Coming of Age -- Outside the USA!!

Feb 10, 2004 (Updated Nov 10, 2005)

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The Bottom Line The potential variety of coming of age stories is limitless because coming of age experiences differ in large measure in each place and time

The phase of life that we call "coming of age" is probably the most culturally-specific life stage, since adolescents in most times and places typically lack the mobility and freedom of choice to dictate their own social situations or experiences. Even within the USA, coming of age must certainly be a substantially different experience for a black boy growing up in the rural south, a white girl in middle class suburban America, or an hispanic youth in, say, Los Angeles. If we then broaden the range of consideration to countries throughout the world, the potential variety of coming of age stories is unlimited. So, while I share the enthusiasm of other reviewers of this topic for American coming-of-age gems, such as The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Clueless, Grease, Save the Last Dance, and Dirty Dancing, (what can I say, I like Molly Ringwald and dance) I want to broaden the discussion a bit by itemizing my selections for "The 10 Best Films Portraying Coming of Age Outside the USA." I have opted to exclude some wonderful films that seem to me to deal mainly with earlier stages of childhood, such as Tin Drum, Fanny and Alexander, Small Change, and Ma Vie En Rose (the last of which might otherwise have been used to illustrate nicely that coming of age experiences also depend in large measure on gender and sexual orientation -- see my review at Ma Vie en Rose.)

My Top Ten Coming of Age Films From Outside the USA:

10. The Terrorist (1998). Sadly, all too many teens grow up in circumstances not remotely “normal” or conducive to coming of age in any kind of mentally healthy way. What does it mean, for example, to come of age when one is a nineteen-year-old female terrorist, like Malli (Ayesha Dharkar)in this highly-praised Indian film, whose brother has already perished as a suicide bomber, who has herself murdered under orders a suspected traitor who was likely also the father of the child she carries inside, and who is herself being groomed for a special mission as a suicide bomber? What does it mean, under such circumstances, to then come into close contact with a deeply philosophical man and his comatose wife? Is the human spirit capable, under such conditions, of finding a truer path? See my review at The Terrorist.

Two other highly regarded films in this sub-genre which might be called “coming to age traumatically” include a fine Israeli film, Under the Domim Tree (1996)(see my review at Under the Domim Tree) and an emotionally draining Russian offering, Come and See (1985) (see my review at Come and See). Not quite “Pretty in Pink”, these!

9. Pelle the Conqueror (1987). This Danish-Swedish coproduction directed by Bille August won the Oscar Award for Best Foreign Film. The story follows a destitute Swedish widower and his son (seven-years of age as the film unfolds) who most immigrate to Denmark around 1900 to find work. The lot of the Swedish immigrants in Denmark at that time could be likened to that of Mexican immigrants in the southwestern U.S. today – limited employment opportunities at wages barely sufficient for survival. The old man’s dream of a better life ultimately disintegrates as his options dwindle, but his son, after observing the depraved life of the Danish masters, spins dreams of his own and, ultimately, steps out to pursue them. See my review at Pelle The Conqueror.

8. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). Another Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign film, this Taiwanese gem is a coming of age film in part, centering on a widower, Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung) and his three daughters, the youngest of whom is still a student. Director Ang Lee’s films typically relate to parent/child relationships and the associated generation gap, and this one is no exception. The coming of age genre does not appear to be strongly represented among Asian films, or at least the better quality ones that receive distribution in the West. See my review at Eat Drink Man Woman.

7. The 400 Blows (1959). This Truffaut masterpiece was nominated for Best Original Story and Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Filmed in black-and-white, this semi-autobiographical work follows the young life of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) in a series of juvenile set-backs. As he proceeds from pranks, to running away, and, finally, to commitment to a juvenile center, his parents increasingly lose hope in him. The phrase “ 400 blows” is a French idiom meaning, approximately, “the limit of human endurance.” The film ends on an up-beat, hopeful note. See my review at The 400 Blows.

6. Maléna (2000). Directed by Guiseppe Tornatore (who also directed Cinema Paradiso), this Italian film set in occupied Sicily in 1940 covers a lot of interesting territory. The story unfolds from the vantage point of hormonal 13-year-old Renato (Guiseppe Sulfaro), who is fixated on the stunningly attractive married daughter of his Latin teacher, named Maléna (Monica Belluci). Maléna’s husband is away in the military and her beauty is such as to turn heads continually and stimulate malicious gossip. When her husband is supposed to have been killed in combat, the envy and jealously of the women of the town foreclose every option for self-support for Maléna, and she must turn to prostitution and collaboration with the German officers. When the Germans are later driven out, she suffers the humiliation typically dealt out to collaborators, and finds it necessary to remove herself from the town. Renato, who has invested countless hours in spying on Maléna, is the only one who truly knows the truth of her life. When Maléna’s husband turns up alive, comes looking for Maléna and is confronted with lies, it falls to Renato to reveal the truth and right the wrongs. See my review at Maléna.

5. The Other Side of Sunday (1996). Maria (Marie Theisen) is growing up in Norway in late 1950’s. Her body is budding but not so fast as she might like. Maria’s special circumstance is that she is the daughter of the rigidly stern Vicar (Bjorn Sundquist), who self-righteously imposes the strictest standards on his daughter. Maria believes in God, but the God that she worships is the one reflected in the Book of Solomon – the God who respects the beauty of nature as well as acknowledging the pleasures of wine and song. She wants to pray but also to laugh and make herself pretty, but music and makeup are strictly forbidden by the church and her father. Maria’s psychological journey is advanced as she becomes acquainted with the widowed church organist and, especially, when she discovers that her father and the widow have had some degree of intimacy. The viewer is left to celebrate, in the end, the triumphant progression of Maria from dutiful child to self-possessed and self-determining woman, in touch with the full range of human experiences that her intuition requires. See my review at The Other Side of Sunday.

4. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). In their first summer out of high school, two 17-year-old boys in Mexico find themselves foot loose and fancy free when their respective girl friends take off for the summer. Tenoch (Diego Luna) is son of a wealthy politician while his pal, Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal), comes from a lower middle-class background. Itching for action, they “hit on” the sleek and sexy wife, Luisa (Maribel Verdu), of Tenoch’s ego-inflated cousin, a woman perhaps five to ten years their elder. Julio makes some progress, in fact, somewhat to his astonishment, and soon the three of them, Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa, are tooling down the highway in search of a supposed perfect beach that the boys have conjured up as bait. Soon, however, it is Luisa who has hooked the boys, seducing them first singly and, later, in ménage a trios. Ultimately, we learn that Luisa’s rather incautious behavior is the result of her having learned that she is terminally ill, with little time to live. The boys, on the other hand, learn another kind of difficult lesson: that their friendship is unable to withstand the extremity of these new, unbridled experiences. See my review at Y Tu Mama Tambien.

3. Peppermint Soda (1977). My favorite coming of age film focusing primarily on the fair sex is this charming piece from France, directed by Diane Kurys. Told primarily from the vantage point of the younger of two teenage sisters, it nevertheless splits its time near equally between 13-year-old Anne (Eleonore Klarwein) and 15-year-old Michel (Frederique Weber). The issues confronting both girls are, of course, school, boys, sex, and politics, but as is inevitable with sisters two years apart, the difference in level of maturity of the concerns is greater than what Anne can tolerate and less than what Michel requires. There are delightfully clever comedic touches as the girls stagger through their travails. See my review at Peppermint Soda.

2. Freeze Die Come to Life (1990). This is the only selection on my list that deals in a substantial way with both a male and a female coming of age, though the gender of the two is not so much of specific concern in this film as it would be in so many others of this genre. This film by Vitaly Kanevski certainly underscores the thesis that I began with that coming of life experiences are unique to a substantial extent for each time and place. Here, in the setting of the Soviet Orient, at the end of World War II, life for the boy Valerka (Pavel Nazarov) and the girl Galiya (Dinara Drukarova) bear precious little resemblance to the worlds of Ferris Bueller (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) or Alicia Silverstone’s Cher (Clueless). Growing up in a stark and frozen landscape where food, warmth, and, even, love are all hard to come by keeps one’s attention riveted on issues that are, perhaps, more essential. Valerka’s lot is particularly difficult, since his mother, a single parent, must eke out her living by prostitution. As Valerka’s misdeeds propel him into ever deepening difficulties, Galiya’s friendship emerges as his only hope for salvation. Filmed in black-and-white on a low budget, this film gem is nevertheless an emotional juggernaut. See my review at Freeze Die.

1. Cinema Paradiso (1988). Although this marvelous film covers a longer span of life than the coming of age years alone (after all, three different actors play the lead character (Toto) – as a child, as a late-teen, and as a middle-aged man), the essential issues explored by the film are classic coming of age material: finding one’s life’s work and finding (or failing to find, as it happens) one’s life’s partner. Another Academy Award Winner as Best Foreign Film, this masterpiece by Guiseppe Tornatore portrays the fascination of a young Italian boy, growing up at the time of the birth of cinema, with the projection booth and films, and his journey from there to a career as a successful director – and the unintended sacrifice that occurs along the way. See my review at Cinema Paradiso.


You may also enjoy my other genre lists for non-English language films:

Ten Excellent Spanish-Language Films
Ten More Excellent Spanish-Language Films
Top Ten Foreign Language Psychodramas
Top Ten Non-English Language Political Movies
My Top Ten Non-English Language Tragedies
Top Non-English Language Comedies
Top-Ten Non-English Language Film Biographies
Top-Ten Non-English Language Action/Adventure Films
Top-Ten Non-English Language Mystery Films
Top-Ten Non-English Language ~Horror~ Films
Top-Ten English-Language ~Horror~ Films from Outside the USA
Ten Excellent Films Featuring Royalty
Ten Excellent Non-English Language Thrillers
Ten Non-English Language High-Yield Tearjerkers
Ten Best Non-English Language War Movies!!
Ten Excellent Non-English Language Senior Films
Top-Ten Non-English Language Films Featuring Classical Music
The Top Non-English Language Epics
The 10 Best Foreign Language Romance Movies!!
The Ten Best Non-English Language Love Story Movies!!

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