The coming-of-age film is an enduring genre and it’s easy to see why. Who hasn’t looked back on their own teenage years and remembered that one summer, or that one romance, or that one fight with your parents that changed it all? The stories we tell in those movies are premised on relatability: “Hey, that’s exactly how much of an outcast I felt at my high school!” or “Oh my god, that’s my mom and I’s relationship!” But even with those kinds of universal stories, the really good coming-of-age flicks succeed in their specificity. That’s why, as much as you can love, say, Lady Bird, you may find that a film like Real Women Have Curves, which as we’ve discussed here before, covers all too similar ground, resonates more strongly with you.
That got us thinking about what a canon of films about the US Latino coming-of-age experience looks like. The following ten movies may not all boast Latino directors behind the camera but they all tell distinct stories about our community. From a queer Chicana romance and a really dramatic quinceañera, to homeboys out on the town and an all-girl skate crew, these projects showcase just how varied the coming-of-age genre can look when it zeroes in on all kinds of teenagers in the U.S.
Raising Victor Vargas details the romantic foibles of a group of Lower East Side teenagers, featuring breakout actors Victor Rasuk and Melonie Diaz (both of whom will show up in a few years on How to Make it in America.) After getting caught with Fat Donna, Victor sets out to rehabilitate his reputation by getting with Judy, the hottie on the block who has to be careful who she winds up with. The whole film is an ode to stoop sitting, public pools, blaring salsa, and teenage lotharios.
Featuring intimate camera angles and a lilting soundtrack to make US indie filmmakers swoon, Mosquita y Mari is the low-key and personal tale of two young Latinas, Yolanda and Mari, whose burgeoning affection develops under the domineering glare of family tradition. What begins as a friendship energised by the rebellious spirit of adolescence soon becomes something deeper as the girls’ mutual journey allows both to discover their true self. If that sounds corny, the film is anything but, with supreme performances from the two leads. The overriding message is one of positivity and unity, where the decisions we make are ours and ours alone. Not that that stops everyone else from sticking their beak in where it’s unwanted.
Based on Josefina López’s play by the same name, Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves was an instant-classic when it premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Set in East L.A., the film is centered around Ana García (America Ferrera), a young woman who’s torn between her ambitions and the plan her family (especially her strong-willed mother, played by Lupe Ontiveros) has laid out for her: to marry and provide grandchildren. Working alongside her sister, sneaking away to meet with her high school sweetheart, and later needing to confront her parents about her desire to move to New York City for school, Ana offers a quintessential look at the struggles of first-generation Latino immigrants.
Don’t Let Me Drown, a kind of spiritual successor to Raising Victor Vargas, is a teenage love story between Lalo (E.J. Bonilla) and Stefanie (Gleendilys Inoa) two lost kids trying to find their feet again just a month after 9/11. After meeting at a birthday party the two begin to fall for one another, anchoring each other in the midst of all the uncertainty and intense emotion that accompanied the city’s struggles. While it’s sometimes rough to look back at 9/11 this funny, sweet movie might just be the best way to do it.
Fun-loving, popular goofball Gerry (Jorge Diaz) is a typical high school student. He plays basketball, spends his time beating video games, and is all about the ladies. But being the class clown can be a real bummer when no one takes you seriously on the important stuff. One day Gerry meets Melinda (Angelina Leon), a straight-laced fellow student who begins to show him that life is about more than just fun and games. Set in the San Francisco suburb of Concord, this charming romantic comedy shows that reaching one’s full potential takes a little bit of humor and a whole lot of sincerity.
Set in Chicago, this hip hop drama centers on young Carmen (Aimee Garcia) who has big dreams of becoming a professional dancer. With an encouraging friend by her side (played by Gina Rodriguez) and a supportive faculty member who’ll open her eyes to the possibilities of her talent, Carmen will have to test her endurance to see if she has what it takes to go for it. With electric dancing sequences and a Chicago-based ensemble, Go For It is a hip hop coming of age tale unlike any other.
Something a lot of you don’t remember is that before The Lord of the Rings, this is exactly the kind of movie New Line Cinema buttered its bread with. But even though this one looks like a lowbrow comedy (you’ll start getting flashbacks to The Pest) it’s a pretty solid early Leguizamo role. His portrayal of the stuttering Johnny is very different from his usual bombast in a movie that asks interesting questions about Nuyorican identity. The womanizing Fernando (Nestor Serrano) goes by Vinny and pretends to be Italian for status… even, apparently, when dating Latinas. As our four heroes make their way from the Bronx through Manhattan, their relationships are put to the test.
A Sundance and GLAAD award-winner, this unforgettable L.A. classic explores the sexual and racial tensions simmering amongst a traditional Latino family against the backdrop of Echo Park’s rapidly growing gentrification. Helmed by Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer, and featuring Emily Rios (Breaking Bad, The Bridge), Jesse Garcia (El Rey Network’s From Dusk Til Dawn), and veteran actor Chalo Gonzales as Tio Tomás, the film resonates as powerfully today as it did upon its first release.
The day Jordin (E.J. Bonilla) is suspended from school for insulting a teacher, he meets Felipa (Veronica Diaz Carranza), a bookish, no-nonsense New York girl who sees past the swaggering facade. The two clearly move in different circles. He’s the epitome of a bad boy, she’s not like the other girls at their school. But the friendly chemistry between them is undeniable. But will Jordin be able to get out of trouble enough to show Felipa that he can be more than the tough guy act he’s perfected to move through life?
Rachelle Vinberg, Ajani Russell, Nina Moran and Dede Lovelace appear in Skate Kitchen by Crystal Moselle, official selection at 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Shy, 18-year-old Camille (played by Colombian-American newcomer Rachelle Vinberg) seeks out an all-girl skateboard crew in NYC, a subculture of sexually fluid, cool city kids whose lives revolve around social media and skateboarding. Camille, adopted into their gang, is quickly faced with the complexity of female friendship, loyalty pressures, and singular personalities. So much so she’ll rebel against her mother (Orange is the New Black’s Elizabeth Rodriguez). A breakout darling of the Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Crystal Moselle (The Wolfpack) perfectly captures the female zeitgeist in her richly textured and atmospheric second feature.
Crystal Moselle, Jen Silverman, Aslihan Unaldi
Lizzie Nastro, Julia Nottingham, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Rodrigo Teixeira Izabella Tzenkova, Crystal Moselle