The greatest coming-of-age movies of all time

Missing your younger years? Take a trip down memory lane with these nostalgic coming-of-age films

greatest coming-of-age movies of all time

Growing up is a universal experience so it isn’t surprising that a lot of us find coming-of-age movies relatable despite our differences in culture, gender, ethnicity, and class. While a coming-of-age film can be a hilarious comedy, a heartbreaking drama, or a bloody thriller, almost all of them usually feature a hard-hitting moment where the protagonist is forced to grow up and make a mature decision for the first time. If you’re looking for some pure nostalgia from when you were just on the verge of adulthood, below are 35 of the greatest coming-of-age movies of all time that you may want to watch.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

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Set in a dystopian near-future Britain, A Clockwork Orange centers on antisocial delinquent Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his small group of thugs as they go on crime sprees that include theft, rape, murder, and other forms of “ultra-violence”. When Alex is jailed, he submits to a conduct-aversion experiment that conditions him to abhor violence. Though he eventually earns his freedom, he returns to the world defenseless, becoming the victim of his prior victims.

In Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel of the same name, on which the Stanley Kubrick-directed movie is based, Alex’s sadism subsides as he gets older — making his crime spree a metaphor for the wild urges of adolescence. Though the movie adaptation is a lot more sinister than the source material, the former still scored Best Picture, Best Writing, Best Director, and Best Film Edition nominations at the 44th Academy Awards.

American Beauty (1999)

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Directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball, American Beauty stars Kevin Spacey as a sexually frustrated suburban father who finds himself in a mid-life crisis after becoming infatuated with his daughter’s best friend. Though its themes are deeply disturbing, the film is sarcastically funny, brilliantly acted, and uniquely original.

A provocative high point of late ‘90s mainstream Hollywood film, American Beauty is described by many academics as a satire of American middle-class notions of beauty and personal satisfaction, which also touches on topics of romantic and paternal love, sexuality, materialism, self-liberation, and redemption. At the 72nd Academy Awards, the film won Best Picture, Best Director for Mendes, Best Actor for Spacey, Best Original Screenplay for Ball, and Best Cinematography for Conrad L. Hall.

Battle Royale (2000)

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Based on Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel of the same name, Battle Royale is set in dystopian Japan in which youth rebellion has become the nation’s biggest problem. In the Kinji Fukasaku-directed movie, the government captures a class of ninth-grade students and forces them to kill each other under the revolutionary Battle Royale act.

A film you won’t forget easily, Battle Royale was praised for its impressive cast performances and exceedingly handsome production value. Though packed with deliberately provocative violent scenes, the movie highlights the indomitable spirit of youth as well as the importance of discipline, teamwork, and determination.

Brick (2005)

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A cult classic directed by Rian Johnson, Brick centers on Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a teenage loner who must infiltrate high-school cliques that he previously avoided to solve the murder of her ex-girlfriend. His search for the truth places him before some of the school’s roughest characters, leading to a confrontation with a drug dealer known as The Pin (Lukas Haas).

Praised by critics for its highly aesthetic neo-noir style and impressive performances by Gordon-Levitt and Haas, Brick isn’t only a good murder mystery story, but also a compelling metaphor for the entrance into adulthood.

But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

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But I’m a Cheerleader stars Natasha Lyonne as Megan Bloomfield, a high school cheerleader who is sent by her parents to a residential inpatient conversion therapy camp to cure her lesbianism. Despite the therapy, Megan ultimately learns to embrace her sexual orientation and falls in love.

A light social satire that explores the social construction of gender roles and heteronormativity, the movie was inspired by an article about conversion therapy and director Jamie Babbit’s childhood familiarity with rehabilitation programs. Though wasn’t as sharp as critics expected it to be, the film is still enjoyable to watch, thanks to its charming cast and surprisingly emotional center.

Call Me by Your Name (2017)

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An adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, Call Me by Your Name tells the story of Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old boy who falls in love with his father’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) 24-year-old graduate-student assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer). The first and second acts of the film feel like a dream filled with poetic sex scenes and serene European landscapes, but it’s really the movie’s heartbreaking ending that makes it one of the greatest coming-of-age movies of all time.

Call Me by Your Name received widespread critical acclaim particularly for the performances of Chalamet, Hammer, and Stuhlbarg, as well as for Luca Guadagnino’s direction and James Ivory’s screenplay. The movie won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 90th Academy Awards, where it was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Achievement in Music, and Best Actor for Chalamet, who was only 22 at the time.

Carrie (1976)

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An adaptation of Stephen King’s 1974 novel of the same name, Carrie centers on Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a shy, friendless teenage girl who unleashes her telekinetic powers after being humiliated by her classmates at her senior prom. It’s a story about teen angst, high school cruelty, and the fantasies of revenge that haunt so many who have been ruthlessly bullied at school.

Carrie received two nominations at the 49th Academy Awards: Best Actress for Spacek and Best Supporting Actress for Piper Laurie, who played Carrie’s abusive and fanatically religious mother in the film. In 2008, Carrie was ranked 86th on Empire’s 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.

Clueless (1995)

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Loosely based on Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, Clueless is set in modern-day Beverly Hills and tells the story of Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), a beautiful, popular and rich high school student who befriends a new student named Tai Frasier (Brittany murphy) and decides to give her a makeover.

Considered as one of the greatest coming-of-age movies of all time, the Amy Heckerling-directed flick was praised by critics for its clever satirical look at teen films and Beverly Hills glam. Clueless, which has developed a cult following, was followed by a spin-off TV sitcom and a series of books. Paramount Pictures previously announced that it was producing a remake.

Cuties (2020)

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A thoughtful look at the intricacies of girlhood in the modern age, Cuties revolves around Amy (Fathia Youssouf), a Senegalese-French girl with a traditional Muslim upbringing who is caught between old values and Internet culture when she joins a twerking dance crew.

A critique of the hypersexualization of pre-adolescent girls, the Maïmouna Doucouré-directed movie was commended by critics for its ambition and acting. Though considered by many as one of the greatest coming-of-age movies in recent years, Cuties became a subject of controversy after Netflix released the initial promo poster for the film, which a lot of people found inappropriate.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

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A light and hilarious movie about being young and having fun, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off stars Matthew Broderick as the titular high-school slacker who calls in sick, borrows a Ferrari, and embarks on a one-day journey through the streets of Chicago. On Ferris’ trail is high school principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), determined to catch him in the act.

Although packed with goofy laughs, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has a heart and emotional depth that made it one of the greatest coming-of-age movies of all time. In 2014, the film was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Ghost World (2001)

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Based on Daniel Clowes’ comic book of the same name, Ghost World revolves around the lives of Enid Coleslaw (Thora Birch) and Rebecca Doppelmeyer (Scarlett Johansson), two teenage friends whose only plan is to move in together after high school. But the girls’ friendship is forever changed when Enid takes an interest in the offbeat Seymour (Steve Buscemi) and Rebecca focuses her attention on their mutual romantic fixation, Josh (Brad Renfro).

The Terry Zwigoff-directed movie was commended by critics for its acerbic wit and exploration of suburban youth. Though its ending is far less morbid than that of the source material, the movie is equally entertaining, thanks to its intelligent, comedic trip through deadpan teen angst.

Harriet the Spy (1996)

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Based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy centers on Harriet M. Welsch (Michelle Trachtenberg), a sixth-grade student who aspires to become a writer and spy as a way to cope with her anxiety.

Though the Nickelodeon movie received mixed reviews from critics, some viewers pointed out that Harriet the Spy captured the neuroses of children much better than other movies of its time.

Heathers (1989)

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A game-changer in the teen comedy genre, Heathers impressively added dark, cynical and subversive elements to the conventions of a high school movie. Despite being a box-office flop, the Michael Lehmann-directed movie received critical acclaim and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature in 1990. It has also become a cult film and has already been adapted into a musical and a TV series.

Heathers centers on Veronica (Winona Ryder), a member of the most popular clique at her high school who disapproves of the other girls’ cruel behavior. When Veronica and her new boyfriend, J.D. (Christian Slater), confront clique leader Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) and accidentally poison her, they make it appear a suicide. After realizing that J.D. is intentionally killing students he does not like, Veronica races to stop J.D. while also clashing with the clique’s new leader, Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty).

It (1990)

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An adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name, It follows seven pre-teen outcasts who fight a predatory monster that can transform itself into its prey’s worst fears, including a killer clown known as Pennywise (Tim Curry). They think they defeat the ethereal entity in 1960. But 30 years later, the terrifying being resurfaces, and the outcasts ― who are now in their adulthood ― must face their childhood trauma once again.

Though tainted by an uneven second half, the “miniseries film” offers a wealth of funhouse thrills and an indelible turn from Curry as Pennywise. It was nominated for two Emmy Awards, one Eddie Award, and one Youth in Film award.

It Follows (2014)

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Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, It Follows is a smart, original, and terrifying supernatural horror film that centers on Jay (Maika Monroe), a carefree teenager who learns that she’s the latest recipient of a fatal curse that is passed from one victim to another via sexual intercourse after sleeping with her new boyfriend (Jake Weary).

Though there have been a lot of horror movies that have tackled the trauma of puberty and sexual burgeoning, only a few handled the topic as cleverly as It Follows. Some critics interpreted the movie as a parable about AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, and primal anxieties about intimacy.

Jennifer’s Body (2009)

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Jennifer’s Body stars Megan Fox as the titular high school cheerleader who gets possessed by a demon and starts killing her male classmates. Though the Karyn Kusama-directed movie received mixed reviews from critics when it was released in 2009, the comedy-horror flick has been celebrated as a feminist horror film since the wake of the Me Too movement in 2018.

While the movie’s narrative was panned for its failure “to be consistently funny or scary enough to satisfy,” a lot of critics love the film’s dialogue, emotional resonance, and the performances of the cast.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

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An adaptation of Eiko Kadono’s 1985 novel of the same name, Kiki’s Delivery Service tells the story of a young witch named Kiki who leaves her pastoral home and uses her flying ability to earn a living in the big city. Kiki struggles with her newfound independence but manages to survive, thanks to the help of her kind neighbors.

According to director Hayao Miyazaki, Kiki’s Delivery Service portrays the gulf between independence and reliance on teenage Japanese girls. The heartwarming, gorgeously rendered tale won a lot of awards in Japan, including the Animage Anime Grand Prix prize.

Léon: The Professional (1994)

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A stylish and oddly affecting thriller, Léon: The Professional follows Léon (Jean Reno), a professional hitman who reluctantly takes 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) under his wing after her family is murdered by corrupt Drug Enforcement Administration agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Léon and Mathilda form an unusual relationship, but the former wrestles with the moral implication of his tutelage when the latter learns the hitman’s trade.

Though criticized for its graphic depiction of violence, the film was praised for Luc Besson’s impressive directing, strong performances by Reno and Oldman, and striking debut by Portman.

Matilda (1996)

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Based on Roald Dahl’s popular 1988 novel of the same name, Matilda stars Mara Wilson as child prodigy Matilda Wormwood, who develops psychokinetic abilities and uses them to deal with her disreputable family. Though a box-office failure, only grossing $33 million in the U.S. against a production budget of $36 million, the movie was praised by critics for Danny DeVito’s direction, faithfulness to the spirit of the source material, and overall oddity.

While movies about a kid protagonist with powers are common during the ‘90s, Matilda’s clever production design and over-the-top acting make the movie feel original — even several years later.

Moonlight (2016)

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Based on the unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight centers on Chiron, a young African-American man who grapples with his identity and sexuality while experiencing the everyday struggles of childhood, adolescence, and burgeoning adulthood. Chiron is played by three different actors throughout the film: Alex Hibbert as child Chiron, Ashton Sanders as teen Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as adult Chiron.

Considered as one of the greatest coming-of-age movies of the 21st century, Moonlight won Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards, along with Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, and Best Adapted Screenplay for McCraney and Barry Jenkins, who also directed the movie.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

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A story about fighting for your first love, Moonrise Kingdom tells the story of an orphan boy (Jared Gilman) who escapes from a scouting camp to unite with his pen pal and love interest (Kara Hayward). Feeling alienated from their guardians and shunned by their peers, the lovers abscond to an isolated beach. To locate the runaways, the police captain (Bruce Willis) organizes a search party of scouts and family members.

Directed by Wes Anderson, the film was praised for its themes of young love, child sexuality, juvenile mental health, and the Genesis flood narrative. It was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 85th Academy Awards.

Mysterious Skin (2005)

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Adapted from Scott Heim’s 1995 novel of the same name, Mysterious Skin tells the story of two pre-adolescent boys who both experienced sexual trauma as children, and how those heartbreaking moments affect their lives in different ways into their young adulthood. Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) becomes a reckless, sexually adventurous prostitute, while Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) retreats into a reclusive fantasy of alien abduction.

Bold performances of the two leads and the sensitive, spot-on direction of Gregg Araki made Mysterious Skin one of the greatest coming-of-age movies of all time. Though the film’s depictions of sexual violence are hard to stomach, they are presented in a deeply empathetic and thought-provoking way, making the entire movie a resonant experience.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

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Produced, written, and directed by Guillermo del Torro, Pan’s Labyrinth centers on Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer who escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world. While exploring an ancient maze, Ofelia encounters the Pan, who tells her that she is a legendary lost princess and must complete three dangerous tasks in order to claim immortality.

Though the movie was commonly interpreted as a subtle political warning about the dangers of colonialism, it’s also viewed as a beautiful and tragic fable about a young life cut short by violence. Pan’s Labyrinth won Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Makeup at the 79th Academy Awards.

Paris Is Burning (1990)

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Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, Paris Is Burning is a documentary movie that explores the lives of drag queens living in New York City and their “house” culture, which provides a sense of community for the often socially shunned LGBTQ+ performers. Also touching on issues of racism and poverty, the film features interviews with a number of renowned drag queens, including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, and Dorian Corey.

A thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America, the Jennie Livingston-directed movie is considered by critics to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the Golden Age of New York City drag balls. In 2016, the film was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Persepolis (2007)

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An emotionally powerful animated film, Persepolis is based upon Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. The movie follows Marjane (Chiara Mastroianni), a precocious and outspoken Iranian girl as she comes of age against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution.

Commended by critics for emphasizing the importance of youthful revolt, Persepolis amazingly interwove Satrapi’s personal experiences and the political climate during the Islamic Revolution using simple yet effective black-and-white animation. Persepolis co-won the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, alongside Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light. It was also nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 80th Academy Awards.

Raw (2016)

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Raw follows Justine (Garance Marillier), a lifelong vegetarian who eats raw meat for the first time during her first week at veterinary school in a desperate attempt to fit in. She soon develops a craving for flesh as her true self begins to emerge.

Though the Julia Ducournau-directed movie was met with some controversy for its graphic content, Raw’s lurid violence and sexuality are anchored with deep symbolism that lingers long after the provocative visuals fade. For instance, some critics claimed that Justine’s desire for flesh is a metaphor for unbounded lust.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

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In this animated film, rebellious teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) becomes Spider-Man who accidentally opens up portals to other timelines, causing various iterations of Spider-people to team up and fight crime. Though packed with stereotypical superhero hijinks, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse tells a heartwarming story about growing up and learning to take on greater responsibilities.

Praised for its animation, characters, story, voice acting, and humor, the movie ― directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman ― won Best Animated Feature at the 91st Academy Awards, 46th Annie Awards, and at the 76th Golden Globe Awards.

Spirited Away (2001)

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Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro Ogino, a 10-year-old girl who, while moving to a new neighborhood, enters the world of spirits. After her parents are turned into pigs by the witch Yubaba, Chihiro takes a job working in Yubaba’s bathhouse to find a way to free herself and her parents and return to the human world. Her surreal journey helps her conquer her fears, find new friends, and mature into a young adult.

Critics commended the movie’s animation and music, as well as Miyazaki’s bold imagination whose creations are unlike anything the anime fantasy genre has seen before. Spirited Away won Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards, making it the first and only hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film to win the award.

Teeth (2007)

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Based on the folk tale of the vagina dentata, in which a woman’s vagina is said to contain teeth, Teeth centers on Dawn (Jess Weixler), an active member of her high-school chastity club who learns that she is a living example of the vagina dentata myth after finally doing the deed with Tobey (Hale Appleman).

Though a box-office flop, the Mitchell Lichtenstein-directed movie received mostly positive reviews from critics for its fresh feminist spin on horror movie tropes. Featuring a balanced mix of campy scenes of excessive violence and subdued moments of character development, Teeth never quite settles on one tone, making it one of the most unique coming-of-age films ever made.

The Babysitter (2017)

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The Babysitter is one of the greatest coming-of-age movies from the horror-comedy genre. Though not particularly original, the film is enjoyable to watch, thanks to its familiar elements, energetic direction, and outstanding cast. Felix Vasquez Jr. of Cinema Crazed said it best: “[The Babysitter is] a great horror comedy with a genuinely touching tale of growing up tucked underneath the buckets of blood, and Satanism.”

Directed by McG and written by Brian Duffield, The Babysitter centers on a pre-teen boy named Cole (Judah Lewis) who discovers that his hot babysitter, Bee (Samara Weaving), belongs to a satanic cult. The movie also stars Hana Mae Lee, Robbie Amell, and Bella Thorne.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

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An insightful and very funny look into the inner lives of teenagers, The Breakfast Club stars Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy as teenagers from different high school cliques who spend a Saturday in detention with their authoritarian assistant principal, played by Paul Gleason.

Written, produced, and directed by John Hughes, The Breakfast Club was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Though watching the film this year may feel like it’s packed with cliché tropes, it’s pretty much impossible not to relate to at least one of the movie’s charming protagonists.

The End of Evangelion (1997)

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The End of Evangelion serves as a parallel ending to the Neon Genesis Evangelion TV series, in which teenage Shinji Ikari pilots Evangelion Unit 01, one of several giant humanoid mechas designed to defend the world against the hostile supernatural entities called Angels. Though it features a nihilistic and devastating ending, The End of Evangelion is still considered by many as one of the greatest animated films ever made.

According to some reviewers, the anime’s robot fighting action can be interpreted as a metaphor for exiting the world of childhood and entering the realm of adult sexuality. As a matter of fact, it was widely reported that director Hideaki Anno heavily researched Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein’s theories on sexual development for the series and the subsequent movie.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

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An animated treasure with timeless appeal, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is based on the 10th-century Japanese literary tale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. In the Isao Takahata-directed movie, a tiny nymph found inside a bamboo stalk grows rapidly into a beautiful and desirable young woman and orders her suitors to prove their love for her by completing a series of near-impossible tasks.

Boasting narrative depth, frank honesty, and exquisite visual beauty, the movie received critical acclaim and was even nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 87th Academy Awards.

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

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Based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 best-selling debut novel of the same name, The Virgin Suicides follows the lives of five attractive adolescent sisters in an upper-middle-class suburb of Detroit during the mid-1970s. After the youngest sister, tries to take her own life, all of the girls are put under close scrutiny by their religious parents, which leads to their increasingly depressive and isolated behavior.

Despite its dark and discomforting theme, the movie received positive reviews from critics, who praised the performances of the cast, Sofia Coppola’s direction, as well as the film’s visual style and soundtrack. Now recognized as a cult classic, The Virgin Suicides is celebrated for perfectly capturing the glory, angst, and sadness of teenage girlhood.

Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996)

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Produced, written and directed by Todd Solondz, Welcome to the Dollhouse follows Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), an unpopular 11-year-old middle schooler who goes to extreme lengths trying to earn the respect of her vicious fellow students and her disinterested family.

The winner of Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic feature at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, Welcome to the Dollhouse gained critical praise for its movingly painful and darkly hilarious view of a pre-teen outcast. Popular film critic Roger Ebert loved Welcome to the Dollhouse so much that it gave the film four stars out of four and even placed it at No. 5 on his Best of 1996 list.

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