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 coming-of-age films of the ’90s. Missed parts one (the early years), two (1945 to 1960), three (the ’60s), and four (the ’70s)? Catch up!
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LA BOUM: A young Sophie Marceau stars as Vic, a 13-year-old whose family’s move to Paris upends her life—if being the new girl at school wasn’t enough, she’s also witness the marital discord between her parents. But the film isn’t as traumatic as all that would suggest… There’s a lighthearted touch and humor to the proceedings that feels suited to its protagonist’s youthful optimism as she falls in love for the first time. Prolific writer-director Danièle Thompson co-wrote the script alongside director Claude Pinoteau, and the film went on to be a major hit at the box office worldwide
LITTLE DARLINGS: Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol star in one of the decade’s signature teen sex comedies, portraying two teenage girls who make a pact to lose their virginity one summer at camp. (One of their targets? A super-young, super-feathery-haired Matt Dillon) It’s kitschy exploitation at its finest, only in this instance the girls are fully in control of their sexuality, spending the film’s running time loudly talking about boys, ogling boys, pursuing boys (and men). Queer readings very much encouraged. Kimi Peck and Dalene Young (whose credits include DAWN: PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE RUNAWAY and PANIC IN ECHO PARK) penned the script from a story Peck wrote.LITTLE DARLINGS:
LA FEMME ENFANT: Multi-talented French artist Raphaële Billetdoux made her silver-screen debut with LA FEMME ENFANT, a symbolism-laden film she wrote and directed. Kicking off a decade of racy coming-of-age tales exploring (oft-age-inappropriate) sexuality, LA FEMME ENFANT stars Klaus Kinski as a mute middle-aged gardener who forms a wildly inappropriate bond (the exact nature of which is kept a bit murky—we never find out whether or not their relationship is consummated) with a lonely 11-year-old girl (Pénélope Palmer). Set in the French countryside, the film shows the rise and fall of the three-year-long affair, as the young girl, Elisabeth, grows up and away from a man she once sought sanctuary in.
FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH: It’s hard to believe Amy Heckerling had never directed a feature before coming aboard FAST TIMES, a cult classic that deftly blends comedy in drama while dealing with incredibly sensitive subjects, including a teen girl’s first experience with sex (spoiler alert—it’s less than stellar) and a subsequent abortion. The scene’s frank depiction of teenage life in America initially earned the film an X-rating due to a brief glimpse of (gasp!) male full-frontal nudity. Heckerling, who was just 27 at the time she shot FAST TIMES, says Universal VP Verna Fields (legendary editor of JAWS) wanted to go to Washington, D.C., to appeal the MPAA’s call, but eventually the decision was made to blur the “offensive” content in the final cut
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS: There’s so much to love about this film penned by Nancy Dowd, from its cast of future all-stars to its satirical take on the music industry. (It’s also very, very quotable.) Diane Lane plays Corinne Burns, a frustrated teen who finds power when she starts a punk band. Corinne and her fellow bandmates (played by Laura Dern and Marin Kanter) don’t let the fact that they can’t really sing or play instruments stop them—their recklessness and tough image soon turn them into cult sensations. Dowd was inspired to write the script after visiting Europe and meeting The Clash’s manager, Caroline Coon, although she would eventually ask to have her name removed from the film’s credits due to unhappiness with the final product as well as the creepy behavior of some of the film’s crew. Time is (finally, hopefully) up.
SCRUBBERS: Upon being tapped to helm SCRUBBERS—a women’s twist on Alan Clarke’s 1979 U.K. prison drama SCUM—Swedish director Mai Zetterling spent a good deal of time rewriting the script. “The original script for ‘Scrubbers’ was Peeping Tom stuff,” she said at the time of the film’s release. Yes, the final product still contains a startling amount of violence (and occasional nudity), but instead of delivering an all-out exploitation film à la SCUM, Zetterling instead leans into realism, diving into the teenage inmates’ less-than-fortunate pasts and forecasting their less-than-fortunate futures. There’s the young mother who’s been separated from her child, the orphan with nowhere to go, multiple victims of sexual abuse—these are all women from England’s working class who have nothing to do and nowhere else to go. “All my friends are in here,” says one girl, Eddie, looking forlorn as she sits outside of the borstal after her release, and we have little doubt she’ll find her way back all too soon.
À NOS AMOURS: Parisian screenwriter Arlette Langmann (LOULOU, GERMINAL) worked with her longtime collaborator, director Maurice Pialat, to bring À NOS AMOURS to life. Langmann’s script centers on a 16-year-old named Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire), who has recently begun having sex (and lots of it) as a way to escape from her turbulent home life, enjoying the sense of power it gives her. Her relationship with her father—a domineering, abusive sort—is incredibly complicated, as the two are more alike than either would care to admit; they alternate between ribbing one another and getting into epic shouting matches. Meanwhile, her mother is quickly unraveling alongside the end of her marriage, and her brother is a spineless sort who takes his new man-of-the-house status a little too seriously. “You don’t understand me—you never have. Don’t you see that I’m unhappy?” Suzanne asks, like so many misfit teenage girls before her (and surely so many after her), unable to satiate the budding existential dread, no matter how many men she sleeps with.
VALLEY GIRL: VALLEY GIRL marked the arrival of director Martha Coolidge—previously known for her experimental feminist documentaries—into the mainstream. The seminal L.A. romance starred Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman as two unlikely lovers who meet at a house party and embark on a romance (despite the reservations of their respective friend groups). While the film’s writers cranked out the script in an attempt to catch the raunch teen sex comedy wave that began with PORKY’S, the film has surprising nuance, and holds up a whole lot better than most of its contemporaries. “I would not settle for cliché female characterizations,” Coolidge told Christina Lane for the book FEMINIST HOLLYWOOD. “We hired actresses who were more interesting. We pursued relationships which were deeper. And we took material which was, for Valley Girl, simple, and we deepened it.”
SMOOTH TALK: Laura Dern was 18 when she appeared in SMOOTH TALK as Connie, a naive but boy-crazy 15-year-old who is aggressively pursued by a James Dean lookalike named Arnold Friend (Treat Williams). Chopra’s husband, Tom Cole, adapted the story from a short story by Joyce Carol Oates called “Where Are You Going; Where Have You Been?” As Oates explains in The New York Times, her story was inspired by a serial predator known as The Pied Piper of Tucson, a 30-something vagrant who charmed (and eventually murdered) dozens of teenage girls, insinuating himself into their lives by trying to seem young and cool. In her remarks about the translation of her story onto the screen, Oates praises the filmmakers for the ending they give Connie: “Laura Dern’s Connie is no longer ‘my’ Connie at the film’s conclusion; she is very much alive, assertive, strong-willed—a girl, perhaps, of the mid-1980s, and not of the mid-1960s.”
TWO FRIENDS: This early made-for-TV (but screened-at-Cannes) work by New Zealand auteur Jane Campion and screenwriter Helen Garner tells the story of a close friendship between two very different 15-year-old Australian girls and its eventual dissolution, starting from its implosion and working its way back to happier times. Plotwise, TWO FRIENDS has been criticized by some for being on the thinner side, but Campion and Garner do an excellent job at rounding out their teenaged characters, Louise (Emma Coles) and Kelly (Kris Bidenko), imbuing their relationship depth that feels lived-in and recognizable, even as the grim realist narrative takes more of a detached POV on it all. It’s hard to see Campion’s film as anything less than resolutely feminist, an examination of the societal forces that conspire to tear young women down before the prime of their lives—and, quite devastatingly, tear them apart from one another.
36 FILLETTE: Catherine Breillat’s 36 FILLETTE picks up on many of the same things her much-discussed 1976 film, A REAL YOUNG GIRL, was concerned with, offering up a frank depiction of sexuality among teenage girls. At the start of the film, we meet the 14-year-old Lili (Delphine Zentout in her first on-screen appearance) sulking on a family vacation in Biarritz, bored out of her mind and determined to stir up a little adventure—and she soon finds it when she meets the much-older Maurice (Etienne Chicot), a wealthy playboy who’s used to getting his way all the time. Breillat—another frequent Pialat collaborator—based the autobiographical script of her own novel of the same title: “I was in a hotel room with this man I had actually pursued, but who repelled me at the same time,” she told an interviewer at the time, explaining her choice to highlight less-than-clear-cut scenarios and murky gray areas we collectively have a hard time swallowing.
HIGH TIDE: HIGH TIDE—the somber story of an alcoholic backup singer who unknowingly strikes up a friendship with the 16-year-old daughter (Claudia Karvan) she left behind as an infant—marks the second collaboration between Australian auteur Gillian Armstrong and actress Judy Davis (the first go-round resulting in 1979’s career-launching MY BRILLIANT CAREER, of course). “I love Australia, and when the opportunity came up to direct HIGH TIDE and all the right people were available at the same time, I felt that I had to come back,” Armstrong said of her decision to turn down a big-budget Hollywood feature and make a more personal film. Laura Jones (AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE, THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY) penned the script, an examination of the frustrating, disappointing type of relationship where the child is forced to take care of her parent.