I love movies, but I am also in youth ministry–the spiritual and identity formation of teenagers and young adults. When those two passions find congruence, it’s a wonderful thing. Here are ten more films about adolescence, youth culture, mentorship, coming-of-age, and identity formation, listed in alphabetical order and with a brief synopsis.
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987, Louis Malle). A filmic memoir about a French boarding school during WWII, in which the priests attempt to hide a Jewish boy from the Nazis. The film focuses on the rivalry and friendship between Julien and Jean, and their coming of age in an unsettled period of time in European history. The acting from the boys is some of the best I’ve seen for early adolescents, and its heart-wrenching finale is unforgettable.
Clueless (1995, Amy Heckerling). It’s the perfect satire of mid-90s American materialism, and it’s surprisingly smart for being about dumb teenage girls. Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and her pals galavant around their wealthy California neighborhoods with little understanding of the world around them. A loose retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless is brilliant in its evaluation and evisceration of the religions of consumerism and hyper-individualism.
Girlhood (2015, Celine Sciamma). No relation to Linklater’s Boyhood, apart from its focus on a young person attempting to understand her identity within her particular familial and social context. This girl, Vic, chooses to join a female gang, finding her sense of affinity and worth within their volatile little community. One stand-out scene is an extended dance sequence in a hotel as the girls sing along to a Rhianna song. It’s hypnotizing, and what could have been a simple and straightforward coming-of-age tale is wholly unique due to filmmaker Celine Sciamma’s excellent direction.
Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen). While much of the focus of the film is on the five emotions and their adventures within the brain, we have to remember: this is a film about the shift from childhood into adolescence. Young Riley is literally experiencing a paradigm shift–her very brain’s chemistry is changing from the inside out, which is the setting for the film’s epic journey. It’s a film about memory, identity, emotion, and personhood. The film itself elicits the same joy-and-sadness response which is its conclusion; this is an emotionally weighty film, in the best way. (My essay on Inside Out)
Mustang (2015, Deniz Gamze Erguven). Five sisters in a small seaside village in Turkey navigate the storm and stress of adolescence in a patriarchal culture. The sisters each have their own unique personalities and gifts, yet move and live as one, a united front against the crushing weight of cultural expectations. Mustang draws comparisons to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, as both films focus on a group of sisters growing up in a conservative and repressive family/cultural system. But to reduce Mustang as a Turkish Virgin Suicides would be unjust; it has its own unique style and narrative elements, and offers its own perspective on feminism, womanhood, cultural systems, and growing up. (My review)
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984, Hayao Miyazaki). One of Miyazaki’s earliest films is also one of his best. In a post-apocalyptic world where the environment has been destroyed by humanity and enormous wastelands of toxins and giant insects threaten our existence, a small community in a coastal valley lives peacefully under the kindly rule of Princess Nausicaa, a young woman who embodies the virtue of mercy. Nausicaa is one of the most remarkable female protagonists I’ve ever seen on screen–she’s smart, strong, capable, but also gentle and gracious. She rarely resorts to violence, and is often defending the weak or misunderstood. It’s also one of the best films about environmentalism and eco-themes, inviting us to consider our role in caring for the earth.
Stations of the Cross (2015, Dietrich Bruggemann). When a young woman in a fundamentalist Catholic sect is challenged by her priest to live a life of piety, she pursues this challenge into dangerous territory. The film explores the weight of the spiritual formation of young people–if we screw this up as adults, the consequences are enormous. A deliberate, haunting film, Stations of the Cross examines the crushing weight of shame and the culture of condemnation that emerges from any religious fundamentalism. (My review)
White God (2015, Kornel Mundruczo). This is a boy-and-his-dog story, only with a young girl and the dog as the protagonist. Lili finds a dog, Hagen, and the film explores their parallel stories of experiencing oppression at the hands of adults.he dog navigates the difficult life on the streets of Budapest, trying to avoid dog catchers and survive illegal dog fights. The girl navigates the difficult life of puberty and adolescence, with its constant social pressures and frustrating adults. Both characters are systemically abandoned or abused by the adults in their lives—Hagen’s abuse is much more visceral and physical, while Lili endures the verbal ridicule of adults who expect her to be an adult while treating her like a child. (My review)
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970, Jaromil Jires). So, this film is weird. A Czech New Wave film, the titular character is a thirteen-year-old girl in the process of sexual maturation–she gets her period, and finds herself in a dreamlike fantasy world, like a grim Alice In Wonderland with sexual undertones. There are priests and missionaries, vampires and carnival actors, and plenty of bizarre imagery, all of which are meant to express Valerie’s emotional journey in her sexual emergence. It’s definitely not a film for everyone, and there are overt scenes of sensuality and sex, so proceed with caution.
Zero for Conduct (1933, Jean Vigo). While best known for his film L’Atalante, I actually prefer Jean Vigo’s short film Zero for Conduct. The film centers on a group of early adolescent boys and all of their mischievous antics at a stodgy boarding school. The film is genuinely hilarious as the boys wreak havoc on their teachers and headmaster, eventually staging a full-on revolt against the adults. The film has a timeless quality to it, and one can see its influence on later films, such as The 400 Blows. The film was banned in France for a few years after release due to its provocative depiction of young people in rebellion. It’s worth seeking out and viewing, especially for those who work with middle schoolers.
Have a suggestion for a future list? Share your thoughts in the comments.