What Is a Coming-of-Age Movie? Definition and Top Films

The five principal actors in the 1985 film 'The Breakfast Club'
Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, and Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club (1985).

The Kobal Collection

A coming-of-age movie is a film that depicts one or more young protagonists facing a key moment of personal growth from childhood to adulthood.

Did You Know?

Elements of coming-of-age films have appeared in recent Hollywood blockbusters like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Bumblebee.

Definition of Coming-of-Age Movies

In many cases, a coming-of-age movie features the protagonists facing the first major conflict or personal decision in their lives or coming to a profound realization about their futures. These may include films portraying first romances, graduating from high school or college, religious maturity ceremonies, getting in trouble with the law, and other significant events in a young person's life.

For filmmakers, coming-of-age is a popular genre for semi-autobiographical storytelling, while for young actors it often offers their first opportunities to appear in dramatic lead roles. Though coming of age movies are most popular in American film, filmmakers from other countries have created films in the genre, including The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959) and The 400 Blows (1959).

Because moviegoing is popular with teenagers, coming-of-age movies are often aimed at teen audiences. However, other coming-of-age movies (particularly period pieces set in the recent past) are aimed at older audiences to appeal to their nostalgia of growing up in an earlier era. In addition, many coming-of-age movies feature stories depicting a young person's first love, making coming-of-age movies a frequent crossover genre with romantic movies. In recent years, an increasing number of coming-of-age movies portraying LGBT youth having their first sexual encounters have been released, such as the Oscar-winning film Call Me by Your Name (2017).

One of the most literal examples of a coming-of-age movie is Richard Linkletter's Boyhood (2014), a film shot over a period of twelve years (2001 to 2013) to demonstrate the real-time growth of a boy played by actor Ellar Coltrane from ages six to eighteen.

Coming-of-age movies have been audience favorites, box office successes, and award winners. For example, Moonlight (2016) won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Top Coming-of-Age Movies

From the earliest coming-of-age movies to the more recent releases, these are some of the top coming-of-age movies.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

A poster for Nicholas Ray's 1955 drama 'Rebel Without a Cause' starring James Dean. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)

Actor James Dean became an American cinematic icon largely because of his performance in this film, in which he played a Los Angeles teenager who acts out in response to his quarreling parents. The movie was released shortly after Dean's death in an automobile accident. His classic look—red jacket, white shirt, and cuffed blue jeans—has become an indelible image in American culture. 

The Graduate (1967)

Film still from United Artist/Embassy pictures' 1967 release "The Graduate" in which Dustin Hoffman (1937- ) plays a college graduate who becomes involved in an affair with the wife of his father's friend, played by actress Anne Bancroft (1931- ).  Getty Images

This classic film depicts recent college graduate Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) who has an affair with the older Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father's law firm partner. The situation becomes complicated when Mr. Robinson pushes Benjamin to date his daughter, and makes it difficult for Benjamin to find direction in his post-university life. Director Mike Nichols won the Academy Award for Best Director for this film, and the soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel became a classic album.

American Graffiti (1973)

View of 'Mel's Drive-In' restaurant from the film 'American Graffiti', 1973. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

The poster for George Lucas' sophomore film American Graffiti asks, "Where were you in '62?" For Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard), they are spending their last night cruising town before heading off to college. However, both feel the pull of nostalgia calling them to stay in town with their friends instead of starting the next phase of their lives. American Graffiti is filled with classic cars, a dynamite early rock and roll soundtrack, and stellar performances from actors who later became stars, like Harrison Ford, Suzanne Somers, and Cindy Williams. American Graffiti was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Cooley High (1975)

Cooley High
Pictured here left to right are Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs and Corin Rogers. In an Era of ‘Black action' films American International helped reverse the trend in 1975 with its production of ‘Cooley High,' a touching and sensitive drama drawn from actual life experiences of its writer, Eric Monte, starring Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs and Corin rogers, it was directed by Michael Schultz. (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Though coming-of-age movies depicting diverse upbringings have become more popular in recent years, a few notable examples were released before the 1990s. One of the few earlier box office hit coming-of-age movies with a mostly non-white cast was Cooley High, a film depicting the challenging lives of the group of Chicago high school seniors as they celebrate their upcoming graduation in the mid 1960s. Cooley High features a mix of hilarious moments and heart-wrenching drama.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Actresses Ally Sheedy and Molly Ringwald in the 1985 film 'The Breakfast Club'
Ally Sheedy and Molly Ringwald in a scene from the film 'The Breakfast Club', 1985. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

The undisputed king of the teenage film in the 1980s was filmmaker John Hughes, who wrote and directed several popular coming-of-age movies, including Sixteen Candles (1984), Pretty in Pink (1986), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), and perhaps his most acclaimed teen film, The Breakfast Club. The Breakfast Club depicts five very different high school students who are brought together for a day in Saturday detention. While they first treat each other as rivals, they gradually realize that they have much more in common than they ever could have guessed.

Stand by Me (1986)

Jerry O'Connell, River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, and Corey Feldman are gathered around together in a scene from the film 'Stand By Me', 1986. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images) 

Because Stephen King is best known for his horror works, many audiences were surprised that this film adapted from King's novella "The Body" could be so heartwarming. Stand by Me (retitled after the famous 1961 Ben E. King song) depicts four 12-year-old boys in the early 1960s who go on an adventure together when they hear that a dead body has been found by the railroad tracks several miles away. The friendship between the boys and the portrayal by their actors (particularly River Phoenix and Corey Feldman) has made the film a timeless classic.

Juno (2007)

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Over the last two decades, an increasing number of coming-of-age films from the point-of-view of young women have been released. One popular example is Juno, which features Ellen Page (in her breakthrough performance) as the title character, a 16-year-old high school student in Minnesota who discovers that she is pregnant. Juno depicts her struggles with her decision to put the baby up for adoption and her challenging interactions with the prospective adoptive parents. Screenwriter Diablo Cody won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for this film.