Early crushes, school bullies; hobbies, complexes; the formative teenage years of our lives are filled with enough emotionally charged material to make for a vibrant fictional film. But as we know, real life can be pretty wild at times, and for decades filmmakers have been making coming-of-age documentaries that capture the nuances of that experience.
Since the millennium, the genre has flourished. With the advent of the internet, a charged political landscape and changing attitudes towards topics once considered taboo, young people are faced with more confusing topics than ever. These seven films, from Africa to America, do a remarkable job of distinguishing that experience.
1. All That Panic (2017)
For outsiders, growing up in a city like New York conjures up a whole different coming-of-age experience than what you might have growing up in a small town. All this panic, which focuses on three Brooklyn teenage girls as subjects, both confirms and refutes this idea. On the one hand, it’s a film about the pleasures and privileges of a liberal metropolitan education, and the value of those experiences in our formative years. On the other hand, it is a reminder of the shared experience of puberty and growing pains.
2. Futura (2022)
What could we become? This is the question on the lips of the subjects of Futura, a documentary co-directed by three legends of Italian cinema: Alice Rohrwacher, Pietro Marcello and Francesco Munzi. Filmed during the pandemic, it focuses specifically on 15-20 year olds in Italy, a country with an aging population, as they wonder how they will navigate their collective future.
3. Consider the Gap (2018)
Filmed in America’s Rust Belt, this documentary earned an Oscar nomination for its candid framing of the relationship between three teenagers, bonded by their love of skating. In a region experiencing an economic downturn, Zack, Bing and Keire are skateboarding through their own mundane landscape, ruminating on their ten-year friendship, when a revelation forces them to make an important decision. As compulsive to watch as any drama, this documentary is rare and special.
4. Coming of Age (2015)
While most coming-of-age documentaries tend to focus specifically on the American experience, this overlooked 2015 film turns its lens to a group of teenagers in Africa. In the mountainous region of Lesotho, four teenagers were followed with cameras for two years by director Teboho Edkins. Their lives in a small village are isolated, but even then, the slightest change seems to force them to contemplate their destiny and their future.
5. Main Class (2021)
Homeroom time setting is not repeatable. Filmed during the 2020 pandemic, this documentary spends time with senior students at a high school in Oakland, California. The school itself is struggling with a lack of funding, and the ripple effect on its students and their future is palpable. And so, as the pandemic forces school closures, followed by racial reckoning in the wake of Black Lives Matter, director Peter Nicks highlights how social and medical catastrophe can affect us as we begin to do our own way in the world.
6. Bewitched (2002)
Essential in English classrooms for all members of a certain generation, this original and curious documentary follows the finalists of the 1999 National Spelling Bee, as the numbers dwindle and one person is about to win. a big cash prize and the prestigious title of star of the contest. Full of one-liners and memorable characters, the film captures the kind of family hostility that stems from competitive sports and pursuits: what happens when our parents desperately want us to be something, and what we sacrifice to get there.
America is such a vast landscape that the experiences of its teenagers differ wildly depending on where you place your lens. Moving away from the coastal hubs and instead focusing on Texas, Cusp captures the aimless summer of a group of teenage girls as they come to terms with the realities of adulthood drawing ever closer. Escapes and fears are captured in real time; older boys, usually characters written in scripts, appear, interested in girls much younger than them. It is both dangerous and liberating to testify.
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