Great Coming of Age Films That Aren't The Breakfast Club
With the release of any teen comedy labeled as a “Coming-of-Age” movie, the eventual comparisons to John Hughes, and more specifically to The Breakfast Club, are never far behind. Last weekend’s The Edge of Seventeen was no exception, with much of the advertising material proudly displaying critics’ comparisons to the pivotal 80’s comedy. It’s fair to use that as a benchmark, because everyone for the most part loves The Breakfast Club, and it has garnered little controversy over the years. But when we remain focused on these Brat Pack era movies as the be-all, end-all of the coming-of-age subgenre, some more recent gems are inevitably overlooked. Plenty of movies from the 21st century fall into that cinematic category, and while they aren’t The Breakfast Club, they still revitalize and reinforce the genre’s strongest points.
The Way, Way Back (2013)
The Way, Way Back has all the makings of a standard coming-of-age movie. Our young protagonist, Duncan, is taken to an unfamiliar summer beach house owned by his mother’s new, insulting boyfriend and his equally unpleasant daughter. There he meets Owen, played by Sam Rockwell (being Sam Rockwell), the laid back older guy who gets him a job at the local waterpark. Where The Way, Way Back falters in inventive plotting, it soars in just about every other aspect. Writers and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who won Oscars for The Descendants, craft a funny, breezy, poignant screenplay delivered by top-notch cast. Liam James is a strong lead as Duncan, and Toni Collette and Steve Carell are both exceptional as his mother and stepfather to be. The Way, Way Back manages to utilize a tried-and-true premise and execute it in a way where it never feels anything less than fresh, fun, and affecting.
Easy A (2010)
Emma Stone steals the show in Easy A, a not-quite adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Stone portrays Olive Penderghast, a high-school student who agrees to help out her closeted gay friend keep his secret by perpetrating a rumor that the two slept together. The plan gets out of control as more and more boys request Olive’s help in a similar manner, encouraging the concern of her school’s staff, and igniting conflict with the school’s large Christian presence (personified by Amanda Bynes). Easy A never shies away from the Brat Pack era it is so inspired by and enamored with, exemplified by Olive’s narration throughout the film, peppered with direct references to those films. Even for a film released in 2010, it makes a strong point about sex politics in the world that is still deeply relevant six years later. Important but never preachy, Easy A knocks home its points with humor, heart, and a crystal clear understanding of what made the movies that inspired it great.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Wes Anderson crafts the most “Wes Anderson” approach to young love as possible in Moonrise Kingdom, the tale of two 12 year-olds on a New England island that run away together. The film is backed up by another of Anderson’s all-star casts including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Frances McDormand, but the two leads, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, convey the innocence, the uncertainty, and most importantly the first experience of love, that drive the movie so powerfully. The story here is as much about the children as the town, and Anderson captures that small-town sensibility pitch-perfectly. The journey the young protagonists go on, both literally and figuratively, is actually a universally human one just molded to fit onto an eccentric Wes Anderson canvas. No matter the circumstances, it becomes their love against the world.
The Kings of Summer (2013)
Jordan Vogt-Roberts became another name in the endless pattern of small indie directors being tapped for big budget movies with 2017’s Kong: Skull Island. Before that however, he debuted on the screen with The Kings of Summer, the story of two best friends who decide to leave their families and their homes behind and build a life for themselves in the woods. Directed with a beautiful cinematic eye and some stirring imagery, The Kings of Summer blazes its own trail through the teen movie pantheon and explores friendship, love, and family in a way that feels truly real. Managing to combine his cinematic world with the material one, Vogt-Roberts crafts an experience that belongs in the same breadth as any great coming-of-age film.
Greg Mottola has never been as good as he was with Adventureland, starring Jesse Eisenberg and the phenomenal Kristen Stewart. A semi-autobiographical tale of a young man in the late 80’s whose once well-off family finds itself forcing him to get a job at a local amusement park. The entire movie feels so very personal, it's impossible to tell where Mottola’s story ends and cinematic embellishment begins. Eisenberg and Stewart have impeccable chemistry, and supporting actor Ryan Reynolds manages to take a character who could easily become one note and imbues him with a humanity and depth. There’s also an excellent soundtrack showcasing the timeframe, featuring The New York Dolls and several songs from Lou Reed/The Velvet Underground. This was Stewart’s first movie since the original Twilight pushed her into the Hollywood spotlight, and here we receive proof that whatever memetic assumption was applied to the quality of Stewart’s acting as a result of the Twilight franchise is unfounded and undeserved.
Almost Famous (2000)
Maybe it's cheating to try and avoid the overshadowing scope of a cultural milestone like The Breakfast Club but still include Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. Yet given the parameters it’d be unfair and outright wrong to ignore such a powerful and exemplary specimen of what coming-of-age movies are all about. Patrick Fugit stars as William Miller, a young music fiend who manages to get a writing assignment going on tour with rising stars Stillwater. Along the way he meets Kate Hudson’s iconic Penny Lane, a groupie who may have a stronger personal connection to one of the band members than just that.
The entire cast is on fire here, from Fugit and Hudson to Billy Crudup and Jason Lee as members of the band. Frances McDormand shines as William’s worrying, overbearing mother, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is as wonderful as anyone would expect him to be as William’s editor Lester Bangs. The movie, also a semi-autobiographical tale inspired by Crowe’s life, follows these characters and expertly explores all the intricacies of their experiences. William’s relationships to the band, Penny, his mother, his writing, and his love for music as a whole, are all delved into by Crowe’s screenplay often simultaneously. It’s a testament to the power of music and love for an art form in general. Yet most strongly Almost Famous speaks to humanity, and the strength held in human connections. "Coming-of-age” is in reference to growing up, learning and transitioning from a child into an adult, and Crowe’s film shows that you don’t have to be young to need to do that.