With the recent release of the excellent Boyhood by Richard Linklater, it’s time to look at some of the very best movies about boyhood (note boys…girls have been criminally underserved) Here are five of the best which still hold-up for kids and adults today.
The Godfather of French New Wave (and by extension, the Hollywood New Wave) François Truffaut left criticism to write and direct, starting with this autobiographical story of his own neglected childhood. Unlike the precious kids of Hollywood movies before, Antoine Doinel (New Wave poster-boy Jean-Pierre Leaud) is often unpleasant, moody, cheater and frequent liar…basically, he’s the typical boy with a mother uninterested in being tied down and uninterested stepfather. Antoine feels unloved by his parents, mistreated by his teachers, and out of place with his peers. No wonder a petty theft leads to his being put in a psychiatric center for troubled boys, and why he ultimately runs away to the one place he always dreamed of seeing; the ocean.
Most kids have probably never gone looking for a dead body, but most boys have had at least one adventure that they would compare to (or remember being like) Stand By Me. The movie has all the aspects that make it the universal coming of age. Each friend represents a specific character-type, while somehow still feeling completely real. The period soundtrack is near perfect. It even has the older brother bully (being an 80s movies, he’s of course blonde). But one of the smartest things about the movie is how willing Rob Reiner was to show how friends tease and mock each other, which would never see in films today. The film perfectly captures the idea of “the last summer,” when a new stage of life is about to start, especially the trivial conversations the boys have about Pez and cartoons.
Steven Spielberg has been responsible for many movies about childhood; ET, AI, Goonies, An American Tail. But one of his most underappreciated movies is also the one which captures a boy losing his childhood better than anyone. J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun, about a little boy (Christian Bale) separated from his parents and forced to survive the war in the Pacific completely alone is brilliant filmmaking, and features one of the best child performances in history. From a privileged 9 year old brat to damaged (at times feral) teenager, it’s infuriating to see the lack of interest adults imprisoned alongside him take in his upbring (you will hate John Malkavich more). No wonder he has a meltdown when Nigel Havers’s doctor finally takes a genuine interest in his well-being.
If you’ve watched in memorials at awards shows, you’ve probably heard the iconic theme from Cinema Paradiso, which is played at the end of the film. The story focuses on a little boy whose father never returned from World War II, who befriends the local movie projectionist at his favorite place, the Cinema Paradiso. The movie is divided into three stories; childhood nostalgia, teen romance, and adult realism, until they all collide. Often considered the greatest movie about love of film, it is also a perfect story of how we idealize our past (nostalgic postmodernism) and tend to reframe them as real-life movies.
Spike Jonze movie was described upon release as a film not for children as much as it was about childhood. Taking the very short Maurine Sendak story and building a movie on the basic theme that children and animals share some common traits, he made a meditative story about the emotional struggles kids face. Each of the wild creatures represent different parts of Max’s personality, which at this age he doesn’t have control over, the reason he’s quick to tears and angry outbursts. Seeing 9 year old playing with the creatures so much bigger than him, coming to terms with his emotions and learning to control and accept them, is why the movie is so moving. The film makes you remember how hard it was be a kid.