Immerse yourself in some of the most fascinating cinematic portrayals of youth of all time, and live vicariously through the adventures of their characters with this handpicked selection of films, brought to you by Collectible DRY
Words by: Gilda Bruno
The Learning Tree (1969), Gordon Parks
Let’s start with a real classic. Written and directed by Gordon Parks, The Learning Tree (1969) follows the teenage life of Newt Winger, an African-American boy living in 1920s racially-segregated Cherokee Flats, Kansas. A milestone in the history of Black cinematography, the film — which is the very first one to have ever been directed by an African-American person for a major American film studio like Warner Bros — is based on Parks’s semi-autobiographical novel published under the same title in 1963.
The story begins with a prank turned into tragedy as Marcus Savage, one of Newt’s closest friends, beats up Jake Kiner after being caught stealing the apples from his orchard alongside Newt and other of their friends, and is subsequently sent to jail. In order for Newt to make up for his actions, he starts to work for Jake himself. A breath of life is then brought into the boy’s days by the arrival in town of a new girl, Arcella Jefferson, with whom Newt begins a relationship. Despite the promising incipit, the relationship between the two is abruptly disrupted by Chauncey Cavanaugh, a white man and son of the local judge, who rapes and impregnates Arcella, ultimately forcing her to move away.
New misadventures trouble Newt’s life as one day, while having lunch in the loft of Jake’s barn, he becomes the chance witness of the ferocious attack, and subsequent murder, of Jake at the hands of Booker Savage, Marcus’ father. After an initial moment of silence, the teenager chooses to testify against Booker: Silas Newhall, who had found himself at the scene of the crime for a different reason, is thus exonerated. Contrary to Newt’s good intentions, his testimonial leads to the suicide of Booker and to an attempted murder by Marcus himself, his childhood companion.
Featuring Gordon Parks’s history-making photography and revolving around the notes of the director’s own original motion picture soundtrack, The Learning Tree succeeds in narrating the protagonist’s complex journey into adulthood with an emotional deepness only proper to someone who was called to navigate youth between similar tragic events and systemic racial violence. Translating the loss of his own mother and his fear of death into narrative escamotages that manifest themselves throughout the plot of the film — just like in the autobiographical scene that sees Newt sleep next to his mother’s coffin — Gordon Parks provides viewers with a thorough, moving exploration of boyhood and everything this entails, from friendship, sex, and love to understanding what’s right or wrong.
Stand by Me (1986), Rob Reiner
Time for another cult film, this once by New York-born director Rob Reiner. Based on Stephen King’s novel The Body (1982), Stand by Me is the coming-of-age film par excellence. The film starts with a close-up of writer Gordie Lachance as he reads in the news that a man was stabbed in a restaurant. The incident instantly evokes in him memories from the time when he, his best friend Chris Chambers, and two other of his childhood friends, Teddy Duchamp and Vern Tessio, adventured themselves in the search for the body of a missing boy in Castle Rock, Oregon, on the Labor Day weekend of September 1959. Little did young Gordie know that that exact troublesome journey would set the premises for the fulfillment of his dream of becoming a writer.
Dying to be remembered as local heroes, the four slightly clumsy, exuberant companions set off together hoping to return victorious. Many are the obstacles they’ll have to overcome along the way — whether it be the threats of local hoodlums “Ace” Merrill and Chris’s older brother “Eyeball” Chambers, in turn on the hunt for the missing body; or the failed attack of Milo Pressman’s dog, Chopper, incited against the boys as they are caught sneaking into his owner’s junkyard for some water. Still, nothing dissuades Gordie and his friends from the pursuit of their original mission, which they eventually fulfill in a journey serving as a metaphor for the protagonists’ own growth.
Balancing dramatic, revealing moments with lighthearted scenes that fully embody the carefreeness of every 12-year-old, Stand by Me sums up what it feels like to come of age scraping beneath the surface of an apparently ‘ordinary’ group of friends. Thanks to Director Rob Reiner, we turn our eyes away from the protagonists’ funny pubescent appearance to reflect upon themes as complex as death, illness, grief, need for belonging, loneliness, and lack of affection. What at first glimpse seems a playful portrayal of youthfulness hence takes on a new meaning, with Reiner relying on his characters’ restlessness — think of Gordie’s conflictual relationship with his parents following the passing of his older brother, Chris’ ambition to detach himself from his family’s poor reputation, and Teddy’s struggle to talk about his father’s mental condition — as a way of exploring the full emotional spectrum characterising the life of teenagers and adults alike at different points in time.
With Ben E. King’s Stand by Me cadencing the vicissitudes that shake up the friendship between Gordie and his childhood best friends, the film — which is Reiner’s personal favourite among the ones he has made, and was described by Stephen King himself as “the best film ever made out of anything he has written” — continue to resonate with the public across different generations to this very day, 35 years after its first release. But that’s no surprise, is it? As grown-up Gordie says in his own words in the ending scene of the all-time classic, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
Jeux d’enfants (2003), Yann Samuell
Calling a-l-l Amélie (2001) enthusiasts! If you loved watching the French masterpiece by Jean-Pierre Jeunet — and ended up diving into the adventures of Amélie Poulain several times — then chances are you’ll like Yann Samuell’s Jeux d’Enfants (2003). As a matter of fact, not only does the film feature a cinematography that recalls the highly saturated atmosphere of the all-time French classic; yet, it also presents viewers with similar vicissitudes, thanks to a thorough exploration of childhood lightheartedness, first loves, and an inevitable dose of drama.
Set in what looks like 1960s Belgium, Jeux d’Enfants tells the evolution of the friendship between Sophie, the daughter of poor Polish immigrants, and Julien, the son of wealthy Belgian parents, as what began as a game of dares between the two continues through their adult years, often threatening the stability in their lives. Sophie and Julien meet for the first time outside of school, where the male protagonist is the only one to support the little girl against some bullies. On their very first encounter, Julien decides to donate to her a little tin box that was gifted to him by his cancer-diagnosed mother as a way of distracting Sophie from the recent attack. However, because he makes up his mind right after giving it to her and demands it back, Sophie asks him to show her what he dares to do in order to have it for himself. As Julien disengages the handbrake of a school bus filled with children, which rolls down a hill as a result, the rules of their game have been set: the box will change its owner every time one of them completes a dare.
As years pass by and the protagonists reject to acknowledge the negative consequences that their childhood game is having on their lives — from school misbehaviour to the impossibility of cultivating any romantic relationship, let alone the one that grows ‘unnoticed’ between the two — Julien and Sophie start to drift apart. Still, it will be the same tin box that almost got in between them that will bring them close once again in the very end, in an ending suspended between fantasy and reality.
Though not being one of the critics’ favourites, mostly because of the counterproductive comparison with Amélie, Yann Samuell’s romantic comedy-drama uses the game of dares that permeates the adventures of its protagonists as a metaphor for the unpredictable obstacles that friends and lovers alike might have to overcome as they move on. The French director thus reminds us that, as cliché as it sounds, most beautiful things in life don’t come easy and that it might as well be worth it struggling a little in order to enjoy them to the fullest.
Tomboy (2011), Céline Sciamma
Celine Sciamma‘s Tomboy (2011) is a poignant portrayal of a 10-year-old gender non-conforming child, Laure, as they experiment with their gender presentation after relocating to a new neighborhood during the summer. As their family is busy settling into the new flat, Laure decides to go for a walk. While on their way, the protagonist runs into Lisa, a girl living in the same area, who assumes Laure is a boy and asks them what their name is. Instantly attracted by the newly-acquired neighbor, Laure comes up with a male name, Mickaël, which they will use throughout the summer letting everyone believe that they are, indeed, a boy. Lisa introduces Mickaël to all of her friends as “the new kid in the apartment complex”: for Laure, this will be the beginning of a new journey. A complex journey that will lead them to reflect upon their identity and sexual orientation while also forcing them to confront the initial lack of understanding of their mom.
A tender, heartfelt portrayal of friendship, love, and transness, Tomboy renders a complicated theme such as gender dysphoria with a level of deepness that makes Sciamma one of the most intuitive directors of our time. Mixing dramatic moments with light, engaging scenes that perfectly encapsulate the warmth of childhood — think of the one where Laure and their sister Jeanne turn Laure’s hair into mustaches or the one where Lisa covers Laure’s cheeks in make-up, something we all went through at some point — the film brilliantly narrates the inner contrasts everyone experiences while coming-of-age. With a cyclic structure that brings us back to the first encounter between Laure and Lisa, the director seems to be saying that, no matter what happens, we’ll all going to be fine, after all.
Goodbye First Love (2011), Mia Hansen-Løve
The third feature film from French director Mia Hansen-Løve, Goodbye First Love (2011) chronicles the evolution of the teenage love between 15-year-old Camille and Sullivan, 19, and about to leave for a 10-month journey across South America with a group of friends. Sullivan’s decision alters the previously stable balance of the couple, as Camille looks at his lack of interest in taking her with him as proof of the precariousness of his feelings. After a short, happy stay in Camille’s mountain home in the Ardèche, it is time for the boy to leave France behind. Though they begin a letter correspondence to keep each other updated on their lives, the exchange ends soon after when Sullivan tells Camille that he wants to break up. Left on her own, the girl decides to move on after surviving an attempted suicide.
As a young adult, Camille embarks on a relationship with Lorenz, her university professor who, despite being much older than her, provides her with the stability and intellectual challenges she had long been seeking for. Camille is pregnant with Lorenz’s son when, eight years after breaking up with Sullivan, she randomly runs into his mother. The encounter, almost instantly followed by a spontaneous abortion, leads her to reconnect with her teenage love, with whom she starts an affair soon after.
The initial ardor between the two is suddenly disrupted when Sullivan confesses to Camille that he cannot live with the thought of her sleeping with someone else and that he had a dream where she was pregnant with his child. Slowly recovering from the news, Camille rediscovers her bond with Lorenz. The two spend a getaway in the same mountain home where Camille and Sullivan had chased their last moments together ahead of Sullivan’s departure. While waiting for Lorenz to join her at the river nearby her house, Camille loses the hat her previous partner had bought for her during their stay in the Ardèche, which floats away to the notes of Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling’s The Water.
With cinematography, plot, and overall atmosphere winking at those of French auteur Eric Rohmer in his Tales of the Four Seasons (1990-1998), Goodbye First provides viewers with an honest glimpse into the universes of two young lovers that, as it often happens, find each other at the wrong time. Or, better, find each other at the right time without knowing they’re the ‘wrong person.’ A passionate look at the struggles of adolescence and how those come to inform our future choices, Mia Hansen-Løve’s third film breaks with the overly romanticising gaze of other coming-of-age love stories to portray its characters raw and earnestly. Was the director trying to tell us anything? Possibly, one of the lessons being that some people are just not meant to be together, no matter how hard they try to.
Boyhood (2014), Richard Linklater
Something in between a film and a social experiment, Boyhood (2014) is probably one of the most epic, fascinating coming-of-age films to date. Written and directed by Richard Linklater, the film was shot over the course of 12 years between 2001 and 2013, a dream come true for the director, who dreamed of making a film about growing up and took on the task in the most literal of senses. Boyhood follows the childhood and adolescence of Mason Evans Jr. as he grows up in Texas with divorced parents between the age of six and eighteen.
Stemming from basic plot points and a written ending, the film took shape through the years of filming, with each portion of the script having been written by Linklater after reviewing the footage from the previous year. What Linklater did with Boyhood is nothing but unprecedented; not only did the director write the script as the filming progressed, yet he also incorporated each actor’s physiological changes and inputs to the narration of the film into the final version of the plot. If there’s a coming-of-age film you must watch, this is it, even just for the sake of its background story!
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), Marielle Heller
Funny, captivating, at times questionable, but real, The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) takes viewers on an exploration of sexual pleasure as experienced by Minnie Goetze, a 15-year-old aspiring cartoonist living in 1976 San Francisco. The story begins with the lead character confessing over a tape recorder that she has just lost her virginity to Monroe, her mother’s thirty-something boyfriend, in a desperate attempt to satisfy her newly-awaken sexual lust. Despite technically living under the same roof, the two begin an affair that continues intermittently through highs and lows until Charlotte, Minnie’s bohemian mother, becomes suspicious. From then onwards, a series of dramatic events will get in between Minnie and her family, eventually ending in a re-discovered balance among her, her younger sister Gretel, and their mother.
In her coming-of-age comedy-drama, Marielle Heller turns her camera onto the restlessness and the insecurities of a teenager struggling to feel at ease with her body image. Taking for granted that “nobody would ever love her,” Minnie throws herself in the arms of Monroe, thinking that he will be enough to forget about the parts of herself she is yet to learn how to love and embrace. Learning it the hard way, the protagonist eventually comes to understand that no other will ever be able to make her feel loved if she doesn’t love herself in the first place. An honest portrayal of what puberty feels and looks like, Heller boldly captures the striking contrasts in the life of a girl that would do anything to grow faster than usual, we’ve all been there, to then realise that being a kid wasn’t that bad after all.
Moonlight (2016), Barry Jenkins
Academy Award-winning Moonlight (2016) traces the life of Chiron through his childhood, adolescence, and young adult years. Structured in three separate chapters, namely “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black,” and based on Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film dives into the struggles of the protagonist as he attempts to find himself in Liberty City, Miami, at the height of the crack epidemic.
Going by the nickname of “Little,” Chiron is a withdrawn child who is physically and emotionally abused by his peers because of his alleged homosexuality. The son of a drug-addicted mother and an absent father, the boy is used to facing the world and its threats by himself until his first encounter with Juan: an Afro-Cuban drug dealer who takes him under his wing after finding him hiding from a group of bullies in a crackhouse. The relationship between the two rapidly grows into one mimicking that of a parent with his child, with Juan mentoring Chiron on how to find his path in life in a joint effort with his partner Teresa. Though being the one selling drugs to her, Juan warns Chiron’s mother about her drug addiction and criticises her for neglecting her son, yet the woman attacks him for being hypocritical.
Years fly by, Juan dies, and Chiron is now a teenager. Spending half of his time with Juan’s girlfriend Teresa while co-living with his mother Paula, whose worsening addiction led to prostitution, the boy is still the preferred target of attacks from school bully Terrel. One night, Chiron receives the visit of his childhood friend Kevin. While smoking pot and reminiscing about their memories together, the two kiss and Kevin masturbates Chiron. What seems to be the start of something new rapidly turns into a nightmare for the boy once known as “Little”; the next day, Terrel forces Kevin into beating up Chiron in a brutal attack. Having refused to reveal his attackers’ names to the school principal, Chiron finds the courage to react and smashes a chair over Terrel’s head, an action for which he is sent to juvenile hall.
The third and last chapter of Barry Jenkins‘ masterpiece zooms onto the routine of adult Chiron, now going by the name of “Black,” as a drug dealer living in Atlanta. After receiving numerous calls from his mother, the man decides to visit her at the rehab center where she is living. As Paula apologises for not giving him the affection and support needed at such a crucial stage of his upbringing, the two finally reconcile. Over an unexpected phone call, Kevin invites Chiron to go see him in Miami. Having updated each other on what happened in their lives, the long-dated friends go to Kevin’s house, where Chiron confesses that their encounter years ago coincided with the last time he had been intimate with someone. While laying in Kevin’s arms, the protagonist has a flashback where he sees himself as Little, standing on the seaside in the moonlight.
Considered one of the best films of the last century, Moonlight was the first LGBTQ film, the first film with an all-back cast, and the second-lowest-grossing film domestically to win the Oscar for Best Picture along with Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali (Juan) and Best Adapted Screenplay for Jenkins and McCraney. Poignant, engaging, and sincere, the film offers the public one of the most complex portrayals of black queerness to date.
The Florida Project (2017), Sean Baker
Sean Baker‘s The Florida Project (2017) shows you another face of The Sunshine State by lensing the childhood adventures of six-year-old protagonist Moonee and her companions Scooty and Dicky. Living with her young single mother Halley in the “Magic Castle,” a low cost motel close to Walt Disney World in Kissimee, Florida, with little to no supervision if not from the motel manager Bobby, the girl and her friends spend their summer days eating ice cream, playing pranks on the other motel residents, and exploring their surroundings as if on a constant expedition. Clashing with Moonee’s lightheartedness and naivety is the reality experienced by her mom Halley, who is currently unemployed having lost her exotic dancer job after refusing to have sex with clients at the strip club. Forced into prostitution as a means of providing for herself and her daughter Moonee, Halley becomes the center of a series of dramatic events that leads to the girl being taken into foster care while she is under investigation. Still, not even the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) will dissuade young Moonee from the pursuit of her final wish, a visit to Walt Disney World.
Inspired by Our Gang, an American series of short films narrating the (mis)adventures of a group of poor neighborhood children during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, The Florida Project explores poverty in America shifting the attention from its resulting precarious living conditions onto the unspoiled, genuine, and resilient joy of childhood. Countering the violence-centered media portrayal of The Sunshine State through a plot imbued with hope and empathy, Baker depicts the contradictions of modern US and their affordable housing crisis, giving a voice and face to the experiences of many marginalised Americans.
20th Century Women (2017), Mike Mills
Santa Barbara, 1979. 20th Century Women immerses us in the universe of Jamie Fields, a 15-year-old high school student living in a pension run by his single middle-aged mother Dorothea, and that of their tenants Abbie Porter, a 24-year-old photographer recovering from cervical cancer, and William, a carpenter and mechanic. Scared of not being able to raise her son without the presence of a male figure, Dorothea turns to Abbie and Jamie’s 17-year-old best friend Julie Hamlin, with whom he is secretly in love, to ask for help. Tension arises within the household as he finds out about his mother’s plan. After returning from a short escape to Los Angeles, Jamie supports Julie in dealing with the consequences of unprotected sex by buying her a home pregnancy test kit, which comes back negative. Despite the age gap, he also gets closer to Abbie, whom he accompanies to her doctor’s appointment where she learns she is cancer-free, but will most likely not be able to have any children.
As the story progresses, each one of the characters begins opening up about the insecurities that keep them from becoming the persons they’d like to become — whether it’d be Dorothea admitting her incapability of pursuing men she is interested in, William confessing he has never recovered from his last breakup, or Jamie fearing he won’t be able to satisfy a girl’s sexual desire. In 20th Century Women, the lives of the protagonists intertwine to provide viewers with an insightful, amusing documentation of the trends and movements that characterised the everyday of those who grew up in the ’80s; from the rise of feminism to the diverse voices standing out within the punk-rock music scene. With a stellar cast including Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Faning to name a few, the film is a sincere exploration of the dreams, hopes, and fears filling the experiences of who is yet to come of age and adults alike. Turning the spotlight onto the shared difficulties and moments of joy of the characters, 20th Century Women reminds us that there is nothing that can’t be overcome if faced with the support of the right people.