7 documentaries that capture coming-of-age in the 2000s

With 'Futura' out now, here's some other beautiful examinations of teenhood from across the world.

by Douglas Greenwood
08 July 2022, 10:34am

First crushes, school bullies; hobbies, hang-ups; the formative teen years of our lives are crammed with enough emotionally-loaded material to craft a vibrant fictional movie. But as we know, sometimes real life is wild enough, and for decades, filmmakers have been making coming-of-age documentaries that nail the nuances of that experience.

Since the millennium the genre has flourished. With the advent of the internet, a fraught political landscape, and changing attitudes towards subjects once considered taboo, young people are being confronted with more confounding subjects than ever. These seven films, from Africa to America, do a stellar job of picking that experience apart.

1. All This Panic (2017)

To outsiders, growing up in a city like New York summons a whole different coming-of-age experience than the one you might have growing up in a small town. All This Panic, which focuses on three Brooklynite teenage girls as its subjects, both confirms and refutes that idea. On one hand, it’s a film about the pleasures and privileges of a liberal metropolitan upbringing, and how valuable those experiences are in our formative years. On the other, it’s a reminder of the shared experience of puberty and growing pains.

2. Futura (2022)

What could become of us? That’s the question on the lips of the subjects of Futura, a documentary co-directed by three legends of Italian cinema: Alice Rohrwacher, Pietro Marcello and Francesco Munzi. Shot during the pandemic, it focuses specifically on 15-20-year-olds in Italy, a country with an ageing population, as they question how they will navigate their collective futures.

3. Minding the Gap (2018)

Shot in America’s Rust Belt, this documentary nabbed an Oscar nomination for its frank framing of the relationship between three teenage boys, bound together by their love of skating. In an area experiencing economic downturn, Zack, Bing and Keire are skateboarding through their own mundane landscape, ruminating on their decade-long friendship, when a revelation forces them to make an important decision. As compulsive a watch as any drama, this documentary is rare and special.

4. Coming of Age (2015)

While most coming-of-age documentaries tend to focus specifically on the American experience, this overlooked film from 2015 turns its lens to a group of teenagers in Africa. In the mountainous Lesotho region, four teenagers were followed with cameras over the course of two years by director Teboho Edkins. Their lives in a small village are isolated, but even then, the smallest of changes seems to force them to contemplate their fates and futures.

5. Homeroom (2021)

Homeroom’s time setting is un-replicable. Shot during the 2020 pandemic, this documentary spends time with the senior year students of a high school in Oakland, California. The school itself is struggling from a lack of funding, and the knock on effect on its students and their futures is palpable. And so, as the pandemic forces the school to shut its doors, followed by a racial reckoning in the wake of Black Lives Matter, director Peter Nicks highlights how social and medical catastrophe can affect us as we start to make our own way in the world.

6. Spellbound (2002)

A staple in English classrooms for everyone of a certain generation, this quirky and inquisitive documentary follows the finalists of the 1999 National Spelling Bee, as the numbers whittle down and one person comes close to winning a large cash prize and the prestigious competition’s star title. Full of memorable one-liners and characters, the film captures the kind of familial hostility that stems from competition sports and activities: what happens when our parents desperately want us to be something, and what we sacrifice in order to get there.

7. Cusp (2021)

America is such a vast landscape that the experiences of its teenagers differ hugely depending on where you place your lens. Veering away from the coastal hubs and instead focussing on Texas, Cusp captures the aimless summer of a group of teenage girls as they reckon with the realities of adulthood coming ever-closer. The fumbles and fears are captured in real time; older boys, usually characters written in scripts, appear, interested in girls far younger than them. It feels both dangerous and freeing to witness.

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