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The 25 Best Coming-Of-Age Films, According To 'Spectacular Now' Director James Ponsoldt

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25. BIG WEDNESDAY: Good friends, giant Malibu waves, and Vietnam. Perfect movie combination. John Milius wrote and directed this beautiful 1978 film, and -- for whatever reason -- it doesn't seem to get nearly enough recognition (it's far more grounded and realistic than his '80s offerings, which include "Red Dawn"). The film is a real stunner, and Gary Busey gives one of his finest performances (for me, it's up there with "The Buddy Holly Story").

24. APARAJITO: The second in Satyajit Ray's stunning "Apu Trilogy," which has always felt like a Bengali cousin to Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films. Made in 1956 (years before Truffaut's first film), "Aparajito" is one of the most timeless and pure coming-of-age films I know, and one of the most painful -- it deals unflinchingly with grief over the loss of a parent, and manages to gracefully depict a child's loss of innocence and awareness of mortality. Apu is a different person at the end of "Aparajito" -- alive, but scarred by life.

23. STAND BY ME: It's remarkable to me that this film was such a mainstream American hit because it's really as death-obsessed as any film I can think of. There are multiple deaths that affect the action before the narrative begins. In unique fashion, there's the death of a lead character that occurs after the film ends (referred to in voice-over). While "Stand By Me" is a wonderful title, I have to wonder how the film would've been received if it kept the name of Stephen King's novella: "The Body." Every boy thinks he's invincible -- until he has his first brush with death. This film is about that moment.

22. KES: This 1969 Ken Loach classic destroys me every time I watch it. A story about a teenage boy named Billy -- and his falcon. "Kes" has heart and soul and an awareness of class and real pain. For whatever reason, this film has always held a place in my heart next to the novel, "Where The Red Fern Grows." Both works came into my life at a young age, and both made me bawl like a baby.

21. BREWSTER MCCLOUD: One year before Bud Cort starred in Hal Ashby's iconic "Harold and Maude," he was the lead in Robert Altman's weirdo follow-up to "M*A*S*H." "Brewster McCloud" is just your run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story about a young man who has a dream -- and that dream ... is to wear wings and fly in the Houston Astrodome. One of the strangest films in Altman's canon (although perhaps not quite as out-there as "Quintet," which is saying quite a bit), this kooky film is a blast and features truly inspired supporting performances by Stacy Keach, Rene Auberjonois, and Shelley Duvall. I can't imagine this film ever getting made by a major studio today.

20. AMERICAN GRAFFITI: This classic ensemble film was at the epicenter of the 1970s nostalgia craze (for all-things 1950s), and it really is a well-oiled machine of stunning driving shots and Walter Murch's wall-of-sound sound design. For me, it's easily the best film George Lucas directed. Just a pleasure from beginning to end, and its greatest innovations are fairly invisible (but still groundbreaking), certainly compared to a well-known outerspace epic Lucas directed several years later.

19. THE VIRGIN SUICIDES: Jeffrey Eugenides' novel is so elegant and wry and melancholy, and Sofia Coppola -- one of the great stylists working in film today -- captures every detail beautifully. The mysterious story is about adolescent males longing for teenage girls who the boys will never understand nor possess -- because the girls in question are out of their league and hellbent on killing themselves. Kirsten Dunst is every teenage boy's doomed fantasy.

18. COOLEY HIGH: This cooler than cool film, scripted by Eric Monte (who went on to create "Good Times") and set in 1960s Chicago is an unbelievable depiction of an adolescent male friendship that runs deep and true. "Cooley High" has a great vibe and amazing Motown soundtrack. The film creeps up on you and packs quite a punch. Yes, it's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.

17. RIVER'S EDGE: Teenagers and violence, with early, great performances from Ione Skye, Keanu Reeves, and a remarkable, electric, inspired and deranged performance from Crispin Glover. I'm a big Glover fan, and for me, this 1986 film showcases the Crispin Glover role. A lot of movies about teens are supposed to feel dangerous. This one actually does.

16. ROMEO AND JULIET: Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version is my favorite. The story has so much angst; it set the template for every teen love story to follow. But why this version? It's obvious, but the 13-year-old boy inside me can explain it in two words: Olivia. Hussey.

15. SCHOOL DAZE: "Do The Right Thing" was such a big deal to my group of friends, I had to go back and watch the film Spike Lee made the year before: "School Daze." It was -- and is -- one of my favorite college movies ever. "School Daze" is smart, fun and politically aware, and really showcases Ernest Dickerson's cinematography (the Lee/Dickerson DP-Director collaboration really helped define the look of cinema in the late-80s/early-90s, and was endlessly copied in music videos and commercials). A lot of my friends from high school -- in Athens, Ga. -- wound up going to college at some of the schools in Atlanta where "School Daze" was filmed.

14. OUT OF THE BLUE: This film is legitimately terrifying. It's perhaps as much about Dennis Hopper's state of mind at the time as anything else ("Out of the Blue" was made in 1980; Hopper hadn't directed a film in almost a decade). And Linda Manz outdoes her "Days of Heaven" performance. She's tough and riveting and bent on raising hell. The explosive final sequence of the film never ceases to shock in its sexual and violent nihilism.

13. OVER THE EDGE: This film never gets old for me. I have a soft spot for stories about kids going rowdy and feral as well as anything set in a planned community. Not sure why. "Over the Edge" stars Matt Dillon -- in his first film -- and it's clear from the very beginning that he's going to become a star. With a great soundtrack and breathtaking cinematography, this film was supposedly the inspiration for the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video.

12. SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS: Perhaps my favorite Elia Kazan film, this melodrama is an emotional roller-coaster with so many plot turns, quite a bit of love and lust and death, and two phenomenal leads in Natalie Wood and, making his screen debut, Warren Beatty.

11. THE BREAKFAST CLUB: "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is a wonderful, endlessly watchable fairytale, but this is the John Hughes movie that has pretty much come to define "teen movie." Also, "The Breakfast Club" is a lesson in economically responsible, smart storytelling (one day, one location!). Almost 30 years later, the movie still works.

10. SHOW ME LOVE: Lukas Moodysoon's 1998 debut feature (which was followed by the equally brilliant "Together," one of my all-time favorite films), "Show Me Love" -- also known under an alternate, unprintable title -- perfectly captures the anxiety and pain of being a gay teen in a small town and falling in love with someone who can't love you back.

9. THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE: Set just after the end of the Spanish Civil War, this 1973 film is a flat-out masterpiece. A mysterious fable about the monsters of our childhood, the Victor Erice-directed film features one of the great child performances (from Ana Torrent) and would make an excellent double-feature with "Frankenstein."

8. BAMBI: My favorite Disney film. One of the great coming-of-age films, "Bambi" has more heart (and heartbreak), emotion, and love than most live-action films. For me, it's perfect.

7. SAY ANYTHING: "To know Lloyd Dobler is to love him. Diane Court is about to know Lloyd Dobler." A perfect tagline to the definitive American teen romance of the 1980s. I've seen this movie so many times. When I first saw the film as a teenager I fell in love with Cameron Crowe's gentleness and sensitivity as a storyteller ... and Ione Skye became, well, the girl of my dreams. I had the poster on my bedroom wall.

6. GOOD MORNING: This 1959 Yasujiro Ozu film is notable because -- unlike the austere "Tokyo Story" (the Ozu film most film students watch) -- it's one of his first color films, and it features young boys obsessed over television and fart jokes. This is one of the first films I can think of that offers a thoughtful meditation on the way technology affects our home-life and communities -- and how younger generations always find their elders painfully out of touch.

5. DAZED AND CONFUSED: Yes, this is a story about teenagers on the last day of school in 1976, but it's not just a "teen film." With all the overlapping plotlines, status games, and existential angst about the future, "Dazed and Confused" is, in its construction, a cousin to some of Chekhov's plays and Renoir's "Rules of the Game" (I've often argued this point in bars with friends). Yes, the characters in "Dazed and Confused" might be adolescents, but their hopes, fears, and anxieties transcend age -- they're simply human. Not just a teen film.

4. THE LAST PICTURE SHOW: This black-and-white classic set in the 1950s, but produced during the Vietnam War, depicts small-town Texas life when things seemed simpler ... but people wrestled with the same loneliness, longing, and heartbreak they always have and always will.

3. MY SO-CALLED LIFE and FREAKS AND GEEKS: No, these aren't films -- they're even better. "My So-Called Life" was on TV during my sophomore year in high school (the same grade as Claire Danes' character) and "Freaks and Geeks" was on during my junior year in college, and each of these brilliant shows was short-lived -- lasting only one season. However, these seasons of television represent some of the deepest and most pitch-perfect explorations of American adolescent anxieties, longings, hopes, and love, well, perhaps ever. Yes, many of the perfectly-cast actors went on to become movie stars. But the writing -- compassionate, tender, funny, yet laced with pain -- is the real star.

2. REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE: I love this movie for so many reasons -- not just because of screenwriter Stuart Stern's wonderful depiction of 1950s youth culture in Los Angeles (something I think of every time I visit Griffith Observatory), not just because Nicholas Ray was a master of emotionally messy psychosexual romances, but because even from the very beginning, James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo felt gifted, beautiful, in pain and already haunted.

1. THE 400 BLOWS: Francois Truffaut's first film, the introduction of his alter ego, Antoine Doinel, and for me, the film that still best approximates the emotional inner life of a 12-year-old. There really was a profound jolt of recognition the first time I saw "The 400 Blows"; clearly there also is for the legions of fans of the film. Has a film ever ended so beautifully with a human face? I love the endings of "City Lights," "Nights of Cabiria" and "Manhattan," but the final shot of "The 400 Blows" never ceases to freeze my heart.


"The Spectacular Now" is out in limited release now. James Ponsoldt's film will expand to more theaters around the country on Aug. 16 before a nationwide rollout on Aug. 23.

James Ponsoldt's headshot: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center

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