Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD was released earlier this year to wide acclaim, and for good reasons: Few films have taken the trials and tribulations of teenage girls quite so seriously, and even fewer have managed to make their main character feel so wonderfully—and, at times, so frustratingly—relatable. If you’ve ever been a 17-year-old girl, you know what it’s like to screech at your mother in a blind rage, find out the first person you’ve set your heart on isn’t what they seem, or try to change yourself to better fit in with the popular kids (while pushing away the friends who really care about you).
As LADY BIRD so clearly illustrates, the best coming-of-age films are the ones that are incredibly personal yet more universally relatable—yet historically women have been quite underrepresented as writers and directors in the industry. This means our stories have often been told by men, or buried at the box office, or significantly altered, or centered around a male love interest, or not told at all. Which makes watching and celebrating the stories told for us, by us, all the more important. So starting with some important banner films from the silent era and moving all the way up through 2017, I present to you a curated canon of the most important entries from the genre.
Follow my full list of women’s coming-of-age films on Letterboxd, and stay tuned for the next installment, in which we’ll explore the 1970s. Missed parts one (the early years), two (1945 to 1960), and three (the 1960s)? Catch up!
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VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS: Ester Krumbachová—known later for her collaborations with DAISIES auteur Vera Chytilová—co-wrote the script for this surrealist Czech horror film that couches a one-of-a-kind coming-of-age story inside an ethereal, psychedelic Raphaelite dreamscape of lecherous vampires, witches, and animal spirits. (Yes, it’s as lush and erotically charged as that description implies.) Based off a book by Vítězslav Nezval, the nonlinear script follows the sexual awakening of a young girl named Valerie, who navigates through the horror of her subconscious with the help of a pair of magical earrings that protect her from the masculine forces that threaten to harm her.
A REAL YOUNG GIRL: Brilliant auteur Catherine Breillat made her debut as a director with 1976’s A REALLY YOUNG GIRL, which she based on one of her own earlier novels, THE OPENING. A meditation on sexuality and trauma, the film is unflinching and unapologetic in its use of nudity—in fact, back in 1976, the film’s producer was so fearful of getting smacked with an X-rating (which at that time would have been accompanied by an excessive tax) that he suppressed A REAL YOUNG GIRL’s theatrical release. Luckily the negative was put into storage and finally released in theaters a quarter of a century later, once Breillat broke through into the mainstream (well, you know, sort of) with her 1999 film ROMANCE.
DAWN: PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE RUNAWAY: The prolific Dalene Young (LITTLE DARLINGS, THE BABY-SITTERS CLUB) penned the script for DAWN, a made-for-TV movie starring Eve Plumb (attempting here to shed her clean-cut image as TV’s Jan Brady) that has since gone on to amass something of a cult following. It’s a bit alarming to see the middle Brady sister skip out of suburbia and take up a new life in Southern California, especially once she’s taken in by a pimp without a heart of gold and sent to work the streets of Hollywood to the sounds of (wait for it) The Runaways. Thankfully, Young’s script is strong enough to elevate the material past the run-of-the-mill after-school specials that were so de rigeur back in the ’70s.
BERNICE BOBS HER HAIR: The year 1976 also saw the TV movie adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 short story BERNICE BOBS HER HAIR, a zippy little high-society farce with surprising depth. Shelley Duvall stars as the film’s titular heroine, a high-strung, awkward girl from an upper-class New England family who refuses to submit to the rituals of femininity required to entice a “suitable match” for a girl of her station. Her cousin Marjorie, the consummate socialite, reluctantly takes Bernice under her wing to teach her the tricks of the trade, and soon Bernice is the talk of the town, especially once she declares she’s going to (gasp) bob her beautiful long blonde hair.
HET DEBUUT: Nouchka van Brakel became the first female director of a major film in her home country of The Netherlands in 1977 when she collaborated with Carel Donck to bring Hester Albach’s book, HET DEBUUT, to the big screen. Here, Marina de Graaf stars as Carolein, a 14-year-old girl who enters into a clandestine relationship with a married 40-something friend of her parents who is visiting for Christmas from his home country of Zambia. Van Brakel, who is known for her straightforward style of storytelling, was part of the Dutch feminist action group Dolle Mina, which set out to draw attention to gender inequality and inspire change, and she made a number of short films in the ’60s and ’70s before penning HET DEBUUT, which was remarkably successful at the box office, ending up as one of the three top Dutch films of 1977. Van Brakel followed it up two years later with EEN VROUW ALS EVA, a movie about a discontented housewife who falls in love with another woman that has been heralded as one of the key films of the Dutch New Wave.
PEPPERMINT SODA: Diane Kurys (ENTRE NOUS, POUR UNE FEMME) made her directorial debut with 1977’s PEPPERMINT SODA, an utterly charming (and occasionally heartbreaking) Prix Louis-Delluc–winning autobiographical film she also co-wrote with Alain Le Henry. PEPPERMINT SODA follows two young Jewish sisters, Anne and Frederique, as they navigate the highs and lows of adolescence at their all-girls school in 1960s Paris in the wake of their parents’ divorce. The story is told primarily through the vantage point of the younger sister, who’s in that awkward, rebellious stage where she’s still very much a child but also wants to be grown up and drink peppermint sodas at cafés with her friends and wear stockings. There’s also a lot of biting commentary about adulthood—the teachers, parents, and other authority figures populating the film are shown to be just as gossipy, mean, confused, and human as the young folks they’re in charge of (because some people never change).
PRETTY BABY: Veteran Hollywood producer and art director Polly Platt (whose credits include THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and SAY ANYTHING…, among so many other classic films) wrote the script for French director Louis Malle’s period piece set in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, a film that understandably was mired in controversy at the time of its release. The chief reason? Malle’s decision to cast 12-year-old Brooke Shields as a young girl named Violet who grows up in a brothel and has her virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder with the blessing of her own mother (Susan Sarandon). But the end result is far from exploitative—Malle and Platt’s melancholic period drama offers up a look at a life predetermined by social standing and the horrifying way we sexualize young girls and force them to grow up too fast.
MY BRILLIANT CAREER: Australian writer Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (better known as Miles Franklin) penned her novel MY BRILLIANT CAREER—a tale of an aspiring young female writer from a poor family who is pressured by her parents to become a housewife—in 1901 when she was just a teenager, and she had trouble handling its widespread acclaim. Her follow-up, MY CAREER GOES BUNG, took her just another few years to write, but her publishers didn’t like the book’s feminism, and it wasn’t published until the 1940s. It would be another three decades before Gilliam Armstrong revived interest in Franklin’s work with her faithful adaptation starring Judy Davis as Sybylla Melvyn and Sam Neill as the suitor she ultimately rejects in order to pursue her ambition.