Bo Burham’s Eighth Grade is a coming-of-age story for a digital generation. But even though young Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) must mature her way through a world of Snapchat and vlogs and the other trappings of Generation Z, her struggle is still timeless. Awkwardness knows no timestamp, and anxiety existed long before YouTube. Eighth Grade is replete with superlatives, but it starts with the duo of Fisher and Burnham. Fisher’s performance is astonishing, especially for such a young actor. Burham’s writing pops with realism and his direction oozes confidence, impressive for a feature debut. Together, the two infuse the film with a bittersweet realism and a staunch statement that it is always hard to grow up, but it is always possible to make it through.
Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a stirring coming-of-age story focusing on the relationship between a high school senior and her mother. Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, but insists that everyone call her “Lady Bird”. Her relationship with her mother, played by the excellent Laurie Metcalf, is fraught with complications – just like any mother-daughter relationship. Gerwig’s story has obvious autobiographical aspects, lending the film a refreshing matter-of-fact feeling. Lady Bird is a flawed protagonist, and her mother isn’t perfect either. Still, Lady Bird grows up a lot in the last year of high school, despite all the awkward romances and familial tension. Though detractors may classify Lady Bird as a film that doesn’t take many risks, its themes are timeless, perfectly executed, and packed with realism. Lady Bird is a resounding success from a first-time director, a seemingly-effortless bit of cinematic mastery.
Call Me by Your Name is a tender and warm coming of age story that beautifully captures that peculiar mixture of melancholy and exhilaration that so often accompanies a first love. Set in Italy in the 1980s, it is a subtle, sensuous, and gorgeous film. The pacing is pastoral and languid, lending the characters a lived-in and complex feel as they explore their surroundings. It sports a timeless plot about self-discovery and sexual exploration, with impeccable performances. Director Luca Guadagnino has perfectly executed one of the most heartbreaking and satisfying films of recent memory.
Though he has only a pair of independent films to his name, director Jon Watts (Clown, Cop Car) sure knows his way around a friendly neighborhood Spider-man. The product of a team-up between Sony and Marvel Studios, Spider-man: Homecoming places the iconic webslinger in high school. This choice dictates many aspects of the film, from the story and characters all the way down to the sense of humor and the overarching themes of growing into one’s responsibilities. At the very least, it certainly establishes Watts’s version of Spider-man as different, which is absolutely crucial given that this is the third iteration of Peter Parker in the last 15 years.
In J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, the director mixes the hyper-reality of the agonizing struggles of a young boy named Conor O’Malley with a vibrant fantasy world involving a titanic tree monster. Like in Bayona’s previous feature El Orfanato (The Orphanage), reality and fantasy are blended together in fascinating ways, until it is not quite clear precisely what we are looking at. Though certainly a daunting task, Bayona and his performers manage to tell an engaging coming-of-age story about grief, coping, and the power of storytelling.
In her directorial debut, Kelly Fremon Craig has nailed the awkward world of teenage angst in The Edge of Seventeen. Starring Academy Award Nominee Hailee Steinfeld, this coming-of-age film showcases some incredible acting talent, a real command of language, a distinctive comedic voice, and strong plotting elements. Though that peculiar brand of teenage ennui is apparent, there is an undeniable emotion and heart at the core of this story. Sometimes sad and angry, other times exalted and jubilant – and then right back to sad and angry, The Edge of Seventeen belongs right beside the classic coming-of-age films for portraying the challenge of growing up with practically perfect execution.