but few handle the topic as cleverly as It Follows. A magically real story set in a post-urban environment, It Follows is about a mysterious entity that tracks down kids who had sex and kills them. To what extent the story is a metaphor for HIV/AIDS or other STDs has been debated. With a dreamy, chiptune-inflected soundtrack by electronic musician Disasterpeace and cinematography reminiscent of Gregory Crewdson, It Follows is no cheap thrill.
Based on the moody graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World is the story of two disaffected teens whose shared perpetual boredom and apathy start causing a rift in their friendship. The girls grapple with adult relationships while wondering what bleak futures await them — if they can ever escape their hometown. Although the ending is far less morbid than the comic, the movie is a more deadpan exploration of suburban youth than the common idyllic or dystopian takes normally seen in Western cinema.
A young Italian teenager falls in love with his dreamy adult tutor in this erotic romance movie. The protagonists must hide their patently inappropriate affair from the world around them, but sharing a secret causes them to fall deeper in love. The movie is far from the realm of realism — serene European landscapes and poetic sex scenes abound — but the movie’s crushing ending explores the heartbreak of fleeting, youthful feelings.
End of Eva is widely considered one of the greatest anime movies ever made, and although it’s not your typical coming of age film, the robot fighting action can very much be understood as a metaphor for separating from the world of childhood and entering the realm of adult sexuality: in fact, director Hideaki Anno heavily researched Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein’s theories on sexual development for the show and subsequent movie. Shinji Ikari grapples with guilt and lust while fighting an onslaught of aliens in the hopes of saving humanity in this legendary cartoon.
Stephen King’s first (and probably best) novel was adapted into this oddly moving and shockingly violent film by Brian De Palma in 1976 and has had a lasting impact on cinema ever since. Carrie tells the story of the eponymous teenager whose telekinetic powers manifest as a result of being ruthlessly bullied. It’s a story about the sadism of high schoolers and the fantasies of revenge that haunt so many who have faced such abuses.
Wes Anderson’s pastel, twee imagination is so adorable that it’s sometimes irksome — but if you can get over the semi-sarcastic sentimentality, Moonrise Kingdom is a real treat. With a fairytale-like reverence for the innocence of childhood, this cutesy and quirky film is a story about fighting for your first love.
Before Rian Johnson was directing Star Wars films, he was an indie cinema darling making quirky underground movies like Brick. This highly aesthetic neo-noir feels like a 1940’s whodunnit but set in a 1990’s high school. Characters speak in anachronistic slang while attempting to unravel the mystery of their dead friend — lit in gorgeous neons and with a sleek ambient soundtrack. To a certain extent, the movie is a metaphor for the entrance into adulthood, but it’s also just a good mystery story.
Anime legend Hayao Miyazaki’s most important film is probably Spirited Away. In it, bratty 10-year-old Chihiro is magically transported to a bathhouse in the afterlife, where she must navigate and negotiate with witches and demons to find her way home. Her surreal journey to the spirit world helps her mature into a young adult, as she conquers her fears and finds new friends and true love.
In this campy and colorful dark comedy, a popular high schooler is whisked away to a conversion therapy camp after exhibiting lesbian urges. The homophobic brainwashing she endures at the hands of her counselors (one of whom is hilariously played by RuPaul Charles) is harrowing, but gay love prevails nonetheless.
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece is fondly remembered as an ode to ultraviolence, but the original novel on which it is based was much more about the follies of youth than the dangers of behavioral therapy. Alex and his gang of well-dressed miscreants go on a tour of terror and crime before he’s captured and subjected to psychological torture. In the book, Alex’s sadism totally subsides as he gets older — making his crime spree a metaphor for the wild urges of adolescence. The movie’s ending is a lot more sinister.
Clueless became a paradigm of 90’s culture, almost single-handedly dictating the decade’s style and slang as it became somehow both a mainstream and cult hit. Despite its seeming superficiality, there is a story about growth and maturity underneath the chic and campy outfits.
Guillermo Del Toro created this monstrous fairytale not only as a subtly political warning about the dangers of colonialism but also as a beautiful and tragic fable about a young life cut short by violence. Both whimsical and frightening, Pan’s Labyrinth snatched much-deserved wins for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Makeup at the Academy Awards: in fact, the movie is widely considered a masterpiece thanks to its masterful emphasis on lushly imagined practical effects instead of CGI.
Matthew Broderick’s portrayal of this movie’s titular trickster has become one of the most iconic roles in comedy history. Although the film mostly is played for goofy laughs, there’s a heart and emotional depth that’s undeniable. Some of the most memorable moments have been so endlessly parodied so as to have become totally tired — but the movie as a whole is a mostly light-hearted classic about friendship and the pleasure of mischief.
Ok, sure, some of the special effects of Stephen King’s It miniseries look a bit dated now, but Tim Curry’s legendarily terrifying performance makes this beloved horror film worth watching. An ethereal entity that manifests as a clown haunts a group of schoolchildren. They think they defeat the cosmic being, but when he starts appearing in adulthood, the group must face their childhood trauma once again. (The two-part remake that was released in 2017 and 2019 is better than the original in some ways, but far inferior in others.)
Luc Besson is best known for bombastic sci-fi like The Fifth Element and Valerian, but his earlier work in the noir genre is similarly stunning. In Leon, a very young Natalie Portman plays a young orphan whose family was murdered by gangsters. The eponymous assassin takes the girl under his wing but wrestles with the moral implication of his tutelage.
Although lesser known than Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service deals with similar themes and motifs — albeit in a far less surreal manner. In this adorable, family-friendly cartoon, a young (and unfortunately magically inept) witch leaves her pastoral home to make a life for herself in the big city. She struggles with her newfound independence in totally relatable ways but survives thanks to the help of kind neighbors.