Coming-of-age films are hit and miss — the worst of them are heavy-handed and maudlin, sappy tearjerkers and bittersweet tales of young people going through heavy changes in their lives, but handled clumsily enough to be cautionary after-school specials. Every once in a while, a film manages to get things right, and tells a story that seems authentic while remaining entertaining. In even rarer cases, those movies portray a time period exceptionally well, capturing the zeitgeist of the era almost perfectly. Here are a few great films about young people that also managed to reflect the important qualities of the decade they take place in.
6. American Graffiti (1973)
One of the earliest entries into a nostalgic look back at a previous decade, and at teenage life from that time period, George Lucas's love letter to the 1960s finds a good balance between nostalgia and moments that ring true without being crushed by the clumsy idealization that many films about previous time periods indulge in. American Graffiti is an early '70s film about teenage life in 1962, which paints a vivid picture of the innocent time just a decade previous to the film's release. Maybe that's why the movie works as well as it does — many movies taking place in the late 1950s and early '60s trip all over themselves trying to stuff in as many pop cultural references from those time periods as they can, and it becomes obtrusive. American Graffiti was released just a few years after the events chronicled in the film, and things feel natural — teens doing the types of weekend socializing activities that they participated in for decades, until online life changed their patterns forever.
5. Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe wrote and directed this semi-autobiographical film about a 15-year-old teen who becomes a traveling rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1970s. Crowe really had been that kid, and his fictionalized retelling is one of the best coming-of-age movies ever made. The film takes place in the world of a rock-and-roll band on the verge of stardom, and feels genuine — "Stillwater," the movie's fictional band, for the most part seems as if they could've been real, and Almost Famous does a great job of portraying the craziness of the music industry without feeling like it's taken too far. But really, Almost Famous is a coming-of-age film, and a great one. The characters and the era all seem very real, which is a rarity in films that take place in the 1970s.
4. Dazed and Confused (1993)
With his film that takes place on the last day of school in 1976, Richard Linklater created what may be one of the best movies about teenagers, and one of the best about '70s youth culture ever made. Rather than sinking into comfortable nostalgia, the film follows around a large cast of characters as they indulge in teenage rituals over a day and long night. No one dies, there isn't any clumsy forced drama, and Dazed and Confused excels — lots of films taking place in the '70s feel as if they're set in the time period of the film's release, except with everyone wearing silly retro costumes. This movie doesn't come off like that, and it has similarities to American Graffiti, albeit with a more cynical look back at a previous age than that film has. The interactions between the teens feel authentic, making Dazed and Confused successful as both a time machine and a coming-of-age story.
3. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
When this movie was released in 1982, it got mixed reviews, but a lot of them were bad. Roger Ebert hated it, considering it to be sleazy trash, a rare example of one of his reviews that don't hold up well — Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a sometimes raunchy teen film, but it's also one of the better movies about teenage life, and did a great job capturing an authentic snapshot of the early '80s.
Based on a book by Cameron Crowe (who clearly knows a thing or two about teens), Fast Times is the fictionalized story of teenagers that Crowe encountered when he went back to high school undercover, posing as a student himself. Maybe that's why many of the characters and the situations they find themselves in ring so true. Fast Times covers a lot of ground, some of it fairly dramatic, without getting bogged down. It's also very funny, and yes, raunchy at times — just like real teenagers can be. The film's locations, such as shopping malls, fast-food places and a high school, have an almost documentary feeling to them at times. This movie does a great job of capturing a specific moment in time, and does a much better job at that than most films that try to.
2. Adventureland (2009)
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
There are a few really good films about being young in the 1980s — Say Anything comes to mind, as does Heavy Metal Parking Lot, but I found Adventureland felt right to me. I remember the late 1980s being a lot like that film, and maybe it's because I was around the same age as the characters in Adventureland, or because I worked jobs that were similar in certain ways to those at the movie's run-down amusement park, but the era seems adequately captured. As with every decade, a lot of the looks back at the ’80s dwell on the perceived pop cultural excesses of the time period, but Adventureland avoids that sort of hokey nostalgia, instead focusing on realistic interactions between its characters.
1. Clerks (1994)
To a lot of people, the 1990s seem to have been about grunge music or other moments that "defined" a generation. That's fine and all, but Kevin Smith's epic tale of going-nowhere-fast characters, working dead-end, nearly pointless jobs, feels like as genuine a recording of that decade as any other. The profane and hilarious conversations between them, as well as their not very well-contained anxiety over the prospect of any good outcomes for their futures, mirrors the feelings I and many of my generation seemed to be experiencing in the first half of the '90s. Clerks is one of the top Generation X films, in my opinion, and the way its characters look and talk is more genuine than many other portrayals of the decade.