Coming of Age on Film

By Giordana Russo

'Coming of age’ is a term commonly used to describe someone transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. For whatever reason, this section of life has proven to be an incredibly fruitful area for filmmaking and indeed storytelling in general. The swirl of confusing, confounding emotions create innately cinematic situations, hence the wealth of films falling under this bracket.


I’ll be introducing you to five films, all from different countries and of varying genres, the common thread being that they are wrapped around a ‘coming of age’ story.


1. Respire/Breathe (2014):

Directed by Mélanie Laurent, Breathe is a French drama that follows Charlie (Josephine Japy) and Sarah (Lou de Laage) and their friendship, which quickly turns toxic.


Both girls are having a hard time and find in each other solace, but the type of solace they find is not one of understanding; this “solace” they felt was in knowing that the other was worse off, in several instances they unknowingly belittle each other before doing so on purpose.


The focus on a friendship as a narrative device for a ‘coming of age’ plot rather than a romantic relationship is what sets this film aside from similar ones.


Charlie and Sarah don’t know how to interact within their environment, they put up facades as they’re constantly worried of each other’s judgement. Fear of judgement is a sentiment that many people can very well relate and emphasize with. It’s hard to move past it, and this film does not show such closure but instead shows an alternative result.


Their transition into adulthood is not a healthy one, it showcases how severe problems that occur during adolescence can unfortunately continue into adulthood. The harrowing ending of the film grounds its plot into reality, having the protagonists not find a coping mechanism for their struggles.


2. Mustang (2015)

Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang is a Turkish drama that follows a five sisters whom are segregated in their house to be prepared to be good wives for the husband they’ll get through an arranged marriage.

From oldest to youngest, we have Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit İşcan), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu) and Lale (Günes Sensoy).

All five sisters are going through their ‘coming of age’, at the same time. Their different personalities and attitudes provide five different outcomes to the same situation. The oldest ones have to make a decision beyond their age and anything they do will also be looked at by their younger sisters, which adds pressure and responsibility to their actions. Instead, the younger sisters find themselves in a situation of fear and worry that kids of their age in other countries would never experience.


Mustang is a brilliant film that shows how different a ‘coming of age’ story can be depending on the character’s personality and the environment they live in. Their country, their family’s beliefs heavily affect their transition into adulthood which is both refreshing from a film viewer’s perspective and terrifying from a human being’s perspective. Films often tackle several subjects at once, some fail and some succeed, Mustang succeeds as it also sheds light on the lifestyle and expectation of teens and young Turkish women.

3. Thelma (2017)

Directed by Joachim Trier, Thelma is a Norwegian supernatural drama and thriller. It follows, you guessed it, Thelma (Eili Harboe) as she moves out to go to university and develops feelings for a girl named Anja (Kaya Wilkins), which doesn’t sit well with her religious background.

Thelma manifests supernatural powers when these changes in her life happen, it’s vague whether her powers are real or they’re just in her mind as they only appear in critical moments, symbolising her internal conflict.

Thelma’s story is one of liberation. Her parents have repressed her, and as she grew older she kept doing so to herself too. She goes to great lengths to preserve an unchanged life, ignoring her desires and needs; however, changes happen, she must learn to embrace her new future and let the past behind. By the end of the film, she manages to take some control over her life although it’s hinted that her journey might need some more work.


The use of supernatural elements as a medium to convey a coming of age story is what makes Thelma a standout film in this list. Despite an understandable scepticism that can be felts by reading the premise; this film has managed to integrate elements of supernatural, psychological thriller, romantic drama and make out of it something thrilling and relatable.

4. Thoroughbreds (2018)

Directed by Cory Finley, Thoroughbreds is an American black comedy and thriller that follows a pair of very peculiar characters. Amanda (Olivia Cooke) could be described as a sociopath as she feels no emotions and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) does feel but very intensely, leading to behavioural issues.


They’re at the end of their adolescence, having to make plans for their future but because of their situations, their plans and lives are still taken over by their parents or guardians.  Lily feels trapped in her situation, Amanda has no intention of keeping up her façade and as two impulsive individuals, rather than trying to overcome their obstacles, they decide to get rid of them.


'Coming of age’ stories usually present us with characters going through a journey to find themselves, figure out their needs, desires and feelings in general; however, in this particular story none of that happens, Lily and Amanda know who they are and don’t seem to want to change anything. They’re already at a point of acceptance, they know their reality, which might vastly vary from others’, and only see what’s in front of them as an obstacle. They manipulate and force their way into adulthood.


Thoroughbreds offers an alternative view into what a ‘coming of age’ story can be like, something that is very refreshing and although the characters themselves are not easy to sympathize with, their situation and emotions are.

5. Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

Directed by Brett Haley, Hearts Beat Loud is an American comedy and drama that came out just over a month ago. It parallels Sam’s (Kiersey Clemons) ‘coming of age’ story with Frank’s (Nick Offerman), her father, midlife crisis.


‘Coming of age’ and midlife crisis have several similarities as they both deal with an identity crisis so it was a pleasant surprise to see such parallel unfold.


Frank has to close the music shop he’s owned for close to 20 years, while Sam is due going to university. They’re both also passionate musicians which is something they’re starting to consider pursuing.


Now they both struggle as they try to navigate between their dreams and reality. Frank projects his own desires onto his daughter; he’s dealing with having to let go two things that were constant in his life and needs to learn how to do so for the better good. Sam is in a similar situation, the only difference is that with her age, she doesn’t have the same experience as her father and has to plan her future nonetheless. Ultimately, they both have to choose what to follow, however, the situation is not as black and white as it looks, there’s also the opportunity for compromises which the film introduces towards the end.


The end is very grounded, emphasising the realistic approach this film has with its themes.


It also gave one of the best quotes of the year: We don’t always get to do what we love, though we need to love what we do.


‘Coming of age’ stories are easily looked down upon, seen as a ‘young adult’ type of thing, however the exploration of emotions and self-identity discovery is something that anyone can relate to. These films each have a unique approach to the stories they’re telling, their approach to convey themes and concepts is intriguing and new, I highly rate each single one of these six films.