Self-realization before sunrise: 18 movies about coming of age in under 24 hours

Photo: Columbia Pictures/Getty Images. Graphic: Jimmy Hasse.

“Yesterday’s history. Tomorrow’s the future. Tonight’s the party.” Can’t Hardly Wait premiered in theaters 20 years ago next week with that tagline, although it could be applied to a number of similar movies about kids having one, momentous day that sets the course for the rest of their lives. In that 1998 film, those transformative experiences—all those hookups and breakups, the victories for noble losers and the comeuppances for unrepentant assholes—play out against the backdrop of one wild house party, a common trope for the 24-hour coming-of-age-movie. But whatever the individual setting, characters, or circumstances, the messages of these films is clear: When you’re young and not yet yoked to the responsibility and predictability of adulthood—and you still have the energy to go out—a single day can change everything. Here are 18 of them.

1. American Graffiti (1973)

Much as George Lucas’ Star Wars became the model for populist science fiction, any movie about teens idling on the precipice of adulthood, having minor self-realizations over a few waning hours of abandon, owes something to American Graffiti. Lucas based his 1973 hit on his own high-school years in Modesto, California, instilling it with his nostalgia for cruising from sock hop to malt shop. Recent grad Steve (Ron Howard)—who’s due to head off to college in the morning over the objections of his girlfriend (Cindy Williams)—spends the night riding that closed loop in his “turkey town,” as he and his friends grapple with what comes next. It’s hard to watch American Graffiti now and not be distracted by all its huge, nascent stars (Richard Dreyfuss! Harrison Ford! Suzanne Somers! Charles Martin Smith, sort of!). But even with so many famous faces and its ’70s-version-of-the-’60s filter, American Graffiti’s themes are timelessly relatable. [Sean O’Neal]

2. Dazed And Confused (1993)

Like George Lucas, Richard Linklater drew on his own high school experiences to create his own movie about teens ambling toward the future. Dazed And Confused echoes a lot of other things about American Graffiti—the nostalgia; the wall-to-wall vintage soundtrack; the future marquee names; the cruising and the drive-ins—but it expands the focus while also lowering the stakes. (It also gets stoned.) Here the most pressing decision to be made before morning is whether Jason London’s football star, Pink, will sign a no-drugs pledge or keep partying with his “loser” friends. But Pink’s half-baked hero’s journey leaves plenty of room for almost every character to have their own small yet significant breakthrough before the kegs are kicked—from Wiley Wiggins’ Mitch getting his first taste of high school freedom to Adam Goldberg’s Mike discovering his inner dancer. Compared to American Graffiti’s undercurrent of anxiety, Dazed is a meaningful yet supremely mellow night. [Sean O’Neal]

3. SubUrbia (1996)

Linklater went back to the squirming well of restless kids to adapt Eric Bogosian’s SubUrbia, a play that took Dazed And Confused’s free-riding ’70s optimism, parked it outside a convenience store, and let it rust under so much acidic, Gen-X angst. The recent Texas high school grads here aren’t freewheeling so much as spinning in place, with Giovanni Ribisi’s maybe-sort-of-aspiring writer, Jeff, so paralyzed by alienation and apathy, he takes it as a personal affront that his performance-artist girlfriend (Amie Carey) is leaving for New York. Their relationship struggle plays out over a night a former classmate turned rock star comes home, his success putting Jeff’s stagnation in even starker relief. SubUrbia doesn’t have the light touch or deep characterization of Dazed And Confused, but it does capture another, still-familiar version of that sort of pivotal night—albeit one that nobody involved is likely to look back on fondly. [Sean O’Neal]

4. House Party (1990)

An exuberant and all-too-rare look at black adolescence, House Party stars Kid ’N Play (Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin, respectively), basically as themselves—even their names remain unchanged—albeit much, much younger. Most of the hurdles that Kid, Play, Bilal (Martin Lawrence), Sharane (A.J. Johnson), and Sydney (Tisha Campbell) face in between executing raps and complex dance moves at their eponymous party are stereotypical teen stuff: romantic hopes that are dashed, then revived; overbearing parents (though the late Robin Harris’ Pop is more memorable than most); run-ins with the cops, etc. Those lattermost scenes are more fraught than those you’d find in most teen-party fare, but above all, director Reginald Hudlin is interested in watching his characters just have a good time. There’s an overriding sense of joy to House Party as these nearly 30-year-old “teens” alternately bust a move and bust on each other, one that its many sequels and imitators failed to capture so effortlessly. The original set a standard as high as Kid’s towering fade. [Danette Chavez]

5. Superbad (2007)

A quintessentially—and hugely successful—American teen movie written by a pair of Canadians, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s Superbad follows a pair of inseparable best friends played by Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, as they spend one wild high school night learning to accept that growing up means growing apart. The film, written when neither Rogen nor Goldberg were of legal drinking age themselves, is a funny and surprisingly soulful consideration of the ways childhood friendships inevitably fracture despite our best efforts, and it’s full of honest, relatable touches that capture the frenzied uncertainty of looming, post-high school life. It’s also got McLovin. [Alex McLevy]

6. Project X (2012)

Project X practically dares you to hate it. It’s a shaky found-footage film in which most of the teen actors (including Miles Teller) go by their real names—nearly all of them terrible people, suffusing the movie with a palpable misogyny as we watch three high school boys secure chicks and booze and drugs for a blowout party they hope will finally make them cool. It’s tempting to view all this as some sort of knowing, intentional critique of American teenagers and their selfishness, one that ends in a disaster-film spectacle of cars being driven into swimming pools, flamethrower attacks, and riot squads. But mostly it’s just a movie about shitty dudes throwing an epic party, with no regard to consequence or other people, for entirely self-aggrandizing reasons. The life lesson they walk away with: It fucking works! [Clayton Purdom]

7. Sixteen Candles (1984)

It’s Molly Ringwald’s Sam who’s the center of Sixteen Candles, but—appropriately for a movie about a teen who feels like she’s invisible—it’s the characters around her who undergo the most significant changes. Taking place during the 24 hours around Sam’s 16th birthday, which everyone forgets, the film follows Sam as she mopes and pines for dreamboat Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), fending off advances from aggro-nerd Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) and dragging the unfortunate, “Hey, it was the ’80s!” stereotype Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) along to the senior dance. By morning, Farmer Ted and even “the Donger” will have found new love, Jake will have realized his feelings for Sam, and Sam’s family will have realized their mistake, making Sixteen Candles a coming-of-age story that’s more about just waiting while everyone else grows up. [Sean O’Neal]

8. Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)

Inspired by the party scenes that were a staple of ’80s teen comedies, Can’t Hardly Wait directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont made the party their whole movie, capturing a group of high school students celebrating graduation while also seeking some form of closure—whether it’s Ethan Embry’s aspiring writer finally confessing his love for popular girl Jennifer Love Hewitt, or Charlie Korsmo’s nerd plotting revenge against Peter Facinelli’s bullying jock. Everyone’s looking for love, finding themselves, failing themselves, just as every character here is an archetypal cliché. But Can’t Hardly Wait is lovingly drawn, and it makes up for its lack of creativity with sheer sincerity. It’s also fascinating now as a document of actors who were, just like real high school students, either at their peak or on their way down. [Clayton Purdom]

9. Take Me Home Tonight (2011)

Topher Grace stepped up for his old That70s Show bosses Jeff and Jackie Filgo to star in this similarly retro, 1988-set comedy, playing a recent MIT grad who’s working retail while figuring out what to do with his life. Across one wild night at a Beverly Hills party, he wins (and loses, and wins again) the girl of his dreams, while also finding the courage to finally take a shot at something—aided, in no small part, by plenty of era-appropriate cocaine. Take Me Home Tonight was completed in 2007, but it remained shelved for four years, ostensibly due to the fact that the studio didn’t know how to handle a coming-of-age comedy where so much of that coming of age is fueled by coke. [Gwen Ihnat]

10. The Myth Of The American Sleepover (2010)

Before he applied his half-dreamy, half-naturalistic touch to the John Carpenter school of fright fare, It Follows writer-director David Robert Mitchell offered a less-menacing portrait of life on the cusp of adulthood. His first feature is a kind of deep-indie descendent of teenage blowout bashes like American Graffiti and Dazed And Confused, assembling as it does a large ensemble of horny, wistful high-schoolers and tracing their parallel exploits over a night that seems to stretch into forever. Mitchell casts unknown, ordinary-looking kids to play his suburban Michigan adolescents, and also supplies them with dialogue that hits some rare sweet spot between poetic and realistically inarticulate—basically, the same intersection where the film itself sets up shop. Notably, Sleepover’s give-or-take 24 hours unfold at the end of the summer instead of the beginning of it, which only strengthens the impression that we’re seeing a kind of last gasp of youth: a farewell party to an age mostly free of responsibility and inhibition. [A.A. Dowd]

11. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

It may be his movie, but Ferris (Matthew Broderick) doesn’t do much coming of age in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He’s the same smug, wisecracking, fourth-wall-breaking class clown at the end as he is at the beginning, his truant misadventures across the Windy City facilitating little in the way of character development. The real emotional growth spurts in John Hughes’ enduringly popular teen comedy are experienced by the exasperated loved ones caught in Ferris’ cool-kid orbit: uptight best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), who finally gathers the fortitude to stand up to his domineering father, and overachieving older sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), who climactically pushes past her resentment over how easily her brother gets away with everything. While Ferris preaches about stopping to appreciate life, it’s only these two who make any real progress through it, achieving minor victories of self-improvement while he plays hooky and provides running commentary. [A.A. Dowd]

12. The Sitter (2011)

Directed but not written by David Gordon Green, at the tail end of the filmmaker’s perplexing stoner-comedy period, The Sitter followed the lead of countless other yukfests from Apatow-adjacent talent and relocated adolescence’s end to the mid-20s, casting Superbad star Jonah Hill as a slightly older but scarcely wiser man-child forced to (what else?) get his shit together during the wackiest adventure in babysitting since, well, Adventures In Babysitting. Some “outrageous” hijinks and a few heart-to-hearts with his trio of preteen charges are all it takes to accelerate the slacker’s delayed maturation process. At least the growing-up-over-a-single-night premise makes a little more sense when talking about someone who resisted adulthood for a few years. What better way to make up for lost time than turning one long evening into a very overdue rite of passage? [A.A. Dowd]

13. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

Stretching across one meticulously soundtracked night in a fantasy version of New York’s indie rock scene, this inoffensively light adaptation of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s teen novel centers on a heartbroken musician (Michael Cera) who’s living out the sad music nerd’s dream of wooing a girl solely through the art of mixtape composition. Kat Dennings’ Norah has troubles of her own—a drunk pal on the loose; a douchey “friend with benefits” (Jay Baruchel)—but the two manage to connect over a shared love of groups like Band Of Horses and Shout Out Louds. Key coming-of-age moment: Norah (with an assist from Nick) having her first orgasm in her dad’s recording studio, complete with the verbal “peaks” captured on the equipment. [William Hughes]

14. Adventures In Babysitting (1987)

Chris Columbus’ urban jungle comedy is so outsized and frenetic—scrambling through a Trumpian nightmare of Chicago teeming with roving gangs, mob chop shops, and gunslinging tow-truck drivers—that it barely has time for self-reflection. Still, the kids in the care of Elisabeth Shue’s well-meaning but harried Chris do learn some things about themselves, from Keith Coogan’s Brad getting over his crush on the family sitter, to his goofball buddy Daryl (future Dazed And Confused alum Anthony Rapp) realizing that his antics have consequences. Most importantly, Chris herself confronts her own adolescent naïveté when it comes to her older boyfriend—not to mention the rest of the world. These are lessons that each of the characters take to heart, along with their deep, abiding fear of ever leaving the suburbs again. [Sean O’Neal]

15. I Love You, Beth Cooper (2009)

The culture, clothing, and social values may change, but the tale of an awkward young nerd who’s head over heels for the seemingly untouchable popular girl is timeless. Based on a raunchier, wittier novel of the same name, I Love You, Beth Cooper follows valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) on the night after he uses his big, kiss-off valedictorian speech to confess his crush on head cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere)—in front of her brute boyfriend, Kevin (Shawn Roberts). What follows are some movie-standard, “all-night-long” shenanigans, as Denis and his best friend spend the next 12 hours with Beth and her two ditzy gal pals, drinking, driving, and dodging Kevin, all while Denis’ dream girl slowly warms to his affections. It’s not great, but it’s a serviceable story about an anxious dork finding his strength. [Alex McLevy]

16. Fun Size (2012)

Nickelodeon got into the PG-13 theatrical release game with this Halloween-set film, which finds high school senior Wren DeSantis (Nickelodeon mainstay Victoria Justice) torn away from her party plans after her mother strong-arms her into taking her little brother trick-or-treating. It’s not long before Wren loses track of her brother, and the two of them set off on their respective all-night adventures—hers largely involving venturing from party to party with her friends (including a game Jane Levy) until she locates him. Along the way, Wren and her pals gain confidence and have romantic epiphanies; meanwhile, Wren, her brother, and even her mother all have breakthroughs in coming to terms with Wren’s father’s recent death. Belying the title, Fun Size is a bit overstuffed, but it’s the rare Halloween teen movie where “coming of age” doesn’t involve just not being killed. [Alex McLevy]

17. Blockers (2018)

Released earlier this year to largely positive reviews, Kay Cannon’s ambitious addition to the teen-sex farce genre mostly takes place over the hours leading up to prom night, as three high-school seniors (Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, and Gideon Adlon) plan to finally lose their virginities. But the movie splits its focus, also following the girls’ concerned parents (Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz) as they scheme to derail the distaff-American Pie pact. One could call it half a coming-of-age comedy, then—or maybe just two of them entwined, provided middle can be affixed to age in coming-of-age. [A.A. Dowd]

18. Kids (1995)

Harmony Korine wrote Kids as a more realistic rejoinder to Hollywood pictures of adolescence, without their sense of sugar-coated nostalgia. But the assembled cast of then-unknowns—including Rosario Dawson and Chloë Sevigny in their film debuts—still ends up doing a bunch of the same stuff kids do in those other, more saccharine coming-of-age movies. They get drunk and high and make fun of each other. They shoot the shit and wander from place to place, asking what other people have been up to. They hook up and talk about hooking up. Ultimately, though, Kids is more willing to follow through, portraying the ugliness that all this idleness can eventually ladder into, like STDs, violence, and sexual assault. This, in turn, prompted plenty of the kind of moral outrage that Korine and director Larry Clark were supposedly seeking to evade. [Clayton Purdom]