Five unconventional summer movies: Coming of age edition

A scene from the movie Moonrise Kingdom of an adult and two young people about to cross a bridge
(From left to right) Jason Schwartzman as Cousin Ben, Jared Gilman as Sam, and Kara Hayward as Suzy in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” a Focus Features release.
(Niko Tavernise)

Summer is the season for movies. But instead of the traditional blockbuster fare, let’s take a look at some smaller films that fall into the coming of age genre.

“The Spectacular Now” (2013): Has there ever been a coming of age story where the popular slacker jerk was the protagonist? Not that I can remember, which is one of the main reasons why James Ponsoldt’s beautiful and sobering “The Spectacular Now” is such a refreshing addition to the genre. Starring Miles Teller as Sutter, a “carefree” alcoholic who happens to be finishing his last year of high school, and Shailene Woodley as the classmate who turns his philosophy on life completely upside down, the films rides or dies on their chemistry, and thankfully, they share this in spades. The relationship they create is so authentic that at times it feels as though we are intruding on someone’s privacy rather than watching two actors working. This is also a great credit to Ponsoldt’s objective yet commanding presence behind the camera. The film challenges us to take a second look at that crazy dude in high school we may have written off as a complete jerk or a total nothing. In all likelihood, that person might be really hurting inside, and maybe all they need is for someone to see that.

“The Way Way Back” (2013): Though a bit formulaic, “The Way Way Back” is elevated by a brilliant cast (particularly an icy Steve Carell and an immensely likable Sam Rockwell) and the conveniently chosen setting of the Water Wizz theme park. Admittedly not a very original story (high school loner spends summer alone, trying to find his place in the world) but writer/director duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have such a love and reference for the characters and the world in which they populate, that you can’t help but fall in love as well. The reason it stands above the pack is for its raw perspective on finding a father figure when the world has not allowed you a healthy one. This also might be the funniest film on this entire list, thanks to great character actors who pop in and out.

A scene from "The Lego Movie" featuring characters Batman, Wyldstyle and Emmet
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows characters, from left, Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt, Wyldstyle, voiced by Elizabeth Banks and Batman, voiced by Will Arnett, in a scene from “The Lego Movie.”
( (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures))

“The Lego Movie” (2014): While this movie was technically released in February, I can think of few films that embody the crazed, hyper-energetic spirit of summer moviemaking than Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s exceedingly clever and shockingly introspective “The Lego Movie.” Who would have thought that a movie about freaking Legos would actually turn out to be a brilliant corporate satire about the problems with groupthink and lack of individuality in the modern world?! But even beyond the film’s surprising storytelling, this is a hysterical and action-packed thrill ride that can be counted as one of the most entertaining animated films ever made. Lord and Miller’s direction of the action sequences is inventive as hell, incorporating groundbreaking animation with wildly creative camera angles. What really made this film a hit though is its rock solid emotional core and refreshingly uncynical message that everyone is, indeed, awesome. While it spawned an entire franchise of respectable animated films, nothing can quite compare to that first go-around that shocked audiences with it’s satire, heart, and summertime energy.

“Moonrise Kingdom” 2012: My love for Wes Anderson began in a packed La Jolla movie theater on a hot May afternoon in 2012, my mom and I sat down to watch his tenderly realized adventure masterpiece, “Moonrise Kingdom.” Following two young and precocious tween lovers who feel ostracized and abandoned by their families, the most refreshing aspect of the film is the intelligence with which Anderson treats his young protagonists. The children in the film are written as fully realized human beings as opposed to a cute punchline or an annoying kid, and that made a huge impact on me as a 13-year-old movie lover. This film challenges parents and adults to take another look at children and their so-called “problems,” and treat them with the same seriousness and empathy they would an adult counterpart. But beyond the film’s moving story, it features idyllic summertime cinematography by the great Robert Yeoman, perfectly deadpan performances, a rousing score, and the aesthetic pleasure of 10 art museums.

“Super 8” (2011): None of my personal childhood favorites have been dismissed and forgotten the way J.J. Abrams’ deeply personal “Super 8” has, and, quite frankly, it’s understandable to see why. For starters, the film is a tribute to the summertime science fiction stories that Steven Spielberg (one of the film’s producers) made popular, and many critics were quick to label it as a straight rip-off rather than a loving tribute. Originality aside, this is a hilarious, suspenseful and emotionally satisfying film that perfectly encapsulates what made the ‘70s and ‘80s such a special period for young cinemagoers. In a story that can best be described as “The Goonies” meets “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Abrams utilizes Spielberg’s trademark blend of nostalgia, horror, and large scale filmmaking to craft a touching tale of loss and forgiveness. Come for the monster movie thrills, stay for Abrams’ confident direction and expert filmmaking from the entire creative team.

Cameron Chang is a San Diego native and recent Otterbein University graduate. He writes about films for PACIFIC.