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Lithium 30 coming-of-age movies that made us feel seen

Jul. 30, 2019
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“I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that my religion of choice became VHS rentals, and that its messages came in Technicolor and musical montages and fades and jump cuts and silver-screen legends and B-movie nobodies and villains to root for and good guys to hate. But Ruth was wrong, too. There was more than just one other world beyond ours; there were hundreds and hundreds of them, and at 99 cents apiece I could rent them all.” 

— Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Illustration by Keyre Castañeda

1. The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

I watched this on my seventeenth birthday as some kind of baptismal for the new me (when you're 17 you're this unbearably melodramatic), and frankly I wasn't the same person when it finished. There's something about hearing out loud the thoughts you didn't even realize you had; like you're in middle school again and your secrets have been spilled and your life is over but not really, because apparently you're not the only one. You're not the only one who thinks this way, feels this way. Nadine's speech at the end will never not feel like both a stab in the chest and a warm embrace. Teenhood is hard, but everyone goes through it, after all.  

— Andrea, 19, Philippines

Nadine is so relatable, and a lot of what she said and did and how she acted felt painfully close to how I feel. Her monologue at the end made me cry—it was like someone else had put my thoughts into words. And the simple act of her finally being included in a group by the end was everything to me. The movie was incredibly cathartic, and it felt magical to be seen. 

— Nirica, 21, India

Collage by Laila Aissaoui

2. Mommy (2014)

Mommy is a story about a young boy troubled by ADHD and autism, which is something that I can relate to since my sister is going through the same things. The past few months have been a struggle and a challenge for my parents, especially my mom. Watching this film, I saw myself in Kyla, the outsider who comes in and tries to resolve the issues. I am one of the only people who can make my sister calm down. Watching this really helped put things into perspective and helped me understand what my sister is going through. It wholeheartedly deserves its place as my all-time favorite film!
— Blair, 18, Scotland

Illustration by Eva Rose

3. Pride (2014)

I love seeing Joe’s journey of coming to terms with being gay, and how he comes to feel not only accepted but loved by the LGBT community and the people around him. He learns that although his family may shun him, he doesn’t need them and he can create a family of his own. I also love that it shows the side of being LGBT that is protesting, and not just the individual stories but the bigger picture of the gay rights movement. It also has a fab soundtrack of gay ‘80s bangers, which I’m always a fan of! 

— Emily, 17, England

Collage by Alyssa Kissoondath

4. Mulan (1998)

Looking back, I find it fitting—and somewhat funny—that I’ve always idolized Fa Mulan. Not so much for her bravery, skills, or strength as a character, but for the mere fact that she was a man for the majority of the movie. 

This was always a fixation for me as a young child. It always fascinated me that she could simply do that and actually get away with it. That someone could still fall in love with her, both as the soldier Ping and as the daughter Mulan. (As I grew older, my mind gradually re-termed “getting away with it” as “passing” and “falling in love regardless” as “blessedly bisexual.” Thank you, Li Shang.)

For these reasons and for other reasons that I did not understand at the time, this movie essentially inspired a lifelong fantasy of genderbending, until I realized at age 18 that I wanted to be more of a man than I ever wanted to be a woman. That I saw myself more in Ping than Mulan. I wanted her to stay that way, because I wanted to as well.

The movie may not be about me or my community, but the point of visibility is not to be catered to with genre films or spaces specifically about us. For me, to be visible is to be seen, and to feel seen is when everyone can be aware of you too. Mulan helped me feel just that.
— Kiel, 19, Philippines

Alternate poster by Southwark Playhouse

5. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

Both this movie and the book it’s based on made me feel less alone and more understood. The Diary of a Teenage Girl easily won a slot on my shelf of favorite books. Rarely does a work of literature so genuinely reflect the human experience. It left me feeling downright voyeuristic—not because reading it is to witness her sexual exploration, which it is, but because it feels as if I’ve actually found the diary of a lonely young woman and have chosen to spy on her private thoughts and personal growth. She feels absolutely real. Her voice is strong, her perspective unique. Curious, bright, funny, slightly mean—it is easy to love Little Minnie and natural to root for her. Through Minnie's narrative, I relived the painful experiences of dealing with budding sexuality and a hormone-fueled roller coaster of emotions; learning about trust, betrayal, and love; discovering who you are, and deciding what kind of life you want to live. And filmmaker Marielle Heller has accomplished an honest adaptation that feels true to the source material. 

— Carleigh, 29, Nashville

Illustration by Bonifacio Silvestre

6. But I’m A Cheerleader (1999)

It’s not a very common coming-of-age story, but watching it while still being in the closet, I felt like I wasn’t alone. It became a film that I would watch anytime I felt alone or upset. My teen years were saved because of this film. 

— Noelle, 28, Las Vegas

Collage by Andrea Panaligan

7. Boyhood (2012)

I watched this at a really strange time in my life. [My situation wasn’t] particularly terrible, but I wanted something else, something different. I found the culmination of the movie when he finally makes it to UT and moves to Austin to be really romantic in that sense. Ironically, later that year my family was uprooted and moved to Austin, and I realized how much I was actually comfortable in the small town I was in, and how terrified I was of change. I wound up at UT Austin too in the end, and now this movie feels a bit like a prophetic full circle for me personally. 

— Hailey, 20, Austin

Collage by Andrea Panaligan

8. Lady Bird (2017)

Lady Bird, for me, was maybe the first time I’ve ever felt truly “seen” on screen. I felt a bit exposed, honestly. It came out right at the end of my senior year of high school, and I was struggling with the same things Lady Bird was, feeling the same way she did; like escaping was the only way to be happy. Watching it now, I can still relate to the idea of finally getting out of the place you so desperately needed to leave for so long, and then looking back and realizing that you were so consumed with leaving, you never really looked around and appreciated what you had when you had it. 

— Cassie, 19, U.S.

I was always the kid who wanted to get out and move to California or NYC because I thought those were the only places you could be cool and creative. I live in Texas and I always kind of thought of it as boring and black and white. I would beg my mom for us to move away—we had lots of fights about that. I relate to Lady Bird so much in that way, and in the end, when she finally learns to appreciate her upbringing, hometown, and name, I felt that too— it’s taken a while but I’m finally learning to appreciate where I am. I’m able to slow down a bit and actually smile and be thankful for all of it. It’s never perfect, but it’s mine and it’s important. I’ll still probably go up to NYC or California for college next year, but I still am thankful for everything here. Lady Bird recorded all of those feelings for me.
— Vivian, 17, Texas

Collage by Laila Aissaoui

9. The Way Way Back (2013)

It's fairly simple (although more nuanced than it's received credit for), but it resonated with me deeply. I watched it for the first time, and several subsequent times, over the course of the summer I (thought I) first fell in love, and the summer I started to grow into my own person. It's a tender portrait of finding who you are at a time when you're starting to figure out how life works. How heavy the influence everything has on you is, and trying to balance it with who you believe you are already. It's a funny, cathartic, empathetic story of how we all shape ourselves in the wake of adolescence and in the face of those who tried to shape us. 

— Andrew, 17, Dallas

Illustration by Eva Rose

 10. Almost Famous (2000)

I, unlike my sister, am not the type to want to leave my hometown. I have too many friends and memories here. But I applied to an art school about six hours away and I got in. Soon after getting accepted, I went on a field trip with my school choir to St. Louis. I had a moment of realization while on that bus—that I really love it here, at home. Realizing that I was leaving it soon, I decided to make the most of that field trip. I made great memories; I got a scar on my lip playing laser tag, and it turns out I’m pretty okay at Smash Bros Ultimate. On the way home, while everyone was talking and playing Cards Against Humanity, I turned on “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John. 

— Matthew, 16, U.S.

Collage by Alyssa Kissoondath

11. Saturday Church (2017)

This was incredibly relatable for me because of the protagonist’s gender dysphoria. It felt wonderful to finally feel seen as a teenage trans woman, let alone in such a respectful way. 

— April, 19, Washington

Illustration by Bonifacio Silvestre

12. Booksmart (2019)

There is a side to youth that is raw and reckless, and as someone who’s from the class of 2019 just like Amy and Molly, I get why they're so impulsive and so ready to make mistakes. After what feels like a lifetime of rules, it's instinctive to want to break the chains and reveal the girl that's been dying to see the sun ever since she realized who she really is and what she really wants, way past the stereotypes and the rumors and the cliques. This portrays Gen Z at its faultiest, but also its realest. I wouldn't want any other movie to have that honor.
— Bethany, 18, U.S.

Collage by Andrea Panaligan

 13. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

This is the film I always go back to when I’m doubting myself. When I was starting to get into feminism, I was having conflicting feelings about how I should act—people started calling me angry and aggressive for having strong opinions on equality. But when I watched this for the first time, I was so inspired by Kat Stratford. She was an angry feminist, loud and proud. She was independent as hell and wasn’t trying to impress anyone, and I needed to hear that when I was 14. She was the role model I needed and still need, now at 19, when I’m feeling unsure of myself. 

— Halima, 19, Southampton

Illustration by Keyre Castañeda

14. Eighth Grade (2018)

This movie made me feel like a little girl all over again—not knowing how to behave, not having enough autonomy to decide for yourself, always being guided by others. I feel this movie; it’s the most authentic movie about adolescents I’ve ever seen. I love it. 

— Jessica, 24, Brazil

Collage by Laila Aissaoui

15. Amélie (2001)

I don’t think I’ve ever related to a character more than I do with Amélie. It’s so fascinating to watch a movie about someone who’s shy and introverted like me, and to be able to see the world through her eyes. I have anxiety and agoraphobia, and watching Amélie try so desperately to connect with the world around her through small gestures that are uniquely her makes me feel seen in such a profound way. 

— Eely, 24, Atlanta

Illustration by Eva Rose

16. Call Me By Your Name (2018)

CMBYN hit me really hard because the first time I saw it, I was just starting to understand my sexuality. I went and saw it with my good friend who I had a crush on, and the scene where “Futile Devices” plays and there’s basically just a bunch of light leaks on the screen, I started sobbing because I realized she wouldn’t ever know how I feel. Timotheé Chalamet’s performance encapsulates exactly how it feels to be overwhelmed by longing, confusion, and love as a teenager. 

— Corina, 18, U.S.

I had never really questioned my sexuality until I saw CMBYN. Once I saw this film, something deep inside me just made itself known. I realized that there’s so much more that we don’t know about ourselves, and the only way to uncover it is to find that special someone or something that makes us feel something we’d never thought about before. 

— Owen, 16, U.S.

Collage by Alyssa Kissoondath

17. Frances Ha (2012)

I watched this for the first time when I was 22, fresh out of college. I didn't know what I was doing. I felt so grown up but not really—like a tall child. I didn't feel like a real person yet. It's been two years since then and while I'm still as lost and confused, watching this always makes me feel like everything's gonna be okay. 

— Saiqa, 24, Bangladesh

Illustration by Bonifacio Silvestre

18. Whisper of the Heart (1995)

This movie made me fall in love with love all over again. I’ve been struggling with figuring out what I want to be and who I am, and this movie showed me that passion isn’t the only thing that’s important in achieving dreams, but patience and practice as well. 

— Alex*, 17, Philippines

Collage by Andrea Panaligan

19. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)
I remember rewatching this so many times when it came out. I had always felt like boys didn’t like me because I was Asian (I’m from a 97% white town) and I remember watching this movie and feeling like, okay, there are people with features like mine who are deserving of love and respect—it’s so cool to see yourself on screen. 

— Julianna, 17, Pittsburgh

Collage by Andrea Panaligan

20. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

As cheesy as it is, I feel like this movie and the book hit me at such a vital point in my life. I remember writing about how much I loved the movie at any given opportunity in writing class. I think it was one of the first movies I ever watched that dealt with mental illness in a way that actually felt relatable and not detached from the audience. I felt so connected to Charlie when I heard him talk about being both happy and sad at the same time—as a thirteen-year-old at the time, I didn't think that was possible. 

— Amanda, 17, California

Collage by Laila Aissaoui

21. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

I've never been through conversion therapy, but the film, with its setting and three main characters, speaks generally about queer people banding together to form communities in a hostile environment. 

— Steph, 20, Manchester

Illustration by Eva Rose

 22. Whale Rider (2002)

My heritage is Polynesian/Hawaiian and Italian, but the Polynesian part is the more prominent and probably most notable. And being a young kid, there was very little Asian representation to begin with, and even less for someone that’s not your typical Asian. My parents rented this movie when we were younger, and to finally see a little kid that had the same complexion and hair as me was so surreal at the time. And it was the first time that I could learn about my heritage in a film instead of asking my dad about it. Until watching this movie, the closest characters I had was Lilo from Lilo & Stitch. I hold this movie so dear to me, because even to this day there isn’t that much representation for Polynesian/Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders as I would like. 

— Brandon, 27, Florida

Collage by Alyssa Kissoondath

 23. Kicking and Screaming (1995)

This definitely hit me hard. It really represents how it feels being in that limbo between closing a chapter and starting a new one. Those who where close to you for so long start to drift away, but you’re still stuck in the old times. At the end of it all, life just keeps going. 

— Karla, 20, Chile

Illustration by Bonifacio Silvestre

 24. Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

As a trans person, I’m gonna have to go with Alita! It may not have been intentional, but the movie spoke to me in a way that nothing else really has. We deserve more movies like it; most trans movies are pretty awful and aren’t really as relatable as they think they are, especially to actual trans people. 

— Sam

I’ve never seen a transgender storyline portrayed accurately, despite my attempts to find one. Alita isn’t intentionally trans, but its way of expressing gender dysphoria and expressing how it feels to be in the wrong body was earth-shattering; the pain and confusion Alita felt looking at herself was something I also felt for a very long time 

— Ethan, 17, UK

Collage by Andrea Panaligan

25. Boy (2010)

Boy is about creation. It’s a child coping with the tragedy of losing his mother. It’s also coping with a father’s absence and making up stories to excuse it. As the film progresses, Boy witnesses the father break down those stories. It’s disappointing, heartbreaking, and honest. The last part is acceptance and how you take that truth and demand the consequences of it. It’s a poignant coming-of-age story because it’s universal, and it’s grounded and cautiously optimistic. 

— CJ, 24, Philippines

Illustration by Keyre Castañeda

 26. 20th Century Women (2016)

I think the most I've ever felt seen was when watching 20th Century Women, which was formative for me while I was realizing I was trans. The way these women operated and talked, and how they viewed the world differently and had their own grace and beauty—it was something I knew I wanted to have and be, and something I already was feeling. This was the movie that truly made me realize I was a girl. I saw so much more of myself in the women than the men, and so much more of what I wanted to be. 

— Lizzy, 16, U.S.

Collage by Laila Aissaoui

 27. Swiss Army Man (2016)

Swiss Army Man's themes of shame and repression made me finally confront the shame I've felt as a young queer person, to the point that I finally decided to come out as trans to family. My life has been immeasurably better ever since. 

— Selena, 22, California 

Illustration by Eva Rose

28. Love, Simon (2018)

This movie will always mark my life and I’m very thankful for it. — Otha

Collage by Alyssa Kissoondath

29. Dead Poets Society (1989)

This movie made me realize that I'm more than what my parents want me to be, and that shyness and fear can't get in the way of me getting the absolute most out of life. I also love poetry and want to be a writer, so I connected to every character in some way. 

— Claire, 16, Long Island

Illustration by Bonifacio Silvestre

30. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1985)

John Hughes gets a lot of credit for the coming-of-age genre, and rightfully so, but the status of his movies doesn’t come from their depiction of reality. It comes from his ability to figure out what us teens really want but could never have, and giving it to us in the best way he can. I never found any of his movies realistic but I always fantasized about being in them—having complete control over my life and not being dominated by my parents. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the epitome of that: a kid taking control and outsmarting all of the adults so he can do what he wants. Living in a very controlling home, that meant a whole lot to me when I saw it at 14, and it still means a lot now that I’ve just graduated high school. Other movies can show us our reality, but I’ve never seen a coming-of-age movie that so deftly taps into our fantasy. 

— Ethan, 17, Missouri

Visuals by Laila Aissaoui, Keyre Castañeda, Alyssa Kissoondath, Andrea Panaligan, Eva Rose, and Bonifacio Silvestre