the 10 most powerful coming-of-age films of 2016

Because growing up is its own hero’s journey.

by André-Naquian Wheeler
23 December 2016, 2:42pm

still from 'the fits,' directed by anna rose holmer

Directors have always had a soft spot for coming-of-age tales. They have all the makings of a great film: sexual awakenings, BFFs and frenemies, a fierce battle to form a sense of self. From The Breakfast Club to Mean Girls, these metamorphoses from kid to adult are touching reminders that, as E.E. Cummings brilliantly said, being yourself is "the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting." Thankfully, we were blessed with fresh, powerful depictions of these fights in 2016. There was an emphasis on breaking away from norms and amplifying voices that are typically hushed. From the tender queer relationships in Moonlight and Being 17 to the quirky, offbeat protagonists played by Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen and Logan Lerman in Indignation, 2016 was the year outsiders stole the spotlight. We've rounded up the genre's 10 most powerful and touching films of 2016.

Sing Street
Sing Street explores that youthful feeling of limitless possibility in all its bittersweetness. The Irish comedy centers on a young boy who forms a rock band, hoping it will impress a mysterious local aspiring model. Set in the 1980s, the film is filled with big hair, copious Duran Duran references, and a stellar soundtrack. It takes classroom daydreams and turns them into a charming and hilarious reality. The boys film elaborate music videos on their handheld cameras, perform at their school's prom to screaming crowds, and fearlessly rock David Bowie-esque eyeliner and dresses. Over the course of the wacky, feel-good film, Conor, the film's protagonist, sheds his shyness and steps into his own superstar persona. By its end, Sing Street will have you wanting to go out and chase your teenage dreams again, unabashed this time.

The Edge of Seventeen
Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a girl that life just seems to have a grudge on. While Nadine is shy and insecure, her older brother Darian is the Ken doll of their high school: attractive, charming, and extremely successful. This does not make Nadine feel any better when she discovers that her best friend is entering a relationship with Darian. Life sucks, right? But as the film progresses, it becomes clearer that Nadine is frequently the cause of her own downfalls. She toys around with people's feelings, is often - quite frankly - self-absorbed, and is a certified hot mess. Nadine is a darkly comedic example of our most awkward, self-destructive years.

Being 17
What better way to spark the coming-of-age process than first love? Being 17 uses the breathtaking Haute-Pyrénées mountains of southern France as the backdrop for a burgeoning relationship between two boys. Damien and Thomas begin the film as adversaries - tripping, punching, and shoving each other during school - but tip-toe into being something much more than frenemies. As the boys flip-flop between feigning death stares and studying together, famed director André Téchiné explores the confusing and conflicting feelings teenage crushes can manifest. It can feel like all the wrong valves are going off inside us, and, as Being 17 poetically illustrates, love and hate are more similar in feeling than different.

Presented in three distinct chapters, Moonlight tracks the evolution of Miami-born Chiron and from childhood to adulthood. Director Barry Jenkins tenderly portrays Chiron's changing understanding of his sexuality through the years. As Chiron grows up, he goes from not really understanding the meaning of the word "gay" to having recurring dreams about a boy from school. The film's final chapter is the most heartbreaking. It serves as a poignant postscript to the typical coming-of-age tale; a reminder that finding your identity and keeping it are two very different stories.

The Fits
Toni, an 11-year-old tomboy, tries to fit in with the girls at her school by joining the dance team. The film's narrative operates primarily through show rather than tell: large spaces of silence that match Toni's shy, quiet world. As it slithers alongs, the plot takes on magical realist qualities when the girls are mysteriously afflicted with unexplained seizures. The airy film reaches its apex when Toni is suddenly floating in the sky, looking down on the girls she has tried so hard to be like and, for once, smiling. It's a beautiful, poetic depiction of Black girlhood. Director Anna Rose Holmer used plenty of real-life Cincinnati dancers to populate the film, blessing it with plenty of #BlackGirlMagic.

The Neon Demon
Elle Fanning stars in this visually stunning film about the dark side of the modeling world. An aspiring model, 16-year-old Jesse becomes consumed by her desire for fame and allows herself to become a puppet. Similar to psycho-thriller Black Swan, Neon Demon offers up a twisted portrayal of a young girl trading in her innocence for beauty and fame.

Girl Asleep
This Australian dramedy feels like a whimsical collaboration between Wes Anderson and the creator of Napoleon Dynamite. Greta Driscoll is a 15-year-old who can't escape the pull of her embarrassing but well-meaning parents. Despite her protests, they throw Greta a birthday party and invite the entire school. Greta is pulled down even further when Elliot, a freckled braceface, confesses his love for Greta only to receive a swift rejection. Greta knows what she wants and life is just not giving it to her. Girl Asleep exists in that painful in-between phase of being stuck with the cards life has dealt you and holding out for something better.

Coming Through The Rye
We all go through a Catcher in the Rye phase, believing everyone is a "phony" and pondering where the Central Park ducks go in winter. Starring Alex Wolff (Naked Brothers Band), this indie film is about a boy who takes his obsession with the classic novel too far. Jamie has adapted the novel into a play (playing the role of Holden Caulfield himself, of course) and runs away to find J.D. Salinger, the famously reclusive author of the book, and receive copyright permission. What results is a personal odyssey very similar to Holden's, filled with self-discovery, reflection, and growth.

Most coming-of-age tales end on a note of hope, reassuring audiences that life gets better. Indignation does the exact opposite. Based on the 2008 Philip Roth novel of the same name, the bleak film is set during the Korean War and depicts the slow demise of a Jewish college student who butts heads with his dean over religion and the school's compulsory practice of it. Marcus Messner (played by Logan Lerman) is forced to decide between his values and the bright future his working-class parents have worked so hard to give him.

Being Charlie
Starring Nick Robinson (Kings of Summer), Being Charlie sees the charming actor as a politician's son who's fallen from grace. At the beginning, Charlie has escaped from rehab (again) and run back to his Bel-Air mansion. Charlie's tough-love father is running for office and demands his son enter rehab again, worried about the potential PR fallout his son will trigger. The third time seems to be the charm. Charlie begins to find himself through stand-up comedy, bonds with a manic-pixie love interest, and reflects on his privilege and the destructive behavior it has birthed.


Text André-Naquian Wheeler

The Neon Demon
Sing Street
the fits
being 17
being charlie
coming through the rye
girl asleep
the edge of seventeen