Growing up — and coming to grips with growing up — is one of the most important parts of college. Four short years put you on a path you’ll follow for the rest of your life, but for some reason we avoid talking about how scary that sounds. Instead, students focus on classes, social activities and sports, but ignore that those activities are all driven by the same hope: wanting to grow into the best versions of ourselves.
Too few college movies emphasize that point, focusing instead on raging teenage hormones and house-parties. Their oversight is a shame though, because coming-of-age films centered on that delicate transition are some of the best in the movie business.
Though many of the films in this list are about high school, middle school or no school at all, they’re all movies that successfully capture what it means to start growing up.
If given the chance, would you skip these awkward teen years and fast-forward to adulthood? That’s the question at the heart of this 1988 comedy starring the lovable Tom Hanks.
The role shot Hanks into stardom and gave us that iconic giant piano scene (If you haven’t seen it awhile, do yourself a favor). More than anything, the film explores how youth and maturity aren’t mutually exclusive concepts: getting older doesn’t require losing your childlike sense of wonder.
9. Varsity Blues
When you’re young, your fate seems guided by what adults want from you. So, it’s a big step toward adulthood when you start forging your own paths and opinions.
The football drama “Varsity Blues” illustrates the tension simmering between generations, using high school football and an overbearing community to tell a story about following your own heart instead of fulfilling expectations.
Watch this movie and revel in the fact that Jonah Hill is a two-time Academy Award Nominee. Once that shock wears off, you’ll find a hilarious tale that perfectly captures the fear of becoming an adult.
It may present itself as a story about two high school students wanting to get laid before college, but look deeper to see that it’s one of the best coming-of-age movies out there. Beneath the raunchy comedy, “Superbad” shows how scary the future can be.
7. Mean Girls
Saying that “Mean Girls” gets constantly quoted is practically a criminal under-exaggeration: its zingers and one-liners are fused to the DNA of every young person on the planet. Run down a busy street and yell “You Go,” and see how many people respond “Glen Coco.”
This is a movie every college kid should see for two reasons. The first is so you understand why the heck everyone wears pink on Wednesdays. The second is to see a film that captures perfectly what it means to struggle with identity and sense of self.
6. Stand By Me
The loss of innocence is often described as the big moment that separates childhood from adulthood. “Stand By Me” tells one of the best “loss of innocence” stories by following four boys on the hunt for a dead body.
It’s brutally honest in its portrayal of the hardships of being young, unafraid to admit that you often grow apart from your childhood friends. It’s a message every college kid should bear in mind as they discover who they are and want to be.
5. Moonrise Kingdom
“Moonrise Kingdom” is Wes Anderson’s best film. It embraces all the quirky elements you’ve come to expect from his movies, but this story of two 12-year-olds falling in love is surprisingly heartwarming and authentic.
Instead of highlighting the loss of innocence, “Moonrise Kingdom” works the opposite angle: showing the monumentality of falling in love for the first time.
4. Dead Poets Society
Forget YOLO — in 1989 “Dead Poets Society” brought “carpe diem” into popular culture. It means “seize the day” and stands for everything college students should be doing while attending school.
It doesn’t necessarily mean doing crazy, illegal things, but instead tells us to find the beauty in what we do. In “Dead Poets Society,” students learn that poetry, music and art are all worth celebrating: something college students should remember, too.
3. Toy Story 3
There comes a time when you stop playing with your toys. You either throw them out, store them away or pass them on to someone younger. We might dabble with an action figure or a Nerf gun, but it eventually becomes apparent that it’s time to move on.
That sentiment works as the undercurrent of “Toy Story 3,” and it’s what makes the film one of Pixar’s best. The studio excels at grabbing your emotions and stomping them to a pulp, but “Toy Story 3” delivered an especially supercharged sequel that reduced even the strongest-willed individuals to blubbering babies. Every college kid should see the movie because it will remind you of the joy of childhood, while also getting you excited about the next unknown phase of your life.
Plus, the toys hold hands.
2. The Breakfast Club
Stereotypes define the lives of students: you live how others want you to live and see others how you want to see them.
One of the first major steps into adulthood begins by looking past your initial judgments of people, and that’s why “The Breakfast” Club has proven itself to be such an essential coming-of-age movie. It’s all about stripping away the barriers to find out who you really are.
1. The Sandlot
The brilliance of this movie lies in its simplicity. It takes an unassuming story — kids trying to retrieve a baseball from a big dog — and packs it full of big themes and ideas. It’s about growing up, facing your fears, camaraderie and finding yourself. It teaches you by showing so little.
It might have been an important movie for you as a kid, it but its meaning gets much deeper when you revisit it as a transitional young adult. No matter how many times you see it, the message stays fresh and relevant.