Top 10 American Coming-of-Age Drama Films of the 1980s

The ‘coming of age’ movie is a bit ambiguous. There’s a tendency to link the sub-genre to films about kids, so Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, and Jeff Daniels in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars seemingly came of age too late in life. It appears there’s a timeframe on the coming of age movie that sits somewhere between childhood and adulthood before, as protagonists grow into their twenties, the film fuses itself with other sub-genres like the yuppie-in-peril or social problem movie or even fairytale science-fiction. In effect, the coming of age movie is an offshoot of the teen film, a group of films that began by defining a generation back in the 1950s as youth culture found its niche at drive-in movie theatres and fast food outlets. But, like those films, the coming of age movie has no problem relaying its limited conventions on to any number of genres, which is probably where the ambiguity comes from in the first place.

So, it’s time to introduce my top 10 coming of age films from the 1980s. I decided to concentrate on this decade because I’ve seen most of what the genre has to offer during the period, and it was a particularly good few years for iconic and memorable coming of age movies.

Thinking of convention for a second, the most obvious would be the teenage protagonist or protagonists. A ‘rites of passage’ narrative usually fuels the film where the goal of the main character is to prove himself/herself (although, certainly within the 1980s, the main character was usually male) and in many cases get the girl (for example, the kids in Stand By Me and The Goonies are forced to prove their bravery, while the likes of The Sure Thing, Better Off Dead, and Weird Science concern themselves with getting the girl).

Authority figures play a major role in that they are usually looked upon with disdain – whether that be teachers (in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferris and his headmaster continuously battle for supremacy; and in The Breakfast Club the students in detention enjoy playing practical jokes on the teacher), parents (in Say Anything Lloyd Dobler has to overcome the strict father of the girl he loves), older siblings (in Stand By Me, the four young kids are forced to deal with the bullying nature of their older brothers and their older friends; in The Goonies, the younger kids tie up Mikey’s older brother so that they can go exploring) etc.

Often the main character is looking for individuality and direction against powers that continually stifle him/her (in Better Off Dead it’s Lane’s ex-girlfriend and his own jealousy that he must overcome). These are exampled by the genre’s well-rooted themes such as alienation and peer pressure, rebellion, conflicts with parents, and finding love. Also, the films themselves are dominated by stereotypes such as the intelligent, hard-working student, more commonly known as the ‘geek’, and other such character definitions straight out of high school common rooms, fabulously example in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club where he placed a jock, a princess, a geek, a goth/loner, and a bully/criminal in detention together.

Of course, when compiling the list, I came across a few problems – for example, Back To The Future (a film certainly worthy of a place) doesn’t make it on the list even though another science-fiction-based film (Weird Science) does, is because I felt Robert Zemeckis’ time-travelling teen movie already has been covered with praise and perhaps defines itself more appropriately elsewhere (indeed, is the film about teenager Marty, aging scientist Doc Brown, or Marty’s parents?). So we end up having, amongst others, a swashbuckling adventure coming of age movie, a Frankenstein-inspired sci-fi/comedy coming of age movie, and an amusing ensemble.

TOP 10 AMERICAN COMING-OF-AGE DRAMAS OF THE 1980s

1. Stand By Me (1986, Rob Reiner) – Based on Stephen King’s story The Body, Rob Reiner’s fantastic tale of four kids who just have to see a dead body with their own two eyes, is a brilliant example of childhood whimsy and undying friendship.
Memorable Moment: Gordie, Vern, Chris and Teddy take a dip in a leech infested swamp.
Memorable Quote: ‘…while you guys are dragging your candy asses across the state and back, I’ll be waiting for you on the other side relaxing with my thoughts.’
Memorable Song Ben E. King – ‘Stand By Me’
Further Reading: (My DVD Times review) (IMDB)

2. The Breakfast Club (1986, John Hughes) – The quintessential teen movie of the 1980s and John Hughes’ best film.
Memorable Moment: The group get chased round the school by Principle Vernon.
Memorable Quote: ‘We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.’
Memorable Song Simple Minds – ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)
Further Reading: (Entertainment Weekly’s No. 1 High School movie) (DVD Times Brat Pack review) (IMDB)

3. The Goonies (1985, Richard Donner) – Adventure, comedy, pirates, battleships, buried treasure, bad guys, a monster, and Corey Feldman – what more needs to be said.
Memorable Moment: There are so many but Mikey’s homemade gate-opening device stands out, if only because he makes chubby character Chunk do the infamous Truffle Shuffle.
Memorable Quote: ‘…more amazing than the time Michael Jackson come over to your house to use the bathroom?’
Memorable Song: Cyndi Lauper – ‘Good Enough’
Further Reading: (My DVD Times review) (IMDB)

4. Say Anything (1989, Cameron Crowe) – Cameron Crowe went one better than Fast Times by writing and directing Say Anything. He gets a strong performance out of John Cusack, as the film just beats The Sure Thing for the best boy-meets-girl coming of age movie.
Memorable Moment: Lloyd stands outside Diana Court’s house with his Boombox playing her ‘In Your Eyes’ by Peter Gabriel.
Memorable Quote: ‘I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.’
Memorable Song Peter Gabriel – ‘In Your Eyes’
Further Reading: (DVD Times review) (IMDB)

5. Better Off Dead (1985, Savage Steve Holland) – Holland brings his own brand of humour to the most original film on the list.
Memorable Moment: After Beth breaks up with Lane, he decides to commit suicide but changes his mind when he realises he’s never been to New York. As he tries to untie the rope around his neck, his mother, who is vacuuming the floor, opens the door behind him, knocking Lane off the ledge that supports him. He hangs there desperately trying to find his next breath as his mother, totally unknowingly, continues to vacuum the hallway.
Memorable Quote: ‘My little brother got his arm stuck in the microwave. So my mom had to take him to the hospital. My grandma dropped acid this morning, and she freaked out. She hijacked a busload of penguins. So it’s sort of a family crisis.’
Memorable Song Neil Sedaka – ‘Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do’
Further Reading: (IMDB)

6. The Sure Thing (1985, Rob Reiner) – Director Rob Reiner has a keen eye for the art of character arcs, exampled in the fact he has two films on this list and by his great body of work. For instance, there aren’t many directors to rival Woody Allen’s shrewd human observation but Reiner accomplished it with When Harry Met Sally and again here.
Memorable Moment: When Daphne hitchhikes a ride with a dirty old man, Gib secretly follows. When the old man makes an inappropriate gesture to Daphne, Gib jumps out and pretends to be a escaped mental patient, saving the day.
Memorable Quote: ‘I’m not going to bed with you, I’m going to bed in a bed you happen to be in also.’
Memorable Song Rod Stewart – ‘Infatuation’
Further Reading: (IMDB)

7. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986, John Hughes) – Matthew Broderick provides an iconic performance as renegade teen Ferris Bueller.
Memorable Moment: When Alan Ruck’s character Cameron, who lent Ferris his father’s prized Ferrari, sees the car accidentally drive out of the garage and into a thirty foot drop, smashing it to pieces.
Memorable Quote: ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.’
Memorable Song Wayne Newton – ‘Danke Shoen’
Further Reading: (DVD Times review) (IMDB)

8. Weird Science (1985, John Hughes) – One of John Hughes most enjoyable films, where two losers who can’t get the girls of their dreams, concoct an ingenious plan.
Memorable Moment: Kelly LeBrock’s entrance from the smoky bathroom.
Memorable Quote: ‘We’ll throw a huge party. I mean huge party! Everybody’s invited. Women everywhere. All these girls, they’re all there. Naked bodies everywhere. They all know my name.’
Memorable Song Oingo Bongo – ‘Weird Science’
Further Reading (IMDB)

9. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982, Amy Heckerling) – Memorable for Sean Penn’s stoner surf dude (clearly the inspiration for the characters in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Wayne’s World), Fast Times is an authentic look (thanks largely to Cameron Crowe’s script) at high school teenagers as they explore relationships, love, sex, and the mall.
Memorable Moment: Judge Reinhold’s Brad looks out his window and sees Phoebe Cates’ Linda sitting by the swimming pool with nothing but a bathing suit on. Five minutes later, she walks into bathroom only to find him masturbating over her.
Memorable Quote: ‘We can’t even get cable TV here, Stacy, and you want romance.’
Memorable Song Jackson Browne – ‘Somebody’s Baby’
Further Reading (DVD Times review) (IMDB)

10. Class (1983, Lewis John Carlino) – The film has an interesting take on the ‘first love’ angle as the protagonist falls for his best friend’s mother.
Memorable Moment: The students think there might be a drugs raid on the campus so frantically do anything and everything to get rid of their weed.
Memorable Quote: ‘Jonathan, until you get laid none of us are safe!’
Memorable Song Toymuzic – ‘Overnite’
Further Reading (My DVD Times review) (IMDB)

1980’s Coming of Age genre facts:
Key Directors: John Hughes, Amy Heckerling, Rob Reiner, Cameron Crowe, Savage Steve Holland, Howard Deutch, Joel Schumacher.
Key Actors: Anthony Micheal Hall, Molly Ringwald, John Cusack, Andrew McCarthy, Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy.
Key terms: ‘Brat Pack’ – the name generally associated with the group of young actors that played parts in many of the teen films during the decade.
Other films worth seeing: Sixteen Candles (1984, John Hughes), Pretty In Pink (1985, Howard Deutch), St. Elmo’s Fire (1985, Joel Schumacher), Some Kind Of Wonderful (1987, Howard Deutch), The Lost Boys (1987, Joel Schumacher), Hot Pursuit (1987, Steven Lisberger), One Crazy Summer (1986, Savage Steve Holland), 18 Again (1988, Paul Flaherty), Adventures in Babysitting (1987, Chris Columbus), Heathers (1989, Michael Lehmann), The Last American Virgin (1982, Boaz Davidson), License To Drive (1988, Greg Beeman), Real Genius (1985, Martha Coolidge), Revenge Of The Nerds (1984, Jeff Kanew), Three O’Clock High (1987, Phil Joanou), Welcome To 18 (1986, Terry Carr).

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    M. Carter @ the Movies Reply

    Another coming-of-age film I really enjoyed was “Show Me Love,” a Swedish movie that really captures the awkwardness of being a teen-age girl.

    I’d say “Some Kind of Wonderful” merits inclusion as well; I consider it to be one of Hughes’ best and most underrated films.

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    Lisa-Ann Reply

    This list brings back memories. I remember the first time I saw The Breakfast Club – I saw it in the 1990s but it still felt fresh. It’s also great that the film works in England as well – those high school stereotypes and angst and relationships extend beyond the boundaries of western culture.

  3. Avatar
    DMOZ Reply

    My friend referred me to your blog, so I thought I’d come have a read. Very interesting material, will be back for more!

  4. Avatar
    SkyKid Reply

    I really liked your introduction. Indeed the coming of age as a genre is quite interesting and features elements of almost all other genres from drama and comedy to horror. The 80s indeed are rich in coming of age films – yet there are good ones recently released as well ( even if the action almost always takes time in the past as may be today`s kid`s life is a bit too related to computers and alike to present any real challenges or adventures ).

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    Scriptpunk Reply

    Really good list. I’m trying to compile one myself on Girls Coming of Age Films so if you can think of any more then let me know

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    With the risk of sounding cliche…. I would have to include The Breakfast Club it is the quintessential teen angst coming of age film a modern classic. I would also include The Last American Virgin an under rated eighties coming of age film.

  7. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Great list. It gets me nostalgic just reading it. I too would include the Last American Virgin on this list, which is so under rated. Most people haven’t even heard of it much less seen it.

  8. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    @DanGrant I agree with you 100% on Last American Virgin and it made it onto one of my top 10 lists as well. It is a very underated teen film that fell under the radar. The soundtrack is amazing too! It’s just a fun movie besides the ending which is heartwrenching to watch but a relatable high school movie!!

  9. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    It’s on my top 10 quintessential 80s films list at number 10 please check the list out! I have Last American Virgin collectors edition DVD. I recommend anyone who grew up in the 80s to see it.

  10. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    Once again, looking back at this list, in reference to my previous comments I have to correct myself. My bad Dan, you do have Breakfast Club here and respectively at number 2!

    Great list of coming of age films from the 80s.

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