Since “Booksmart” premiered at SXSW, it has been receiving near universal acclaim. Among the various elements, it has been praised for is its queer representation. A number of mainstream coming-of-age narratives tend to come from the perspective of a heterosexual protagonist, making “Booksmart” feel like the progressive alternative.
However, “Booksmart” is not as rare a case as audiences might think. There have been a number of effective stories about LGBTQ+ youth that haven’t received the recognition they deserve. Because most of them are on a smaller scale distribution-wise, they’ve had trouble finding an audience. This list, which celebrates ten of the best queer coming-of-age stories, acknowledges both unsung gems and films with widespread acclaim.
10“Closet Monster” (2016)
dir. Stephen Dunn
The Canadian independent film “Closet Monster” shows how being “trapped in the closet” can be a place of darkness and surprising escapism. As Oscar (Connor Jessup) struggles with hiding his sexuality, he resorts to his imagination as a coping mechanism. He even imagines his pet hamster (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) talking to him so that he has a friend to confide in. Oscar’s fantastical journey, wonderfully orchestrated by writer/director Stephen Dunn, becomes a blend of gut-wrenching realism and majestic reverie.
9“Princess Cyd” (2017)
dir. Stephen Cone
“Princess Cyd” is a look at exploring one’s sexuality that should be crowned with adulation. Neither topical nor sentimental, this underrated gem is simple yet winningly optimistic. Additionally, lead actress Jessie Pinnick gives a total “star is born” performance as the titular Cyd, a teenager staying with her aunt over the summer. Pinnick portrays Cyd as a woman of smoldering yet buoyant curiosity. As for Rebecca Spence who plays Cyd’s aunt, she has a warm monologue that clutches the heartstrings with ease.
dir. Dee Rees
“Pariah” is a vital look at identity and family ties with intricate storytelling as well as hypnotic cinematography. This overlooked independent feature follows a lesbian teenager named Alike (Adepero Oduye) who slowly realizes her sexual preference. Yet, she still conceals it from her loving father (Chris Parnell) and overbearing, religious mother (Kim Wayans). Both pragmatic and hopeful, “Pariah” is a wondrous feature film debut from writer/director Dee Rees.
dir. Kay Cannon
“Blockers” feels like a breath of fresh air in the raunchy comedy genre. Not only does it have a central lesbian character but her sexuality is never a subject of any of the film’s jokes nor is it politicized. Usually, raunchy comedies resort to tired “gay panic” jokes to bring some laughs. “Blockers” avoids going that route and focuses on allowing the character of Sam (Gideon Adlon) to have a sincere arc. This is one of various reasons why “Blockers” has more heart and depth than its marketing previously suggested.
6“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” (2016)
dir. Stephen Cone
Before “Princess Cyd,” director Stephen Cone made another unsung gem about self-discovery. Set over the course of one day, “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” follows the title character on a rather introspective journey, experimenting with boys and girls to find where his sexual preference lies. Meanwhile, his friends and family members undergo their own respective personal growths. Even though Henry’s family and friends are quite religious, the film guides them with an empathetic eye instead of portraying them as rather one-sided antagonists. There are all sorts of layers in the cake from “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.”
5“Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013)
dir. Abdellatif Kechiche
The 2013 winner of the prestigious Palme D’Or shows that blue is, indeed, the warmest color. The eponymous color remains physically omnipresent throughout the film and reflects the story’s rather bittersweet nature. As Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) falls for the carefree Emma (Lea Seydoux), she experiences both the blissful and devastating notions of romance in this three-hour odyssey. In addition, Adele Exarchopoulos gives a portrayal infused with layered naturalism as the aforementioned protagonist. Lea Seydoux impresses in equal measure as Emma, a woman who exudes a fiery spirit while still being too cold to hold.
4“Love, Simon” (2018)
dir. Greg Berlanti
Just last year, “Love, Simon” won the hearts of both critics and audiences everywhere and rightfully so. It’s the first LGBTQ+ teen romance released by a major studio and along with its quality, its cultural touchstone status struck a chord with people. “Love, Simon” is an immense crowd-pleaser that balances romance, comedy, drama, and even a bit of mystery simultaneously. The performances ranging from Nick Robinson as the main protagonist to Natasha Rothwell who has a featured role as the high school’s ornery drama teacher are all outstanding.
3“The Way He Looks” (2014)
dir. Daniel Ribeiro
“The Way He Looks” hasn’t exactly received many looks. Despite the film being Brazil’s selection to compete in Best Foreign Language Film five years ago, it didn’t make the shortlist. It still remains a heartfelt coming-of-age story from a different point of view. It not only depicts a queer teenager as its protagonist but one living with a disability as well. Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) is blind and fears no one will want a relationship with him because of it. That all changes when a new student named Gabriel (Fabio Audi) catches his attention. The chemistry between the two leads is quite genuine and is what gives the film its joyous, beating heart.
dir. Barry Jenkins
2016’s Best Picture winner “Moonlight” shines brightly. It’s a transcendent masterpiece told in three parts that demonstrate what it means to be a man as well as a queer person of color. Each part feels aesthetically distinctive, in terms of the acting, writing, and cinematography, yet they all have a collective impact. Thanks to the efforts of Oscar-winning director/co-writer Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight” is a queer coming-of-age story for the ages.
1“Call Me By Your Name” (2017)
dir. Luca Guadagnino
“Call Me By Your Name” feels like a moving snapshot in time. It features sunny, picturesque cinematography while capturing a key moment in a young person’s life. They say there’s nothing like your first love and “Call Me By Your Name” certainly shows how rapturous it can be. Once Elio (Timothee Chalamet) falls for grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer), they embark on a romance that lasts for one summer but remains one with a lasting impact on Elio. Thanks to the authentic performances from the two leads, “Call Me By Your Name” becomes a memory that audiences won’t forget either.