Thirteen coming of age films to remind you of the good old days

With 2021 graduations behind us and area teens now headed for work, college or military service, this June edition of Lycoming Critic’s Corner takes a look at “coming of age” movies.

This baker’s dozen features youths who slowly or suddenly have to grow up; and sometimes the adults find much to learn as well. Any internet search will reveal a plethora of such titles; however — while I have included some well-known classics — this list stresses under-the-radar picks that deserve more attention.

DESERT BLOOM (1986)

Set on the outskirts of Vegas in 1950, this obscure gem focuses on Rose Chismore, a likable and conscientious teen struggling for peace with her difficult stepfather; he’s a World War II vet with PTSD, an injured leg, a working wife and a tenacious drinking problem. Jon Voight delivers what may be his finest performance in that role; cast also includes Annabeth Gish in the lead, plus Ellen Barkin, JoBeth Williams and a wonderful Jay Underwood as a gallant young neighbor, who is crushing on Rose. (PG-13)

EIGHTH GRADE (2018)

Beautifully written and acted indie about a chipper but painfully insecure young lady in her last week of middle school. While Kayla records unwatched vlogs about self-confidence and “putting yourself out there,” her life is plagued by mean girls who are “all that”; by a total jerk she’s inexplicably obsessed with; and by a likable but somewhat clueless single father. Very frank in its dealings with sex — which Kayla knows she isn’t ready for — this film is ultimately a real beacon of hope, with a scintillating lead performance from Elsie Fisher. (R)

HOLES (2003)

Based on Louis Sachar’s fabulous young-adult novel, Disney’s live-action “Holes” is the story of palindromic protagonist Stanley Yetnats, who’s been unjustly accused of theft and sent to the poorly named Camp Green Lake, where the sadistic warden has kids digging holes in the desert all day. But that summary gives no idea of this film’s dazzling complexity, with at least four multi-generational plot-strands which come together like a jigsaw puzzle at the end. Superb cast includes Shia LaBeouf, Jon Voight, Dule Hill, Particia Arquette, Sigourney Weaver, Tim Blake Nelson, Henry Winkler and Eartha Kitt. One of my all-time favorite films. (PG)

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016)

A masterful adventure from writer-director Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”), “Wilderpeople” strands a mismatched pair in the wild New Zealand outback: snarky, overweight 13-year-old Ricky Baker and his grouchy foster-father Hec, who together face dense brush, dwindling supplies, wild boars, three-foot eels, a broken leg and a host of unfriendly pursuers convinced that Hec means the boy harm. Alternately humorous, painful, exciting, quirky and inspirational; not to be missed. (PG-13)

THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN (1985)

Another live-action charmer from Disney, “Gann” occurs in the Great Depression, with the titular teen (a winsome Meredith Salenger) taking a cross-country trek to reconnect with her single-parent father, who is working in the Pacific Northwest. Handsome trains and peerless period detail highlight this exciting adventure, which co-stars John Cusack in an early role. (PG)

THE MAN IN THE MOON (1991)

Lovely and poignant little sleeper which marked the screen debut of Reese Witherspoon, here playing Dani Trant, a tomboyish but very feminine young lady growing up on a family farm in 1950s Louisiana. Spirited and independent, Dani falls hard for a handsome neighbor and then hits a brick wall when he falls just as hard for her older sis. Directed by Robert Mulligan (“Summer of ’42,” “To Kill a Mockingbird”), “Moon” co-stars Sam Waterston and Tess Harper. (PG-13)

MATINEE (1995)

Coming-of-age is only one plot-strand in this enchanting piece set in Key West on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Various adolescents deal with siblings, young love and adult paranoia even as the local movie-house readies for a visit from fictional Hollywood schlock-meister Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), whose latest camp classic concerns a hapless human transmogrifying into a giant ant. That film-within-a-film, comically called “Mant!”, is a dead-on satire of late-fifties drive-in claptrap — yet “Matinee” itself is thoroughly moving and nostalgic. When I penned my recent book on under-the-radar movies, this was easily my favorite discovery. (PG)

MIRRORMASK (2005)

Dazzling fantasy in which a young lady processes grief and guilt when her mother is hospitalized right after a nasty spat. Most of the story features Helena crusading through a dreamworld and seeking to save the “white queen,” all while navigating an extravaganza of wildly surreal creatures and landscapes. Gorgeous, one-of-a-kind film combines the talents of artist David McKean, writer Neil Gaiman and puppeteer Jim Henson. (PG)

SPEAK (2004)

It’s astounding how perfectly this unheralded Showtime film captures all the hurt and hope in Laurie Halse Anderson’s beloved best-seller about the trials and triumphs of high-school freshman Melinda Sordino, who’s been outcast for some initially unspecified misdeed over summer vacation. In fact, a few viewers like this version even better than the book. (For one thing, its adults — nicely played by Elizabeth Perkins, D. B. Sweeney and a letter-perfect Steve Zahn — are a good deal less clueless.) Kristen Stewart is a knockout in the lead — there’s not a false note anywhere in her incredibly raw and authentic performance. (PG-13)

STAND BY ME (1986)

Instant-classic adaptation of Stephen King’s non-horror story about a group of boys who in 1959 set out on an overnight trek to find the dead body of a childhood friend lying somewhere along a desolate Oregon rail line. Directed by Rob Reiner, with an excellent cast including River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Keifer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss and, very briefly, John Cusack. (R)

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)

Beloved screen version of Harper Lee’s equally beloved courtroom drama about childhood, parenthood and racial tension in sweltering, Depression-era Alabama. Gregory Peck won a well-deserved Oscar for his legendary performance as lawyer Atticus Finch, but the kids are all terrific too. If you love this story and want to delve deeper, check out its partial real-life basis by googling the horrific “Scottsboro Boys” case of 1931. (Not rated)

VITUS (2007)

A Swiss foreign-language film about a boy-genius probably doesn’t sound too thrilling, but “Vitus” is really the tale of a lad who, though clearly a piano prodigy, just wants desperately to be a normal kid; yet he doesn’t know how to resist his pushy, ambitious, self-centered parents. And then one night, something happens that shows him a possible path to freedom. Yet even after that, this amazing sleeper isn’t anywhere near finished. A real feel-good winner. (PG)

THE WAY WAY BACK (2013)

I never tire of re-watching this painful yet buoyant comedy about a 15-year-old boy on a beach vacation with a bunch of puerile, narcissistic adults (except for the water-park worker who befriends him). To-die-for cast features Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Liam James, AnnaSophia Robb, Amanda Peet, Maya Rudolph and Rob Corddry. A perfect summertime coming-of-age tale — sunny, funny and inspiring. (PG-13)

All but two of these 13 gems can be found in Smith’s recent book, “The Best Movies You Never Saw: 300 Under-the-Radar Films That Were Overlooked, Unjustly Trashed — or Just Plain Terrific.” Smith, a Central PA writer, speaker and teacher, can be reached at robbwhitefan@gmail.com.

Author

  • Smith is a writer, speaker and teacher in Central Pennsylvania. His fourth book, "The Best Movies You Never Saw," is due out this summer. More info is available at josephwsmithiii.com -- or robbwhitefan@gmail.com.

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