"Lady Bird," shows the struggle in transitioning from high school to college. Courtesy photo

Coming of Age on the Silver Screen


As a 19-year-old teetering on the cusp of adulthood, I find myself often thinking about how strange this time in my life is.

Being in college is uncomfortable — it’s supposed to be. It’s transitional, transformative, and inevitably puts you in situations that can change your entire viewpoint of the world and the people in it.

So why in the world are coming of age movies almost never set in college?

As Angelica with the Edinburgh Film Festival writes in her article, “Coming of age films often bring back a feeling of nostalgia from when we were just on the verge of adulthood, an eye-opening moment or series of experiences that make us who we are” (2020).

Is this not a perfect description of college? Of course, everyone has different experiences, but I think the opportunity to create films surrounding the unique experience of finding yourself in your first years of independence at a university has been wasted in recent decades.

When researching this topic, I sought to investigate the unofficial coming of age in college film genre to see if I could find some decent picks to review and recommend for kids like me who need something to relate to during these tumultuous years in university.

Let’s be clear here, though: films set in college settings are not always coming of age stories, so I will try not to include any films that don’t involve the transformation of a character in a way that fulfills the genre definition. Also, I want to give recommendations that I think current Shepherd students can relate to the best, so I’m only searching around for films made in the 2010s.

Unfortunately, that means I’m not reviewing the cinematic masterpiece, “Legally Blonde.” So, let’s get to it!

Sh** house tells a story of the college experience. Courtesy photo

First up is the 2020 film, “Sh*thouse.”

Cooper Raiff’s debut film tells the story of Alex, who is attending his freshman year of college and really struggling to adjust to his new life away from home.

Going most of the year without being able to put himself out there, lonely Alex decides to take a leap of faith and attend a party at the legendary fraternity house, known so eloquently as the Sh*thouse. That night he hooks up with a girl named Maggie, and the rest of the film follows Alex as he desperately tries to keep hold of his connection with her and the new possibility of him finally ‘getting’ college.

It’s funny, awkward, and by far the most relatable college-centered film I’ve ever seen.

I know that many of us have struggled to get into the groove of college and put ourselves out there; and it was even more difficult to even attempt to do that because of COVID-19. Personally, I remember feeling lonely and frustrated on a regular basis because of those circumstances and my anxiety about meeting new people, so watching “Sh*tHouse” was oddly cathartic.

Because of that, I think this is a great coming of age film set in college. It’s got so much heart and it’s a lot of fun to watch, even if it does get deep. Definitely put this film on your watchlist!

“Lady Bird,” shows the struggle in transitioning from high school to college. Courtesy photo

Next up, is the 2017 film, “Lady Bird,” directed by Greta Gerwig.

All right, I am kind of (totally) breaking most of the rules I set up for these reviews by recommending this film, but I felt like it would be a great addition, nonetheless.

“Lady Bird” tells the story of Christine  McPherson, aka Lady Bird, in her senior year of Catholic high school as she navigates the transition between grade school and college. Lady Bird is self-centered, selfish, and sometimes pretentious in a weirdly lovable way. She’s determined to leave Sacramento and start fresh in a college on the east coast, but this longing to get out causes a tumultuous rift in her relationship with her mother.

This movie is so charming, unique, and messy.  The characters feel so real, and you can’t help but to root for them throughout the entire film.

I think a lot of college kids can watch Lady Bird’s struggle with identity, family, and growing up in that tail-end phase of high school where you’re looking forward more than standing with your feet on the ground in the present and really recognize and relate to that experience.

Check this film out if you dig emotional rollercoasters.

“Dear White People” chronicles four Black students at a predominantly White college. Courtesy photo

The last film I’m recommending is the 2014 satire, “Dear White People,” directed by Justin Simien.

This film is about four students at a prestigious college and their different struggles as Black students in a predominantly White institution. The film follows Sam, Coco, Troy, and Lionel as they navigate their experiences and try to find their identities while a campus culture war boils to a breaking point when an “African American” themed party is thrown by a club of White kids.

Simien’s film is a fresh, tongue-in-cheek take on racial politics and finding one’s identity as a Black person in a predominantly White place.

I thought this film had a great ensemble cast and told the character’s unique stories in a way that allows you to really connect with them. Sam, Coco, Lionel, and Troy all struggle in their own ways with stereotypes they struggle against or put themselves in because of their race and culture.

This film does a great job of showing all sides of the coin, and I think many students at Shepherd could relate to one aspect or another of these characters’ stories as they try their best to figure out who they are despite the frustrating and sometimes ridiculous challenges thrown their way.

This is another film that you need to check out! And there’s a Netflix show based off the movie as well!

Going into writing this article, I assumed I was going to struggle to find movies about coming of age in college that felt authentic and as if the filmmaker actually knew a real human being below the age of thirty.

Honestly, I assumed correctly! I found very few examples of 2010s movies set in college at all, and the ones I did find were great but largely lacked a lot of nonwhite, non-straight representation.

I really hope to see more films set in college that tell stories about students of color or LGBTQ+, so at least future young adults can see themselves on the big screen. It’s inaccurate and, frankly, boring to continue telling the same story over and over about white, straight kids in high school undergoing the same kind of transformation over, and over, and over.

There are so many different stories out there to tell, and I’m hoping more filmmakers like Raiff, Gerwig, and Simien will be able to shine in the coming years.


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