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Storm Boy
A still from Storm Boy, released in 1981

The ultimate guide to coming-of-age movies you haven‘t seen

We take you through a genre that deals explicitly with the alienation, anxiety and drama of adolescence

The coming-of-age genre is a cinema of first times; moments that, once experienced, can never be replicated with the same knotted sensation of yearning, timidity, and joy. These are films that fulfill our desire to reclaim experience from memory – to relive, in another body, those formative encounters which first ushered us into adulthood.

Unsurprisingly, the genre presents rich subject matter for first-time filmmakers, whose own coming-of-age is an unlimited inspiration. Their stories are inherently dramatic, but more than that, they’re inherently cinematic – exploring the subjective and sexual gaze, projection of imagination onto reality, and the newly discovered textures of lips and skin.

Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang is a startling drama about the conservative strictures of a small Turkish village, and how the lives of five orphaned girls – in various stages of adolescence and puberty – are forever changed under their enforcement. Recently nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the release of Mustang is a fitting time to reflect on the genre as a whole, and explore ten affecting examples deserving wider recognition.

Ponette (1996)

It’s not joyful being a child,” cries four-year-old Ponette (Victoire Thivisol), the infant heroine of Jacques Doillon’s miraculous film about childhood grief. After her mother perishes in a car accident, and her father becomes inconsolable from the loss, Ponette is cast into spiritual and emotional isolation, hoping beyond hope that her parent will return. Unable to articulate her sorrow, Ponette is thrown deeper into turmoil by the irreconcilable degrees of literalism with which her family, teachers, and peers interpret Holy Scripture; seemingly the only way they can think to cure her despair. Told that her Mother will appear with prayer, the girl delays her recovery in the false hope of a corporeal reunion, and so her solace comes only in sleep; a retreat from the world, and from truth. A devastating coming-of-age film, set years before any child should have to come of age.


Maladolescenza (1977)

Banned in several countries under child protection laws, Maladolescenza (Adolescent Malice) is that rare film whose notoriety is entirely earned, but beneath the controversy is a fascinating picture of juvenile sociopathy. Fabrizio (Martin Loeb) lives from a solitary hut in the eerie Italian woodland, seemingly abandoned, and forced to come of age without social responsibility or a formal education. Every summer he is visited by the holidaying Laura (Lara Wendel), a squeamish girl several years his junior. This year, she quickly discovers that Fabrizio’s imagination and libido have far outpaced hers, and his affections now out themselves in the form of sadistic games involving torture, animal slaughter, and sexual manipulation. This is the Theatre of Cruelty relocated to the milieu of fairytale; the forest as a catalyst for hitherto nascent emotions and burgeoning sexuality. An unsettling but essential film.


Sink Or Swim (1990)

A haunting work of remembrance, Su Friedrich’s Sink Or Swim essays the filmmaker’s highly dysfunctional relationship with a remote, intellectually bullying father, and examines how his absence – at first emotional, and then physical – has shaped her adult views on identity, marriage, and family. Starting from the moment of her conception, Friedrich structures the film as a series of twenty-six vignettes, told in reverse-alphabetical order, and ends with the image of a child singing the “ABC” song; a heartbreaking reference to her father’s job as a linguistics professor. Utilizing home movies, found footage, and reconstruction, Sink Or Swim is one of the great coming-of-agestories, because it suggests that – at least for Friedrich – coming-of-age is an ongoing process, and the act of creation, resulting in this film’s constant evolution of images and narratives, is a way for her to finally locate a sense of closure.


Passe ton Bac d’abord (1978)

Maurice Pialat’s blustery portrait of post-’68 youth is a desperately sad film, exploring the lives of a generation attempting liberation through denial, indolence, and wandering lust. In one crucial scene, the Lens townsfolk gather for a wedding (between meek Agnes and boorish Rocky, whose union will be short lived), and the teens, tired of being scorned by their elders, seek out advice on relationships. What they discover are casual confessions of affairs and abandonment, a stark hypocrisy in light of their parent’s constant nagging. So Passe ton Bac d’abord... is not only one of the great films about the impermanence of youth, and the fight to extend its hedonism into adulthood, but also about how feelings of disillusionment, displacement, and hopelessness are, in a generational context, permanent. Different clothes; different songs – but the same troubles.

Muddy River (1981)

In post-war Osaka, inquisitive urchin Nobuo (Nobutaka Asahara) crosses the bridge from his family’s rice shop and bumps into Kiichi (Minoru Sakurai), a boy from the opposite bank. They quickly form a close bond, but, ironically, it’s this bond that will first expose the children to their differences in the world; the social and economic order that marks them as ‘other’. Director Kohei Oguri poses questions that, even in adulthood, are spiritually enervating in their unknowability: Why am I poor, and you are not? Why do you have opportunity, and I none? But for Nobuo and Kiichi, these questions burst a bubble of innocence, and by the film’s end, it appears that the world has become larger through their eyes – perhaps the truest definition of a coming-of-age.

Landscape In The Mist (1988)

What are you doing here night after night?” The conductor is inquiring after Voula (Tania Palaiologou) and Alexandros (Michalis Zeke), young siblings attempting to board a train from Athens to Germany, the first steps of a quest to locate their deserted father. A tragic depiction of siblinghood, Landscape In The Mist is both a miniature story about parental abandonment and an overwhelming portrait of a country’s churning socio-political climate, where lost souls wander like ghosts, and seemingly kind strangers withhold dangerous motive. Towards the film’s end, both levels of its storytelling align, and as the children become lost in the mist we realise that they may never find their way home. Forever fatherless, and now motherless, perhaps they will too, upon crossing the German border, become nationless.

Storm Boy (1976)

A cherished film in Australia, Storm Boy is unique among coming-of-age tales for its emphasis on the friendship between a child and his pet. Mike (Greg Rowe), isolated in a coastal shanty by his grieving father, is collecting driftwood on the shore when he discovers three baby pelican, whose mother has been killed by hunters. Encompassing the entire lifecycle of one pelican, Mr. Percival, Storm Boy is a gorgeous film about the emergence of empathy in a child, and how his relationship with the animal becomes a nurturing influence in place of his Mother. And under the tutelage of an aborigine named Fingerbone (David Gulpilil), Mike will learn to dispel the prejudice which tells him that his life – his family and his friendship – are not fit for society.


U.S. Go Home (1994)

In the cinema of Claire Denis, dancing is an expression of the intangible; a way to transcend the borders of society, behaviour, and the body itself. In U.S. Go Home, when inhibited teen Alain (Gregoire Colin) dances to The Animals “Hey Gyp”, it’s not only a protest against his domestic and spiritual confinement, but a mode of self-loathing, a fit against the joy he feels over this music, arriving as it does with the U.S. occupation of his small, outer-Parisian town (“the basin”). Later, dancing becomes part of a more complex courting ritual, and Denis’ camera glides around Alain, Martine (Alice Houri), and Marlene (Jessica Tharaud) as they signal and caress their partners. The dance is composed of minor and major gestures – another fitting description of the cinema of Claire Denis.

Tree Of Knowledge (1981)

Shot over two years, and set between 1953–55, Nils Malmros’ Tree Of Knowledge is a compassionate portrait of a school class in the crucial years of their adolescence. Beginning as a free-form sketch of the children’s daily lives – geometry and history class, dancing, and cake shopping after school – Malmros generously allows for personalities to develop over plot, and only introduces a narrative anchor at the halfway point. Gradually, from the fabric of the film’s group portrait, the story of Elin (Eva Gram Schjoldager) emerges as the focal point, and when her sexual curiosity leaves her ostracized, the entire structure of the friendship group changes. This is a quiet and deeply affecting film, where heartache follows each whisper, and every glance carries the weight of a thousand words.

What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love (2013)

In a high school for the visually impaired, Diana (Karina Salim) and Fitri (Ayushita Nugraha) encounter the trials and triumphs of first love. A lovely film – the first from Indonesia to ever play Sundance – What They Don’t Talk About… locates subtle formal adjustments to mirror the condition of its characters. Instead of using sound and vision to their own end (what does this place look like? sound like?), director Mouly Surya uses them to evoke the sensations of touch and smell. Long tracking shots create an emotional geography for the characters to dance around once another (there are also pop-music interludes), while the pastoral colours and focus effects evoke the feel of changing weather. A sensuous debut, and Surya’s new film, Marlina The Murderer In Four Acts, will play at Cannes later this month.