The top 25 80s-style coming of age films
Whether they're made in the 80s or set in the 80s, these are the films that do coming of age wonderfully well...
Ah, the 1980s. It’s a decade that means so much to so many of us. It’s where our childhoods were spent, where much of our culture either originated in or came to mainstream prominence. It’s where we grew up. It’s a decade so powerful in terms of music, fashion, and nostalgia that it seems the perfect age for a coming-of-age movie. Many of the classics were made then, and many of the modern classics have returned there. Here are the best 25 80s coming-of-age films.
25. This Is England
Shane Meadows explosive and angry film follows young Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who finds himself part of the skinhead culture in 80s England just at the time it was being taken over by white nationalists, destroying its roots with West Indies culture. With a cast absolutely packed full of talent, and totally committed to the material, This Is England is a searing portrait of a life gone off the tracks, and how your teenage years truly do make who you are.
24. North Shore
Now, this is not objectively a particularly good film. Subjectively though, it’s charming, loveable, and cheesy (in a good way). Rick Kane, born and bred in Arizona, decides to spend the summer before college trying to become a pro surfer. To this end, he flies out to Hawaii to live the dream.
Of course, he then has to learn to surf with his soul rather than for materialistic reasons, fall in love with a local, and learn the island’s customs (it’s basically a much better Aloha). Pro-surfing legend Laird Hamilton is hilariously the baddie, and if you think the plot is unrealistic, note that Tegan from Tegan and Sara named a song after the film as it mirrored her own experiences.
23. Napoleon Dynamite
Is it set in the 80s? Yes. No. Maybe? Whatever, it certainly has both an 80s aesthetic and spirit, so it firmly belongs in the list. Jon Heder stars at the titular lead character in this Jared Hess directed off-beat comedy about a misfit high-schooler who daydreams his way through life. A total pastiche of geek culture, Napoleon Dynamite is a also a warm hearted, subtle film about growing up and finding the best version of yourself. Brilliantly weird when it needs to be, the reason it resonated so much with audiences was not so much for the quirky charms on display but for the honest truth about not fitting it that sits at the centre of the story.
22. Everybody Wants Some!!
The spiritual sequel to my favourite coming-of-age tale (the 70s set Dazed & Confused), Richard Linklater triumphantly returns to examine teenage life, this time the lives of jocks in the 80s. Freshman Jake is one of several new recruits to the college baseball team. However, in between practice and hitting on women at drunken parties, he finds himself exploring other sides of his personality, most of which are at odds with the jock lifestyle. Typically meandering, Linklater’s knack for understanding people and what makes them tick at any age is once again displayed in full force here. You may have never lived the life these freshmen do, yet all of it is utterly identifiable.
21. Teen Wolf
All coming of age tales should involve turning into a werewolf and becoming a high school basketball star. But seriously, Teen Wolf is almost essential viewing for those who enjoy coming of age movies. From being a weedy but likeable nobody, who finds themselves changing into someone not as nice when growing up reveals hidden talents, to first crushes, first time buying beer while underage, wanting to be anyone but yourself, dreaming of being the most popular kid at school, and earning the admiration of your peers (which might not be all its cracked up to be) Teen Wolf is the ultimate metaphorical embodiment of the melting pot of emotions and hormones that school is.
20. The Outsiders
Francis Ford Coppola’s third film made in the 80s (and the one considered his return to form after the personal, logistical, and spiritual hell that was the making of Apocalypse Now), The Outsiders may be set in the 60s, but is very much an 80s influenced coming of age tale. Based on the S.E. Hinton novel, The Greasers are a working class gang in Tulsa, who have a rivalry with the wealthy Socs gang. It soon spills over into bloodshed, with vengeance sought in between tumultuous daily life as a teen. With a cast that includes Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, Tom Cruise, and Emilio Estevez, it also kickstarted the Brat Pack, itself a defining coming of age group of film stars.
It took me a couple of views to really warm up to this Jesse Eisenberg/Kirsten Stewart coming-of-age tale set over summer in a fun fair, but I really get it now. It has the ring of truth that this actually happened, and it probably happened to you or someone you knew. It has the kick of nostalgia that makes you wish it happened to you anyway. It’s also got a top notch supporting cast that enriches the whole film, from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the oddball married managers, Silicon Valley’s Martin Starr as the cynical outsider who actually might just be the best friend you ever make, and Ryan Reynolds as a total sleaze ball who’s incredibly charming and likeable.
18. Pump Up The Volume
If you love Empire Records then I implore you to watch Allan Moyle’s earlier film, based on a unpublished novel he wrote in the 80s. Christian Slater is Mark, a meek, lonely teenager, moved into a strange area by his parents, and attending a high school where he knows nobody. Shy and unpopular, Mark hides a secret, he is actually the host of a of hugely influential pirate radio show which takes on the system, a lone note of protest in a uncaring world. Along with a killer soundtrack, Christian Slater is on fire here, with a story about how one person can make a difference, whoever they appear to be.
See also: revisiting Pump Up The Volume
17. Wet Hot American Summer
Pretty much a total failure upon release, Wet Hot American Summer and its talented cast (featuring Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, and Elizabeth Banks among others) have since gone on to receive a huge amount of acclaim, and with good reason. Set on the last day of a summer camp in 1981, Wet Hot American Summer spoofs that era’s teen sex comedies, but then throws in a huge helping of anarchic surrealism as it constructs its own living, breathing world, a world which would be explored brilliantly in the recent Netflix prequel series.
16. The Karate Kid
We all know The Karate Kid, so I won’t waste time recapping the plot. Safe to say, karate has never been so well used as a big screen metaphor for life then it is here. It’s not full of angst, dramatic revelations, or even particularly stylish, but something about The Karate Kid speaks to almost all of us. It’s the everyman nature of Daniel, his relatable struggle to fit in, the warmth of acceptance when you find a mentor, plus the wish fulfilment of becoming a better person and defeating your demons.
15. The Sure Thing
Rob Reiner proved that he could do transpose the romantic comedy into the teen world with his road-trip movie featuring a very young John Cusack. Cusack plays Walter ‘Gib’ Gibson, a college freshmen down on his luck with women, with his latest failure being to push the object of his affections, Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga) away by tricking her into tutoring him. When an old friend invites him to the west coast where he has a ‘sure thing’ lined up, Walter can’t wait to get started, but finds himself travelling the country with Alison, also on her way over. A fresh take on a teen movie, which had been mired in sex comedies, The Sure Thing handled the emotional rollercoaster of that age with wit and aplomb, making for a movie you saw because it reflected you and your experiences of making mistakes while falling in love.
14. School Daze
Cementing Spike Lee’s reputation as a filmmaker of vision with something very real to say, School Daze tackled race and class relations between middle-class African-American students at college. Inspired by Lee’s own experiences, this comedy-drama-musical is a film that can be difficult to watch, but one that feels painfully honest. Set over a homecoming weekend, the ambition of the film is evident in its soaring musical numbers, its investigation of everything related to black America, and it’s take on social mores. While very funny at the beginning, the darkness at the heart of the film becomes more evident until a shattering finale leaves a sour taste in your mouth. It’s unforgettable filmmaking.
13. Son Of Rambow
Garth Jennings really knocked it out of the park with this heartwarming tale. Bill Milner and Will Poulter play two British schoolboys who bond over their mutual love of the 1983 action film, First Blood. Completely entranced with it, the two set about making their own low-budget sequel, and end up involving their whole school. Another one set across the summer holidays (is their anything more powerful i our childhood memory) this is a film that speaks to anyone who watched a film they shouldn’t have, and fell in love with it as well as the act of rebellious viewing.
12. The Squid And The Whale
There’s no happy or easy resolution to Noah Baumbach’s film about parental divorce. Instead it’s a messy and brutally honest look at a family falling apart, and children forced to pick sides. Tender, funny, and harsh often all at the same time, The Squid And The Whale has that sheen of realism that makes you realise this is what happens when marriages fall apart.
11. Say Anything…
Playing the girl you want to be with their favourite song on a boombox under her bedroom window is surely one of cinema’s most iconic romantic gestures. The fact it comes from a place that feels so real and so well earned just seals the deal. Cameron Crowe’s debut feature, Say Anything has all the hallmarks that would mark him as one of the most important voices over the next decade, from the star-crossed romance that you can totally understand how it works (Jerry Maguire) to the coming-of-age revelations and realisations that the audience feel a part of (Almost Famous). John Cusack is mesmerising here, and Ione Skye established herself as a teen idol to a generation.
10. Super 8
While it may be a love letter to Spielberg, and the values he holds dear in his films, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is really a coming-of-age story for the audience. All the references are designed to hit home with those who grew up during the 80s, and now have families of their own. It’s a film to make you realise that geek culture won. No-one has to hide away their love of fantasy, of sci-fi, or superheroes. In fact, the weirder the better. It’s a celebratory homage of everything you loved as a kid, and can now be proud of as an adult.
9. Sing Street
Once director John Carney pulls of a hugely-impressive 80s-style coming of age tale of a teenage boy who – at heart – wants to set up a band to impress a girl. That’s the foundation for a rich piece of cinema, though, as he not only comes up with a superb feelgood movie, he also finds the time to look into its darker pockets. Plus, never mind the old inspirational dad convention, Sing Street is a testament to how awesome an older brother can be. Killer soundtrack, too…
8. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The first in a trio of John Hughes classics, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is on first watch the anti coming-of-age movie. It’s not a paean to discovering the adult you, it’s a celebration of never growing up, doing what you want, and learning how to have fun. Except it’s not. While Ferris may represent freedom and every good thing that comes with it, he’s just a character raging against the dying of the light. Sloane understands this, as she comes of age by experiencing one last day of irresponsibility with Ferris, knowing that adulthood is looming. Cameron discovers this on the day, with a baptism of fire that means he can go from cringing child to an adult capable and willing to take responsibility for his actions. Does Ferris come of age? That would be beside the point.
7. Fast Times At Ridgemont High
This is not the film you think it’s going to be. Far from the typical coming-of-age teen sex comedy, it’s a film which takes (or establishes) the tropes and cliches associated with the genre and burns through them, moving with a sense of clear purpose through the lives of these lost teens. Directed by Amy Heckerling, and written by Cameron Crowe (who went undercover at high school to write the original article). With a memorable cast including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, a young Nicolas Cage, Forest Whitaker, and Sean Penn as stoner surfer Jeff Spicoli, Fast Times At Ridgemont High captures a year in the life of the high schoolers, as they make mistakes, break up, get back together, work dead-end jobs, wage war on teachers, and struggle through teenage life. It’s the details that make the film, creating an atmosphere so relatable that you’ll swear you went there too after watching it.
6. Pretty In Pink
A new wave soundtrack provides the music to John Hughes most grown-up teen film, in which Andie, a single father kid from the wrong side of the tracks gets together with Blane, a rich popular boy. Obviously it doesn’t go smoothly. While centred around a prom, with the usual high school politics at play, it’s the grittiness at the heart of Pretty In Pink which adds depth to the film. Easily Molly Ringwald’s best performance from this era, her lost and lonely take on Andie is heartbreaking at points.
5. Billy Elliot
What does it take to be true to yourself? That’s the question at the heart of Billy Elliot. Set during a hugely politically and emotionally charged time in the UK, the 1984-85 miner’s strike, Billy is a boy living in the north who harbours a dream of becoming a dancer, instead of the hoped for boxing his father wanted. Proof that through talent and hard work you can realise anything (the dancing is analogous to anything you learn at this age), Billy Elliott also tackles homophobia, coming out, prejudice both towards gender stereotypes and class, as well as providing huge pathos and some well earned laughs.
4. Mystic Pizza
In a genre dominated by stories of men and boys coming-of-age, Mystic Pizza is firmly female focused. But the themes are pretty much identical, with love, family and friendship dominating. Set in the fishing town of Mystic, two sisters Kat and Daisy (Annabeth Gish and Julia Roberts) and their friend Jojo (Lili Taylor) have just graduated from high school. Over the summer working at a pizza joint, they wrestle with relationships and decisions that will help form the rest of their lives. Will Kat break free from her cloying status as good girl? Will Daisy move out of Mystic for the right reasons? Will Jojo decide to marry her boyfriend for love or lust? The three leads make this film, with a camaraderie that feels genuine, the key to any good coming-of-age film.
3. Stand By Me
Made in the 80s, set in the 50s, Stand By Me is almost the quintessential coming-of-age story. Another film made during Rob Reiner’s golden 80s period (hands down the most impressive yet underrated directing hot streak of all time) and based on a Stephen King novella (what isn’t?), Stand By Me is the tale of four 12 year olds who, due to being ostracised by their peers or family, are the very best of friends. They hear about the death of another young boy, and determined to become heroes, set out to find his body. River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Will Wheaton, and Jerry ‘Connell are all perfect as the young boys. Bonding over a summer adventure might be a predictable story, but it’s something that has happened to all of us. We remember those days no matter the scope of adventure, whether it was going to the nearest big city for the first time with your mates, or riding your bike down the river, and the friendships formed then are some of the closest you’ll ever have.
2. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Not all coming-of-age films are about becoming an adult. Some are about teaching you valuable life lessons at any age. E.T. might just be the most profound, inventive, and affecting example of that, as Elliott learns that the things you love won’t always last, teaching him that it’s okay to let go as well. As much about his parents divorce as it is about life from another world, E.T. is Spielberg at his finest.
1. The Breakfast Club
Often imitated, never bettered, The Breakfast Club is an all-time champion movie that entertains, educates, and endures. Like all the greats, a simple set-up reveals hidden layers. In this case, a bunch of high-schoolers are sent to an after-school detention. The jock, the outcast, the nerd, the popular girl, the rebel. This is the film that crystallised these cliches, while at the same time subverting them to make an all time classic. Over the course of their detention, they reveal there is much more to them than their clique, and share their deepest personal secrets. It may be fleeting, but it’s a day that will change everything. It’s the deep and meaningful conversation you always wished you could have as a teenager, played out in front of you, showing you that you’re not alone.
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