Going through puberty is not easy. The physical changes can be embarrassing and bewildering, and the emotional realities—all those new feelings—can be overwhelming and downright scary. For some, the only source of solace is the knowledge that everyone experiences it. The tender process of growing up is universal, which may be why movies about that stage of life can be so engrossing even for adults—we can revisit an important time and remember that change is inevitable. Countless films over the years have captured the joys, sorrows, humiliations, and thrills of puberty, providing guidance for viewers going through it or a winking reminder for those looking back.
This month, puberty will be back on screen in a big way: the long-awaited film adaptation of Judy Blume’s beloved book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., arrives in theaters on April 28. The story follows 11-year-old Margaret, fresh off a move from New York City to suburban New Jersey, as she navigates sixth grade and all the ups and downs of puberty, from her first bra to her first period.
Here, 12 great films about growing up.
Stand by Me (1986)
Considered a quintessential coming-of-age film for young boys, Stand By Me centers on a group of four 12-year-olds who embark on a hike to find the body of a missing boy they’ve read about. Based on Stephen King’s novel The Body and directed by Rob Reiner, the film is an exploration of what’s gained and what’s lost when we pass the threshold into adulthood.
Now & Then (1995)
For childhood best friends Samantha, Roberta, Chrissy, and Tina, reuniting as adults stirs up memories from the summer that changed the course of their lives in a touching coming-of-age film from director Lesli Linka Glatter. In scenes from the summer of 1970, when they were 12, the girls adjust to the rapid development of their bodies, experience first kisses, and grapple with other big challenges like divorce and grief after an unexpected death. Through these life changes, the girls discover the people they want to be and the true meaning of friendship, leaving them with lessons they’ll bring into adulthood.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
In this cult-classic film by Todd Solondz, Dawn, an unpopular and geeky 7th grader, is trying her hardest not to be crushed by the incessant bullying at her middle school and the complicated dynamics of her loving but flawed family. Buoyed only by the hope that she’ll one day be adored by her crush Steve, a high schooler in a garage band, Dawn spends all her time rebuffing the romantic advances of the school bully, Brandon.
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Kasi Lemmons’ critically acclaimed coming-of-age film is a study on the sharp-eyed observations of a pubescent girl who, though she’s often undermined or dismissed, sees the world with startling clarity. For 10-year-old Eve, a keen observer on the precipice of adolescence, change seems to be everywhere in her sleepy Louisiana town—her teenage sister Cecily is swiftly becoming a woman and grappling with what that means when it comes to her appearance and her sexuality, while her parents’ tumultuous marriage (and particularly her father’s numerous extramarital affairs) shift her understanding of love and security. As Eve grapples with the discomforting realities of her world, she seeks answers wherever she can find them—including from her spiritual, voodoo-practicing Aunt Mozelle. Especially when it comes to Cecily and how Eve views her as she becomes a woman, the film takes a nuanced perspective on the ways in which young girls are often overlooked.
13 Going on 30 (2004)
For 13-year-old Jenna Rink, who laments being awkward, flat-chested, and socially inept, a birthday wish to bypass adolescence and become “30, flirty, and thriving” delivers far more than she bargains for in Gary Winick’s zany and beloved rom-com. After some magic glitter makes her impulsive wish come true, Jenna is whisked away into the future, where she inhabits the body and glamorous life of her 30-year-old self, a successful magazine editor, but discovers that getting everything you wished for may not be what you imagined.
In Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda, a young Saudi Arabian girl’s desire for a beautiful green bike becomes a metaphor for her desire for freedom and independence. Ten-year-old Wadjda is determined to own a bike that she sees on display in her town, creating side hustles and entering a school competition to win prize money after her mother refuses to buy it for her. Wadjda’s efforts make her increasingly aware of the limitations her society places on her and other girls and women in her life, including her mother, who is grappling with the uncertainty of Wadjda’s father looking for another wife.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a sweeping coming-of-age epic, follows the life of Mason, played by the same actor from ages 6 to 18, as he lives and learns through many rites of passage. Bearing witness to the seemingly banal yet devastatingly intimate moments that help shape a person as they transition from childhood to adulthood—from surviving bullying to developing a crush and falling in love for the first time—the film is a tribute to the universal experience of growing up.
In Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, five young sisters strain against the narrow and stifling expectations of their family while growing up in a rural village in Turkey. For Lale, Sonay, Selma, Ece, and Nur, whose parents have died, life is a daily reminder of the boundaries set by their grandparents and uncle, who have taken on the task of raising them. The sisters’ collective desire for independence and their burgeoning sexuality create constant tensions in their home life, leading each girl to find freedom in her own way.
Eighth Grade (2018)
Bo Burnham’s touching and painfully real film about 13-year-old Kayla’s last week of 8th grade may be one of the most visceral representations of puberty on film. From the pangs of an unrequited crush to the ineffable horror of showing up to a pool party in a one-piece swimsuit when all the other girls are in bikinis, Kayla’s growing pains as she discovers who she is and who she is becoming will be familiar to anyone who’s weathered adolescence. With sensitivity and levity, Burnham captures all the emotions—the good, the bad, and the very, very embarrassing—of being an eighth grade girl.
Good Boys (2019)
For Max, Lucas, and Thor, three dorky best friends in the sixth grade and the charming protagonists of Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys, the biggest catastrophe is that none of them know how to kiss a girl. Anticipating an upcoming party where Max’s crush will be in attendance, the boys set out to learn how to plant a smooch by spying on Max’s teenage next-door neighbor. But their relatively innocent snooping soon results in the high-stakes misadventure of a lifetime as they cut class, engage in a madcap chase across town, inadvertently come to possess drugs, and yes—land a first kiss.
Amy, an 11-year-old Muslim Senegalese girl living in Paris, is looking for an outlet from her strict home life in Maïmouna Doucouré’s electrifying film about girlhood and choice. Amy is fascinated by her neighbor’s twerking dance squad, a group that she eventually secretly joins despite knowing her conservative family would disapprove—her ultra-religious aunt, in particular. The squad serves as a distraction from her father’s upcoming polygynous second marriage, something that agitates both Amy and her mother. When Amy’s secret is discovered, it sets off a series of events that lead her to develop her own ideas about what she wants for her future.
Turning Red (2022)
In Domee Shi’s first feature film, the animated Turning Red, Meilin “Mei” Lee, a smart and spunky 13-year-old, has perfected the balancing act of being a typical teen who loves her friends and boy bands while managing her mother’s expectations that she be a dutiful daughter and help out at the family temple. It’s already hard enough juggling both her familial obligations and her personal interests with the growing pains of adolescence, but Mei soon finds herself facing a big new problem: suddenly, she starts transforming into a gigantic red panda whenever she feels a strong emotion. The change leads Mei on a journey of self-discovery that uncovers long-held family secrets.
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