It’s unreal to think that A24 has only been around for close to one measly decade. The indie studio has already managed to leave a significant imprint on movie-making, largely through exploring diverse perspectives and empowering its filmmakers to take significant risks. The two genres for which the studio is probably the best known for are horror and coming-of-age, with these categorizations often overlapping in synergistic and engrossing ways (think the struggles of a young girl against her Puritanical upbringing in The Witch and Dani’s ultimate acceptance of her grief in Midsommar).
Because A24’s horror entries have already been explored extensively, this list will focus only on the films whose primary function is to examine pivotal moments during the transition into different stages of adulthood. The films on this list, like adolescence itself, are a wonderful mix of funny, painful, sad, and thrilling. To a last one, they are all refreshingly honest and unique, too. Whether the entries below represent an experience you can closely identify with, or perhaps a story far different from your own, each one presents a beautifully crafted view into the trials and triumphs of finding your place in the world.
16. Barely Lethal (2015)
Think A24 does Disney Channel Original Movie, with a slight dash of Samuel L. Jackson (possibly in an unofficial Nick Fury origin story). Hailee Steinfeld stars as Agent 83, an orphaned teen assassin who flees her sinister organization (led by Jackson) and enrolls in an American high school in search of a normal adolescence. It’s a deeply goofy film, complete with a startlingly unexpected Steve-O cameo in which the Jackass alum sparks electrical wires menacingly before both talking about Sbarro Pizza and explaining the emotional volatility of female adolescence. Though there are some entertaining performances from Jackson training his prepubescent killers and the occasional chuckle Rob Huebel and Rachel Harris, the film never finds a consistent tone and is ultimately forgettable.
15. The Spectacular Now (2013)
One of the earliest entries in A24’s catalog, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now follows popular party boy Sutter (Miles Teller) as he begins a romance with the quiet, introverted Amy (Shailene Woodley) during his senior year of high school. While the cast is absolutely stacked (smaller roles feature the likes of Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Bob Odenkirk, Andre Royo and Jennifer Jason Leigh), the strong performances don’t make up for a fairly predictable narrative and largely uninteresting dialogue. Woodley’s character is written particularly flat – in making her a stereotypical “good girl” type, the only real view provided into her personality is that she likes comics and doesn’t like dancing. The film does explore some themes often ignored in the classic teen romance drama: Sutter’s “gotta loosen up” philosophy is critically examined both for its tendency towards arrested development and reliance on bouts of alcoholism. However, compared to other entries on this list that prove realistic can still be wildly creative, the film is underwhelming and feels very paint-by-numbers.
14. Hot Summer Nights (2017)
Though Elijah Bynum’s Hot Summer Nights is set in 1991 Cape Cod, there’s something very 1950s Greaser about the whole thing (apart from all the cocaine of course). The film features a refreshingly awkward Timothee Chalamet as an 18-year-old who has just lost his father and is sent to live on the coast for the summer, where he gets involved with the infamous local drug dealer (Alex Roe) while simultaneously falling for his off-limits sister (Maika Monroe). It’s a fun period piece – Risky Business meets Blow – though the way it sets up Monroe’s character is equally dated: a trophy for the taking, merely an indicator that the boy has finally come into his own and somehow miraculously willed away his asthma. That said, it’s an interesting enough take on a lonely and bored kid getting in way over his head featuring some beautiful shots, great performances and a fun soundtrack. The scenes between Monroe and Roe are especially intriguing, and it would have been nice to explore that dynamic a bit more. While it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what’s missing from this one, it does suggest a lot of promise from Bynum in his first film as writer and director. His next project, a story following a black bodybuilder struggling to navigate a shallow and violent world starring Jonathan Majors, should be an interesting trip.
13. Mid90s (2018)
Lucas Hedges is all over this list. In one of his more sinister turns, he plays the physically abusive older brother, Ian, to our main protagonist 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s. The film follows Stevie as he falls in line with a group of foul-mouthed skateboarders in 90s LA, and begins rebelling against the confines of his current existence. The crew is played convincingly by a cast of mostly newcomers, including a number of real LA-based skateboarders like Olan Prenatt and Odd Future’s Na-Kel Smith. As we watch Stevie’s struggle to find his voice and fit in, the film approaches some interesting commentary about the relationship between insecurity and masculinity. Stevie is so little, still so very much on the child side of adolescence, that it’s hard to watch some of the very adult experiences he starts to experiment with – one scene in particular with a much older Alexa Demie could do with significantly more contextualizing. That last point is endemic of a film that includes some interesting experiences and gratifying nostalgia, but doesn’t quite know what it wants to say with them.
12. Ginger & Rosa (2012)
Set in 1960s London, Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa follows two inseparable teenage girls (Elle Fanning and Alice Englert) as their friendship is tested by familial drama, sexual awakening, and the ever-present threat of “the bomb.” Even as her own personal world begins to crumble, Ginger remains preoccupied with the fate of larger humanity, and you feel terribly for her as the two anxieties finally collide. The film sets up the complex dynamics between the characters with a beautiful efficiency, employing a series of artistic shots, some lovely era-appropriate jazz, and minimal dialogue that almost feels more like watching home videos than a carefully crafted movie. Alessandro Nicole plays Ginger’s activist, bourgeois-hating professor father very well, masterfully embodying both his predatory narcissism and self-indulgent immaturity. Though not as memorable as many of A24’s other entries, this film also gets bonus points for including a far too rare Christina Hendricks, and finding a way to work in her enchanting accordion skills.
11. Morris from America (2016)
Morris from America centers around a 13-year-old American boy, Morris (played by Markees Christmas) and his father (Craig Robinson) living in Heidelberg, Germany and struggling to find their place in the local community. The film is largely interested in exploring identity and connection, and it’s easy to feel for Morris on both accounts – adolescence is hard enough without having to face the situation of being, as Robinson’s character succinctly describes it, one of “the only two brothers in Heidelberg.” Robinson is brilliant and easily the best part of this film in a rare dramatic turn as Curtis, a recent widower who cares deeply for his son and whose loneliness and isolation is palpable, even as he does his best to stay positive. In spite of his own state of mourning, Curtis still recognizes the significance of this time in Morris’ life and how important it is for him to establish his identity in a way that is true to himself. When he finds some shockingly explicit rap lyrics his son has written, he’s not angry that they’re filthy, he’s pissed that they’re inauthentic to Morris’ own experience. The film takes on a lot – grief, German racism, sexuality – and does not always hit the mark on all points, but the most compelling moments are in between father and son, two lonely souls finding a way to feel at home and move forward together.
10. The Souvenir (2019)
Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is undeniably a well-made movie. It follows a young film student (Honor Swindon Byrne) who begins a troubled relationship with a complicated older man (Tom Burke), while at the same time starting to come out of her shell as an artist. It’s beautifully shot, well-acted, well-scored and features some unique, thoughtful dialogue. That said, the coming-of-age films that really stand out on this list are able to accomplish two main things: 1) a relatable experience, regardless of the character’s background or surroundings and 2) a small set of main protagonists that you find yourself deeply invested in, or at least engrossed by. On these two points, The Souvenir falls a bit short. The layers of privilege are so deep and the British, waspy-esque emotional repression is so intense, that it’s often difficult to connect with the story in any meaningful way. In spite of these points, however, it is powerfully effective in its depiction of an emotionally manipulative and tragic relationship that though at times is incredibly subtle, feels vividly lived in and real.
9. Lean on Pete (2017)
The best part about Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is the idiosyncratic combination of vibes and genres that it mixes together. The high level beats of the first half of the story feel like it could easily be a feel-good family film about a boy and a horse, but it’s got some “R rated” grit and edge to it. It almost feels like a 90’s Disney flick, except that people keep dropping f-bombs and the stakes become mercilessly high. Charlie Plummer stars as Charley Thompson, a 15-year-old boy who befriends an aging racehorse with whom he embarks on a journey across the American West. The film also features fantastic supporting performances from Chloë Sevigny as a jockey, Steve Buscemi as a jaded racehorse owner, and Steve Zahn as one half of a couple he meets at a soup kitchen. Though at times it’s hard not to wonder who exactly this movie is for, that’s the beauty of it: it’s dark without being gratuitous, interesting but not sensationalized. The result is something that feels very fleshed out and real, and adds something wholly new to the genre.
8. Share (2019)
Share covers a crucial and often avoided topic that is an unfortunate part of coming-of-age for far too many young people. Rhianne Barreto is powerfully effective as Mandy, a 16-year-old girl who wakes up on her front lawn after a night of drinking and partying with her friends with no recollection of how she got there. When a disturbing video surfaces indicating she may have been sexually assaulted, she tries to piece together what happened while doing her best to survive the fallout. Pippa Bianca’s film appropriately feels like a horror movie at times, with tense, building music and a claustrophobic dread. It presents a more realistic, though still cinematically engaging approach to exploring the aftermath of sexual assault – the extreme isolation, the treacherous “nice guy” myth, the futility, frustration, and humiliation of having to re-watch the video over and over again with her parents – in a far more understated and potentially more impactful way than a more heightened film like Promising Young Woman. It’s hard for a story like this to ever have a satisfying ending because in real life there isn’t one. However, Share explores the topic with utmost care and concern for the survivor at the center of it all, thoughtfully navigating the many conflicting emotions an individual might feel in this situation, and leaving room for hope and healing amidst all the pain.
7. Waves (2019)
Trey Edward Shults’ Waves is a uniquely hypnotic experience. The way it uses music, color, and dynamic and flowing cinematography to fully immerse you into initial protagonist Tyler Williams’ (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) world right from frame one is memorably beautiful and highly effective. Though we’re initially introduced to a sunny dream world of beaches and young love, it’s not long before we see that the mounting pressures piling up on Tyler’s shoulders are too much for any one person to bear alone – especially not at 18 and especially not when the stakes presented to him are a society looking to throw him away at the first sign of weakness. When the perfection he has worked so hard to cultivate starts showing cracks, it’s no surprise everything comes crumbling down. The film is equally mesmerizing as it switches to his younger sister Emily’s (Taylor Russell) perspective, making the transition with some thoughtful shots and tonal cues as we begin to explore the aftermath through her eyes. Visual and auditory achievements aside, some topics covered in this film would have really benefited from a black filmmaker’s perspective (the exploration around the pressures of “black excellence” in particular), and Emily’s portion becomes far too centered around her new boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges), rather than offering her additional development. Those shortcomings acknowledged, the gripping performances from the two young leads bolster what is ultimately an effective exploration of a family navigating tragedy, loss, and, finally, healing.
6. Never Goin’ Back (2018)
Not your average stoner comedy, Augustine Frizzell’s Never Goin’ Back opens with more questions than answers. Why are these two girls living on their own? Where are their parents? Are we really supposed to believe that Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone are 16? That said, both actresses are fantastic in this refreshingly unique exploration of a close female friendship and coming-of-age without any parental guidance. They’re not stressing about getting into Harvard or losing their virginity – thank goodness – they’re just trying to make it to Galveston for the weekend. With an authentically Texan voice and willingness to explore the more mundane and challenging parts of surviving on your own at such a young age, this film manages to breathe fresh life into the oft-tired teen party flick.
5. 20th Century Women (2016)
Though Mike Mills’ 1970s period piece technically centers around 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), it’s really a coming-of-age film for almost every character in the story: 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), who relies on Jamie for comfort in the absence of a strong familial connection, 24-year-old Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who’s coping with a cervical cancer diagnosis and returning home after years of living an artistic life in New York City, and 55-year-old Dorothea (Annette Benning), Jamie’s single mother who is feeling more and more incapable of connecting sufficiently with her teenage son. The transition into adulthood continues for much longer than we often acknowledge, and there’s no point in time for most people when we suddenly feel successfully “grown up.” All the characters in 20th Century Women are required to learn and evolve throughout the film in order to adapt to a new phase in life, contributing to a thoughtful and uniquely ensemble take on personal growth led by a notably brilliant turn from Benning.
4. American Honey (2016)
The chemistry between the strong cast buzzes all the way through Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, making the epic 2 hour and 43 minute runtime fly by surprisingly quickly. Sasha Lane is especially memorable as Star, a young woman who escapes a desperately rough existence by joining a roving band of young people who sell magazines door to door across the US. Lane’s Star is so charming and brave and kind and foolish all at the same time, and weaves her way through a world that has been very unfair to her with an admirable amount of persistent hope and curiosity (even if it gets her into situations that leave you watching through parted fingers). Shia LaBeouf puts forth what is probably a career-best in this film as the group’s top salesman and love interest to Star, capturing the exactly right type of oddly off-putting charisma that allows you to understand how she is initially drawn in by his love-bombing and strategically timed gifts, even with all the reddest of red flags. Riley Keough rounds out the ensemble of leads with a characteristically brilliant turn as the crew boss with vibes ranging somewhere between cult leader, maniacal capitalist and tired madam. Though it is a far from perfect film (most notably, the cast is inexplicably, predominantly white), Arnold’s film explores both the thrilling uncertainty of youth and the many different realities of modern America in a thoroughly entertaining way.
3. Eighth Grade (2018)
Even though it may be the least dramatic film on this list, Eighth Grade is extremely hard to watch at times. It is just so gut-wrenchingly real, and viscerally transports you back to the raw awkwardness of being 13 years old. Bo Burnham’s directorial and screenwriting debut rightfully film won him a number of awards and accolades in both categories, but where his touch really set this film apart is in the casting. Burnham insisted on working with normal, age-appropriate eighth graders, including lead Elsie Fisher who he has said was selected because “She was the only one who felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident – everyone else felt like a confident kid pretending to be shy.” The result is a wonderfully unpolished and refreshingly honest (and somehow still funny) exploration of what it’s like to be a teenager in the era of social media, in all its mortifying, agonizing glory.
2. Lady Bird (2017)
While Saoirse Ronan shines in this film about a strong-willed young woman’s senior year of high school in an early aughts Sacramento, what really makes Greta Gerwig’s film, so special is everything on the edges: the complexity that permeates the loving, but conflict-filled relationship between teenage girls and their mothers, the messy way in which parents try to absorb and shelter kids from financial strain, and the hidden, personal pain at this pivotal time in life for those who are not straight, rich and thin (and who are less comfortable being openly dramatic than the titular Ladybird). Laurie Metcalf is especially convincing as the loving, yet perpetually overworked and frustrated mother who is doing everything she can to keep her family afloat and ensure her daughter has the brightest future possible. Balancing funny and feels admirably, Lady Bird is a beautiful love letter to the appreciation for family and home that really only surfaces when we are finally forced to say goodbye.
1. Moonlight (2016)
Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight isn’t just A24’s best, it’s also one of the most beautifully crafted coming-of-age films of all time. The film is split up into three major segments, each chronicling a different pivotal moment in the life of a young black man in Miami as he struggles with abuse, identity and coming to terms with his sexuality. One of Jenkins’ most impressive achievements in Moonlight is how tangibly he makes you feel Chiron’s loneliness, capturing the yearning for basic physical intimacy in a heartbreakingly effective way. The film also features incredible performances from all three actors who play Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), as well as Mahershala Ali as a father-figure to young Chiron and Naomie Harris as Chiron’s abusive mother. With the various struggles the main character faces, the film could easily and justifiably be bleak. However, possibly the most remarkable aspect of Moonlight is its ability to remain hopeful, resulting in a film that is memorable, thought-provoking, and a joy to watch all at the same time.
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Every A24 Coming-Of-Age Film Ranked