Welcome to Your Life: 10 Essential Coming-of-Age Films for Twentysomethings

High Fidelity Oral History
High Fidelity (Buena Vista Pictures)

    It seems like every new film festival cycle offers an endless supply of coming-of-age stories, usually centered on wayward teenagers or developmentally stilted twentysomethings. It’s that second category that we’re thinking about of late, what with Lynn Shelton’s continually delayed Laggies finally hitting theatres this week. It’s a subject undoubtedly ripe for cinematic analysis of all kinds, as there’s rarely a more stressful transition in one’s life than the one in which the training wheels of adolescence are removed and you’re more or less shoved headfirst into the deep end of human existence and told to swim.

    In observance of this process, and in keeping with the long-running tradition of the subgenre, our staff took a look back at 10 other essential coming-of-age stories about that particularly stressful time period. It’s a varied list, a sometimes asynchronous list, a lily-white list (they’re the notable 10 we thought of, so feel free to add your own in the comments), and a helpful guide to a kind of movie often written off as whiny or purposeless. So enjoy our staff’s choices of 10 essential movies about growing up, growing laterally, growing backwards, and everything in between.

    –Dominick Mayer
    Film Editor

    Before Sunrise (1995)


    It’s harder than it used to be to return to the sweeping, romantic idealism of Before Sunrise in light of the films that followed it, but while Before Midnight suggested that Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) may or may not make it for nine more years, they’ll always have Vienna. Richard Linklater’s 1995 film is still a great entry in a progressively stellar trilogy, primarily because it’s a perfect counterpoint to the weariness of adulthood that hangs over the following films. As they wander through canals, alleyways, cafes, bars, and all manner of other places, Before Sunrise seduces you with the promise of the infinite that comes with being young, the perception of the world as a many-splendored realm of opportunity.

    It’s not naïve, necessarily; the stress of trying to work out their preferred lives and passions hangs over a great many of their conversations. Even their meet-cute, which kicks off their entire sojourn into the night, starts with Jesse framing it as an opportunity for Celine to have a memory to look back on when she marries somebody else one day and wonders if she should’ve done more. There’s a poignant sense of terror that hangs over the film, from Jesse wandering Vienna because he has a morning flight and a lack of hotel money to the final scene, in which their studied nonchalance about the fleeting nature of their encounter finally gives way to the panicked reality of never seeing each other again. We know they do, and have a happy(ish) ending, but in that moment, still young enough to worry, Celine getting on her train is a matter of life and death. –Dominick Mayer


    Reality Bites (1994)


    Lelaina: “I was really going to be someone by the time I was 23.”

    Troy: “Honey, all you have to be by the time you’re 23 is yourself.”

    Reality Bites is the story of Lelaina (Winona Ryder) and her friends Troy (Ethan Hawke), Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), and Sammy (Steve Zahn), Gen X graduates figuring out what the hell they’re gonna do with the rest of their lives. Lelaina was the valedictorian of her college class, and now she is slouching through the unstimulating reality of the “real world,” while also camcording a documentary about post-education life that she hopes to get on one of those MTV-like stations that were the epitome of cool in 1994.


    Troy, however, is not so enamored with the idea. He believes Lelaina’s career aspirations to be beneath him, even though he is a perpetually unemployed musician and philosophizer who sits around the house all day while Lelaina pounds the pavement for a job. He’s also the kind of guy who has “Please leave your name, number, and a brief justification for the ontological necessity of modern man’s existential dilemma” as his voicemail message and answers the phone with, “Hello, you have reached the winter of our discontent.” With the exception of the “be yourself” nugget above, Troy is the actual worst.

    Directed by Ben Stiller, who also stars as Lelaina’s yuppie boyfriend, Michael, Reality Bites is more dated than New Coke, but filled with highly quotable dialogue that kids today can still relate to, or at least make ‘90s nostalgic Buzzfeed posts about to prove that the Man still sucks and grunge will never go out of style. So let’s dance to “Ma-ma-ma-my Sharona” in a convenience store and be “non-practicing virgins” together because YOLO. –Leah Pickett


    Kicking and Screaming (1995)


    “What I used to be able to pass off as a lousy summer could now potentially turn into a bad life,” sighs the ever-droll Max (Chris Eigeman, just perfect) in one of Kicking and Screaming‘s endlessly quotable scenes. Noah Baumbach’s first and funniest film wallows in that existential quicksand that most recent college graduates wind up in. You don’t have a job. You have no skills, besides banter, movie trivia, and crossword puzzles. You wish you could postpone life and stay in school forever, but then that makes you career student Chet (Eric Stoltz). Nobody wants to be Chet. And there’s just no joy in sleeping with freshmen anymore.


    It’s a white movie about wimpy white Gen Xers who talk too much (and talk alike) and suffer from post-collegiate anxiety. Therefore, I should hate it, like I do Reality Bites (go to hell, Troy). But Baumbach’s hit parade of dialogue and his pitch-perfect ensemble transform a potentially unbearable student film into one of the best indie comedies of the ’90s. Every character, except for Chet, is someone you want to waste time with. It’s better to rattle off monkey-themed movie titles than figure out what to do with your life, especially if it leads to Carlos Jacott’s awesome delivery of “Monkeys, Monkeys, Ted & Alice” (he’s so proud of it he says it twice).

    And there’s melancholy magic to the main plotline, in which Grover (Josh Hamilton) pines and flashbacks to his lost love, Jane (Olivia D’Ado), who just moved to Prague to do that Prague thing. Anyone who’s ever fallen for a writer they hated in a college English class can connect to these two, as can anyone who’s picked up a smoking habit from a loved one only to have them suddenly quit while you’re still hooked. Your twenties are the last time you’ll try to be compulsively romantic and take a last-minute flight to Prague. Your twenties are the last time in your life that you’ll wait by the phone for an overseas call from a girl you’re not gonna get back. And they’re the only time you’ll play that sole answering machine message she left until the tape wears out. –Roy Ivy


    Swingers (1996)


    As I journeyed through my 20s, I found it easier to identity with Mike (Jon Favreau) in Swingers instead of Trent (Vince Vaughn) as I did in high school. One has embraced being an adult so tightly he can’t breathe, while the other is holding on to his youth for as long as possible. I always hold a place in my heart for Trey’s antics, Mike’s misery, Sue’s bad temper, and Charles’ swagger. But it’s Ron Livingston’s performance as Rob, and that character’s quiet friendship with Mike, that I relate with now.


    While Mike finds his happy ending at the film’s close, he really achieves true peace just before the film’s climax. It’s then when Rob arrives at his apartment unannounced and tells him the following: “You got to get on with your life. You’ve got to let go of the past, Mikey, and when you do, the future is beautiful. Alright? Look out the window. It’s sunny every day here. It’s like ‘Manifest Destiny’. Don’t tell me we didn’t make it. We made it! We’re here! And everything that is past is prologue to this, all the shit that didn’t kill us is only … ya’ know, all that shit. You’re gonna get over it.”

    Swingers is much more than just a great movie with memorable quips and unforgettable expressions. It’s about the friendships. And I love Rob, whether or not he ever gets the gig as Goofy. –Justin Gerber


    Mutual Appreciation (2005)


    Justin Rice of indie-pop outfit Bishop Allen stars in the sophomore feature of mumblecore wunderkind Andrew Bujalski, a man who, with his early films, did everything in his power to piss on traditional, Aristotelian storytelling models. In those films, Mutual Appreciation included, plots ranged from threadbare to nonexistent, characters resisted change, and climaxes proved decidedly anti-climactic. They were examples of how deftly structure could inform content: the characters in these films are as aimless and inarticulate as the films themselves. Some might find mumblecore boring, but you can’t deny they were the perfect representation of post-college ennui.


    Rice plays Alan, a struggling musician and recent New York transplant. In between playing shows to empty crowds, he goes to parties, ignores his dad’s pleas to get a real job, and banters with Lawrence, an old friend played by Bujalski. Complications arise when Alan and Ellie, Lawrence’s girlfriend, develop a — you guessed it — mutual appreciation. To call it “complicated,” though, isn’t entirely accurate; most often, the things we call “complicated” about our mid-20s add up to nothing more than indecision. Mutual Appreciation conveys that ambivalence without judging it, allowing the narrative to unfold without ever resorting to melodrama.

    In your 20s, crushes go unrequited, words go unsaid, and the status quo is often left undisturbed. Sometimes, Mutual Appreciation argues, there’s nothing wrong with that. –Randall Colburn


    Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)


    Like a lot of romantic comedies, Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs is a movie about the girl that got away. What’s different about Hannah Takes the Stairs is that it makes that girl, not some lovesick dud, the protagonist.

    The effervescent Greta Gerwig stars as the titular Hannah, a recent college grad interning at a production office in Chicago. When her older, newly unemployed boyfriend (Mark Duplass, incredible as always) loses his appeal, she sets her sights on co-worker Paul (Andrew Bujalski). And when he loses his appeal, she canoodles with co-worker Matt (Kent Osborne). Yes, it sounds insufferable, but the film works because Swanberg never once judges Hannah for her indecisiveness. Rather, it portrays Hannah’s oscillating crushes for what they are: self-exploration.

    Not every twentysomething spends a few years searching for meaning between the sheets, but more probably should. Heartbreak helps us grow up. So does sex. We should be curious in our 20s, because to say you have your heart figured out already is to lie to yourself. By the end, Hannah hasn’t progressed far beyond where she began, nor should she have. Growing up means making mistakes, and Hannah shows us making mistakes can be fun. –Randall Colburn



    Adventureland (2009)


    I was reaching the end of my twenties (a particularly bleak period for yours truly) when I started seeing posters for Adventureland, from the director of Superbad, Greg Mottola. The movie was marketed and mismanaged as though its tone was similar to that Michael Cera/Jonah Hill hit from a couple years earlier, leaving moviegoers perplexed and its target audience disappointed. If you remove Adventureland from its posters and trailers, you will discover a deeply moving film about the next step after college, a place where the twilight of youth and the dawn of adulthood meet. That place being an amusement park.

    At Adventureland, you’ll rediscover your summer job pals, whose friendships didn’t survive past the summer. Summer flings that were just that — never having a chance to exist past their fated, autumnal expiration dates. And you may stumble upon that old beast that kept you up at night: unrequited love. All these discoveries are soundtracked by a music lover’s dream playlist, featuring Lou Reed, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Big Star, The Cure, and, of course, Falco!

    While all of these events and tunes hit home, the most effective moments of the film are those that take place during the legendary night drives of the youth. Whether Jessie Eisenberg’s James is in the driver’s seat next to Kristen Stewart’s Em, or he’s traveling on a bus to get to her, it’s his silent ruminations that we can all relate to, whether we’re young or not. –Justin Gerber



    The World’s End (2013)

    The World's End

    As we see Simon Pegg’s Gary King desperately dry hump his own legacy, we come to realize that letting go is paramount to being able to grow up and evolve as a person. Case in point: Who doesn’t groan at the Facebook photo albums of high school glories from 10 years ago? Buzzfeed, or maybe something more sinister and alien is turning us into perverts for nostalgia. At least, that’s The World’s End’s hypotheses, a life lesson for my twenties.

    Five grade school buddies reunite to recapture the magic of a pub-crawl they never could complete when they were young. In going back to their homogenous hometown, they uncover an extra-terrestrial conspiracy, a new Body Snatchers-scheme, wherein aliens will sneak into the mainstream and replace all normal, problematic, emotional members of society with literally blue-blooded robots bereft of worry. It’s the best kind of ludicrous, evil scheme. Through it, Edgar Wright satirizes modern obsessions with past vanities and lost youth.

    This movie is important to being twentysomething and figuring your self out, because in order to do that, you have to let go of the past. No one cares about Gary King’s drinking accomplishments and cool black duster from his youth – his buds bemoan this and need to know what he’s going to do with himself right now, before The World’s End. That is what’s important about realizing you’re in your twenties. Deal with the present, and look forward to the future. Try to keep relishing those drunk party pics and high school/college sojourns to a minimum. –Blake Goble



    High Fidelity (1999)


    Easter Sunday, 2000. Mom calls to say, “I just saw a movie that’s the story of your life. Have you seen High Fidelity?” Twenty-five-year-old me — the snobby record store clerk with his own Top 5 of heartbreaks — took that as a compliment. Almost 40-year-old me thinks it’s the meanest thing my mother ever said. (Dad chimed in on speakerphone to say that the fat, goofy guy was a surprisingly strong singer.)

    Every one of my fellow twentysomething friends thought High Fidelity was about them, and they were right. Not because they’re list-making, mix-taping record snobs who are bad with women, but because they’re insecure, self-absorbed, infantile, horribly jealous, and really bad with women. But that’s why High Fidelity, set in the Stone Age when music wasn’t dead and Wicker Park was affordable and tolerable, is still in NM condition 15 years later. Even though it’s about a thirtysomething, it skews younger by illuminating the pathetic plight of the world’s nastiest babies — young “romantics” in their twenties. The years where you become a petty, whining, cheating monster. When you’ve got a girlfriend, but you’re staying up making a mixtape for another girl. The age when Lloyd Dobler cheats on his pregnant girlfriend. He’s still standing in the rain, but he’s stalking … or throwing a hissy fit because he can’t light his cigarette. Those years where it was you, yes you, who ruined all the good relationships, but it’ll take you another decade to figure that out.

    In the end, our Rob (John Cusack in his final role as Our John Cusack) finally jettisons his old habits to be a driven grown-up, etc. But that’s not the stuff that resonates. It’s the first reels that might inspire new admirers of the film, those who haven’t come to the conclusion that their guts have shit for brains, to try some stupid things. For them, I offer this advice.


    Don’t try to talk to all of your exes from your teens and twenties to try to figure out why you’re doomed to be rejected. You know you wanna do it, but it’s dumb. You’ll just learn how dumb you were, you’ll be called out for doing a High Fidelity thing, and you’ll feel fat. And that dream you have of dating a musician, living with a musician, and ending up in her liner notes? It’s a nightmare. But what are ya gonna do, you id-driven spermhose? You’re in your twenties, when things are beyond your control … like being a music snob or listening to Belle and Sebastian. –Roy Ivy


    The Graduate (1967)


    “Hello darkness, my old friend…” Cue the post-grad disenchantment and ennui of one Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), adrift in a quarter-life crisis to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel.

    In The Graduate, a 1967 commentary on the end of Baby Boomer-ism from director Mike Nichols, Ben returns to his parents’ California home upon finishing his degree in the Northeast and is deluged with questions about his future, as well as this little gem of career advice from his father’s sleazy colleague, “One word: plastics.” Funny how little expectations have changed, isn’t it?


    The now-iconic Simon & Garfunkel song “The Sound of Silence”, which was to the late ‘60s what MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” was to the early aughts (“I know it’s overwhelming/ But what else can we do/ Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?”) but better (obviously), plays three times in the film.

    The first is the opening, when Ben is standing on a moving walkway: a metaphor for him moving forward but also feeling like he is going nowhere. The second is during a montage of Ben’s mundane daily routine, which includes meeting his parents’ friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) at a motel for numbing sex and the occasional conversation, which again underscores Ben’s feelings of loneliness and detachment. And the third is the ending, when the smiles of Ben and his girlfriend Elaine (Katharine Ross), after running away together and hopping on a bus to who-knows-where, slowly fade back into disillusionment and uncertainty, bringing us full circle.

    The Graduate struck a chord with audiences at the time of its release, as Vietnam War-era dissonance, the sexual revolution, and a rejection of the previous generation’s more conservative social mores were coming to a head. But the film’s core sentiment rings just as true today as it did then, because the scariest words for a recent college grad are still, “What’s next?” –Leah Pickett




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