It’s Women’s History Month! While these stories, like the lives of women, deserve to be celebrated year-round, the spirit of this month’s commemoration warrants a delicious list to remind everyone of some great movies.
The bildungsroman, or the coming-of-age story, was created by a white cishet man to talk about the emotional growth of white cishet male characters. While some have taken the essentialist origin of this narrative framework to mean that the tenets of “coming-of-age” are not applicable to women and/or queer people, there are some spectacular films that showcase the becoming of young women of color nonetheless. Although I—like other film lovers—would love even more coming-of-age stories about underrepresented youth, this March is a great time to spotlight the work of dazzling filmmakers like Gurinder Chadha, Nijla Mu’min and Minhal Baig, all of whom have used their talents to share wonderful stories about girls of color growing up.
Here are ten great films about girls of color coming of age:
Director: Gurinder Chadha
British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha has made a plethora of fun coming-of-age films with stellar soundtracks, including Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging and 2019’s Bruce Springsteen-centric Blinded by the Light. But the bildungsroman for which Chadha is perhaps most renowned is the 2002 romantic comedy/sports film Bend it Like Beckham. Bend it Like Beckham follows Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra (Parminder Nagra), an 18-year-old British-Indian girl with amazing football skills who idolizes David Beckham. Jess struggles to assert her own authentic girlhood as she navigates her parents’ gendered cultural expectations of her and disapproval of her athletic aspiration. When Jess befriends Juliette (Keira Knightley), a fellow female footballer, and secretly joins the local women’s football team for which Juliette plays, she embarks upon a complicated emotional journey in which she must choose between her dreams and complying with her parent’s vision of the kind of woman she should be. Bend it Like Beckham’s strengths lie not only in its ability to gracefully blend multiple genres—sports, family dramedy, romance— but also in the ways in which it honors the cultural relativism of “coming-of-age.” Bonus points for getting Bollywood legend Anupam Kher to play Jess’ dad.
Director: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Premature is a heart-wrenching, Harlem-set film about romance, tenderness and departure. Director Rashaad Ernesto Green co-wrote the film with the film’s star, Zora Howard. Howard plays 17-year-old Ayanna, a young poet who falls in love with Isaiah (Joshua Boone), an older music producer, the summer before she leaves for college. Initially, Ayanna—with her quiet and calculated nature—is reluctant to Isaiah’s advances, but her ultimate surrender to her reciprocal feelings of attraction opens up a world of emotion that challenges her self-perception and vision of the future. Premature’s grainy aesthetic further enhances the film’s hyper-realistic feel. It’s a film simple in plot but abundant in mood and atmospheric allure. Ayanna’s playful exchanges with her friends, her strained relationship with her mother and quotidian rides on the train immerse the audience in her personal, summertime world of Harlem. There’s an interior access and lived-in-ness that Green and Howard collaboratively achieve with their influence on the film. More so, Premature lives in that elusive middle ground of telling a story about a woman in the thrall of love without suggesting that romance is what makes this woman worthy of narrative attention.
Director: Patricia Cardoso
If you’re looking for a coming-of-age film about a California girl whose intellect and cunning leaves her daydreaming of a life in NYC, despite the disapproval of her anxiety-prone mother, look no further than Lady Bird—I mean Real Women Have Curves. This 2002 dramedy, based on the eponymous stage play written by Josefina López, follows Ana García (America Ferrera) a girl from East L.A. who travels to attend Beverly Hills High, where she is a top student. With the encouragement of her favorite teacher Mr. Guzman (George Lopez), Ana applies to Columbia University despite the high expense and the apprehension of her parents. In this career-launching role, Ferrera gives a stellar performance that integrates the complexities of managing intercultural expectations, economic insecurity and—as the title suggests—rampant fatphobia. Ana, like her older sister Estela (Ingrid Oliu) and mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), works in a clothing factory. Through Ana’s vocational work, the film showcases the seldom-represented experiences of young people for whom early work is a financial, familial obligation rather than a character-building opportunity. Real Women Have Curves also does well to position college as an exclusive, sometimes affordable experience rather than an inevitable rite of passage that is tacit to coming of age. Look out for an amazing scene in which Ana, Estela and fellow women factory workers undress and compare their stretch marks while on the clock.
Director: Minhal Baig
Writer/director Minhal Baig’s Hala is an intimate coming-of-age drama held up by its personal writerly touches and a star-making turn from Geraldine Viswanathan as the title character. Hala’s struggling with the same kinds of things we normally see high school characters struggle with: What to do after graduation, how to manage a relationship with her parents that’s not quite adult and not quite childish, and (of course) boys. Viswanathan’s understated quiet and the warmth in which the situations are shot (almost always centered on her face)—be they at a family dinner or a walk in a Chicago park or a reading of a high school English assignment—make the dramatic ricochet of Hala’s minor rebellion rattle us all the harder. Her relationship with a poetry-loving floppy-haired boy, her parents’ imperfections and a boatload of baggage brought from Pakistan (including the threat of arranged marriage) create a compelling portrait of a family that overcomes Baig’s sometimes sleepy direction. While there’s a lot, probably too much, going on around Hala—to the point that the movie threatens to shake apart—and the film tends to raise issues it’d rather not see through to any sort of conclusion, some striking shots, realistic dialogue (even in that heightened “everything’s the end of the world” way that teens can have) and Viswanathan’s ability to sell it all make the film a worthy and unique entry into the coming-of-age canon. —Jacob Oller
Director: Numa Perrier
Set in 1999, Numa Perrier’s semi-autobiographical drama Jezebel follows Tiffany (Tiffany Tenille), a young woman who begins working as a cam girl in Las Vegas to help support herself and her breadwinner sister Sabrina (Perrier) in the wake of their mother’s death. Jezebel’s primary focus, aside from Tiffany’s coming-of-age, are the intricacies of commodified and non-commodified forms of care. Through Tiffany’s time at work, relationship with her employers, clients and family, Jezebel sagely highlights the differing expectations people have of interpersonal intimacy when money is involved. The film’s title invokes familiar biblical lore, but within the context of the narrative at hand “Jezebel” is the name of the wig Sabrina gifts Tiffany when she begins her cam work and the name Tiffany takes when at work. Jezebel does well to reify through Tiffany and Sabrina’s sisterhood (Sabrina is also a sex worker) that sex work is work. Their relationship explores the ways that young women, especially young Black women, mature by growth-stimulating experiences and by the guiding hands of women mentors. Through Tiffany’s journey to earn an income and defend herself when racially harassed at work, Jezebel powerfully explores the racialized and gendered politics of power within the world of sex work.
Director: Crystal Moselle
Skate Kitchen is a film that epitomizes the “nothing really happens, but the vibes” category of movies. The 2018 Crystal Moselle teen drama, which has now expanded into its own HBO show Betty, centers on shy, loner Camille (Rachelle Vinberg). Camille begrudgingly lives with her conservative mother Renata (Elizabeth Rodriguez) in Long Island and spends her free time skating alone in the city—until she decides to attend a girl skater meet-up hosted by the “Skate Kitchen,” an Instagram page run by girl skaters whom Camille follows. Soon Camille is engulfed in the world of the Skate Kitchen and befriends Janay (Dede Lovelance), Kurt (Nina Moran), Ruby (Kabrina Adams) and Indigo (Ajani Russell). Skate Kitchen possesses some transporting skate sequences scored to the likes of Bedroom Bop royalty like Clairo and Danish pop duo Super Junior. The sequences are fun, but also effectively capture the way the inherent performance/spectatorship of skateboarding as a sport and the omnipresent male gaze uniquely impact women skaters. Misogynistic skate park kerfuffles and the tension that ultimately arises between Camille and Janay in response to Camille’s association with Devon (Jaden Smith), a notoriously emotionally manipulative skater boy, effectively portrays the toxic machismo which pervades skating communities. Camille’s relationship with Devon also demonstrates the pressure “late bloomers” sometimes feel to achieve a sense of belonging through sexual milestones and that women in male-dominated spaces sometimes feel to earn male approval. Skate Kitchen is a testament to the power of friendship between women and the energetic, spontaneity of youthful New York summers. Skate or die, bitch.
Director: Alice Wu
Alice Wu’s 2004 directorial debut, Saving Face centers the experiences of two lesbian women who live in the hyphen between Chinese and American. Wilhelmina “Wil” Pang (Michelle Krusiec) is a hotshot surgeon. When her unwed, newly pregnant mother Hwei-lang Gao (Joan Chen) is thrown out of her grandparents’ home, Wil takes her in and navigates the trouble of living with her mother, performing well at the hospital where she works and entertaining a budding romance with dancer Vivian (Lynn Chen). Saving Face’s brilliance comes from its exploration of the multi-generational experiences with a single, Chinese immigrant Flushing community. There are comedic meditations on gossiping aunties, the subtle matchmaking efforts of anxious parents and the time given to explore the inner depths of specific characters. During an especially hilarious sequence, Wil’s mum goes to a video store to rent a Chinese drama and, due to the limited selection available (little more than The Joy Luck Club), she rents a porno instead and watches it alone in her daughter’s apartment. Wil never finds out about this, but the audience gets to witness Hwei-lang in this moment. The film subtly nudges the audience to notice the ironies and hypocrisy that live in the interpersonal exchanges between characters. Hwei-lang lives in denial about Wil’s sexuality and initially shames her for it, much to Wil’s chagrin. Yet Hwei-lang is also the target of her own parents’ disapproval at her middle-aged pregnancy and reluctance to disclose the identity of the father. While Wil is older than other women on this list, Saving Face still centers her maturation and the time it takes to stand boldly before her community (and before Vivian) to declare who and what she desires.
Director: Nijla Mu’min
Nijla Mu’min’s debut feature, Jinn, is a coming-of-age story about the seldom-depicted experiences of young Black Muslim women. Zoe Renee stars as Summer, a high school senior whose world is turned upside-down when her meteorologist mother Jade (Simone Missick) begins to practice Islam. Summer and her father initially perceive Jade’s religious affinity as a phase. But as her mother pressures her to accept Islam as well, Summer struggles to assert her independence and practice her new faith in a way that is fully authentic to her. One of the film’s propelling subplots is the fallout that occurs when Summer, clad in hijab and a push-up bra, takes a selfie with the hashtag “halal hottie.” Mu’min uses these moments to display how run-of-the-mill prepubescent struggles with sexual expression can be further intensified by the expectations projected on young religious people. Jinn is deeply invested in these complex intersections between individuality and collectivism as it relates to representing religious communities, family and the social dynamics of high school. Summer’s romance with Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a Muslim boy at her school, and the stark contrast between his adherent parents and Jade’s nascent faith further reinforce Jinn’s depiction of the dynamic ways in which faith-based strictures shape a person’s life-long process of becoming.
Director: Ramón Menéndez
This Disney Channel Original ensemble film taught every viewer the motto of the United Farm Workers of America: “Si se puede.” Gotta Kick It Up! is an empowering sports drama about a group of Latina girls who start a competitive dance team at their middle school. Daisy Salinas (Camille Guaty) is a popular albeit short-tempered teenage girl. She is over middle school and ready to enter the world with her older high school boyfriend Chuy (Erik Alexander Gavica). After Miss Bartlett, a new biology teacher, arrives at Marshall Middle, Daisy gets in trouble with Principal Zavala (Miguel Sandoval) for the umpteenth time for disrupting class. To evade extensive detention, Daisy convinces Principal Zavala to let her join an extracurricular right as the school’s nascent dance team is being formed. From then on, Daisy, Yoli (America Ferrera), Marisol (Sulima Rodriguez) and the rest of the team come together with the help of Miss Bartlett to fundraise the team’s competition fees, defy their naysayers and be the best team they can be. Daisy’s journey to reassess her commitment to Chuy in light of the dance team’s success and process her invitation to audition for a performing arts school makes for some compelling PG self-actualization. While there are some truly cringe-inducing moments in this film—there’s an audition montage with some ginormous yikes energy—Gotta Kick It Up! is an all-in-all fun film about friendship, integrity and teamwork.
Director: Niki Caro
Whale Rider tells the story of a young girl, Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), who lives in New Zealand with a stern grandfather who, apparently, needs to get modern. Every scene tells us this and gives us an opportunity to tsk-tsk his staunch rejection of his granddaughter who he believes, despite her lineage, can’t inherit the leadership of this Maori village because of her gender. She’ll need to convince her grandfather she can lead just as well as the boys can, and she’ll need to do it before the end of the movie. But just when you think you have the film pegged, its sincerity manages to break through the thin characterizations and age-old plot. Young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes gives Paikea a richly expressive voice, and the turning point is an astonishingly heartfelt speech she delivers at a school program for parents. The soundtrack goes silent and the camera sits at the foot of the stage looking up at her while she talks about her admiration for her grandfather, explaining how she destroyed a long line of chiefs by being born. In everything she does, she balances a challenge of authority with obedience and respect, as if trying to find a way to simultaneously accept both herself and her grandfather’s tradition, rather than rejecting tradition outright, which would’ve been simpler for a movie like this. Castle-Hughes’ grace and beauty on the screen is probably the main reason Whale Rider became a surprise art-house hit.—Robert Davis
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.