Coming-of-age movies for the ages

Ten classics for parents and teens

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

The success of Martin Scorsese’s marvelous 3-D adventure “Hugo” (2011) – a coming-of-age movie that pays homage to the nascent days of the silent cinema – stems partly from the fact that Scorsese himself literally came of age watching movies.

A lonely child who couldn’t play outside with other kids due to chronic asthma, Scorsese found solace from his affliction and escape from the mean streets of New York’s Little Italy by holing up in movie houses and living vicariously through his heroes of the silver screen.

Yet one doesn’t have to be an avid film buff like Scorsese to have one’s formative years shaped by the cinema.

A favorite movie star might influence the way a teenager dresses, or cuts his hair, or even how he talks or acts.

A single film might inspire a future career path.

Movies featuring teenage characters can have the particular effect of making the angst of the teenage years more bearable by providing an onscreen representation of adolescent growing pains.

A good coming-of-age movie is one that retains its relevance with age – and that can be appreciated regardless of one’s age.

The following are 10 movie recommendations (in alphabetical order) for both parents and teens that share the common theme of teens maturing into adults:

 “American Graffiti” (1973, directed by George Lucas)

Set in 1962, just 11 years prior to being made, “American Graffiti” invented the nostalgia movie. But there’s still no better source for parents to show teens what life was like in the days of drive-ins and sock hops. And by focusing on the last day of summer after high school graduation – the last gasp of youth before the looming pressures of adulthood– the future creator of the futuristic “Star Wars” made a period piece that remains timeless.

 “The Breakfast Club” (1985, directed by John Hughes)

Anyone who grew up in the ’80s grew up with “The Breakfast Club.” Whether you were the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, the criminal – or a combination thereof – there was someone to identify with in the film. Today’s teens will get a laugh out of the fashion and music of the era, but when it comes down to the movie’s basic teen issues, has anything really changed?

 “Breaking Away” (1979, directed by Peter Yates)

Peter Yates is best known for directing Steve McQueen’s archetypal car chase through the hilly streets of San Francisco in “Bullitt,” but his best outing behind the camera was this quirky comedy set in Bloomington, Ind., where four local townies come of age in the shadow of privileged Indiana University frat culture. It’s a familiar underdog story, complete with a climatic bike race, but its idiosyncratic tone defies convention.

 “A Bronx Tale” (1993, directed by Robert De Niro)

A word of caution: “A Bronx Tale” contains scenes of harshly realistic violence and coarse language typical of the racially charged milieu of the Bronx, circa 1968. Disclaimer aside, Robert De Niro’s directorial debut is an often touching tale of a boy growing into a man under the influence of two father figures: his actual father, a blue collar bus driver (De Niro); and the local mob boss (Chazz Palminteri, who also wrote the screenplay based on his own childhood). With an agile camera sense – informed by longtime collaborator Martin Scorsese – De Niro provides a broad tapestry of urban yearning that contains one of Hollywood’s most honest interracial romances.

 “Cinema Paradiso” (1988, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore)

Yes, it’s subtitled – a surefire teen turnoff – but Giuseppe Tornatore’s love poem to the cinema, featuring a liberal amount of clips from classic American movies, is as good a starting place as any to introduce teens to both the golden age of Hollywood and modern international cinema. As a bonus, you also get the poignantly rendered story of a boy coming of age in a sleepy Sicilian village under the tutelage of a benevolently crusty film projectionist.

 “East of Eden” (1955, directed by Elia Kazan)

“Rebel Without a Cause” is the more famous James Dean movie, but “East of Eden” (Dean’s film debut) has aged much better – despite being set considerably earlier, during the First World War. Taking a small portion of the 1952 John Steinbeck novel as his source, Method acting guru Elia Kazan channeled its biblical edifice into a compact narrative, and in the process, turned Dean into the voice of a generation of youths.

 “Hoosiers” (1986, directed by David Anspaugh)

“Hoosiers” is a collective coming-of-age story, chronicling the improbable Indiana state high school basketball championship of a small town team. But it’s also about two adults’ belated maturation: Gene Hackman, as the disgraced former college coach who finds redemption at the high school level; and Dennis Hopper (in an Oscar-nominated performance), as the town drunk who must revert to childlike dependency on his son before he can regain his life.

 “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975, directed by Peter Weir)

A strong candidate for the greatest Australian movie ever made, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is a riddle without a solution – the unsolved mystery of picnicking schoolgirls who disappear in the outback. But it’s really about the eternal mysteries of burgeoning adulthood and the perpetual tragedy of innocence lost.

 “Rushmore” (1998, directed by Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson’s offbeat comic masterpiece is a cross-generational coming-of-age story, treating teenage angst and middle-aged malaise as two sides of the same coin. Set at a private academy, “Rushmore” is the story of a 15-year-old dreamer (Jason Schwartzman) and a 50-year-old millionaire (Bill Murray) who fall in love with the same schoolteacher. It’s like “The Catcher in the Rye” meets “The Graduate,” set to the music of the British Invasion.

 “The Social Network” (2010, directed by David Fincher)

Call it a modern classic. A Best Picture contender during the 2010 Oscar season, “The Social Network” is the fictional telling of the founding of the cultural force that is Facebook. But it’s also the story of the coming of age – or rather, the comeuppance – of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who made billions of dollars but many enemies on his way to the top of the social media world. It should be required viewing for any computer illiterate parent who wonders what Facebook is, and just what their teen is doing every night after school.