6 Shows and Movies That Do Coming-of-Age Nostalgia Right (And 4 That Don’t)

6 Shows and Movies That Do Coming-of-Age Nostalgia Right (And 4 That Don’t)
Screenshot: Netflix

Recapturing the magic of classic movies — or at least trying to — has been a staple of pop culture’s obsession with nostalgia, Stranger Things being one current example. Entertainment has a specific fixation with growing up pre-internet, something that can be evoked to make a meaningful impact, but can also come across as merely surface-level aesthetics.

Here’s a roundup of films and television series that strive for retro timelessness, regardless of the specific era in which their stories take place … some more successfully than others.

Attack the Block

It’s wild to realise that it’s been over 10 years since Attack the Block was released. The Joe Cornish feature somehow captured a “Goonies meets John Carpenter’s Escape From New York meets a heavy dose of ‘80s alien sci-fi” vibe with a seamless finesse we pretty much haven’t seen since. It also gave us the gift of future Star Wars hero John Boyega.

Fear Street Part 2: 1978

Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy is one of the biggest underrated Netflix gems. All three films really dug into the lore from the R.L. Stein books, with this entry in particular taking viewers back to the summer camp era of ‘78, complete with characters you immediately relate to and (ahem) killer stakes. Personally, I also have a major affinity for the first instalment, which finally gives us ‘90s kids a throwback for once. Janiak has the makings of a great filmmaker and we can’t wait to see what she’s working on next.

Reservation Dogs

Growing up on the fringes is often depicted in a certain way to raise awareness of systemic issues, but in FX’s Reservation Dogs we get creator Sterlin Harjo’s deeply personal look at youth “on the rez” who are dealing with loss and have had to grow up quickly, but are still allowed to be kids. With his deft sense of humour, we see joy and an everyday life made extraordinary by the stories that connect us — whether it’s references to Tarantino while going on adventures or encounters with urban legends. Its characters litter their day-to-day conversations and interactions with pop culture references, and the show also gives us a glimpse at how the supernatural co-exists as a part of their reality through it’s depiction of Indigenous folklore (like the scene above). In the way that John Hughes and Steven Spielberg were able to capture the spirit of American youth in the ‘80s, Harjo gives us that needed perspective for the underrepresented growing up in America today. Catch up with this Taika Waititi-produced series before season two is released later this year.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Speaking of Taika Waititi, to me, he’s the Spielberg of today, with a particular strength in sharing stories about found families. (Every time he makes a movie or produces a show by uplifting creatives we need and breaks barriers for the marginalised, I turn into the Jeff Goldblum “you did it” meme.) Boy, released in 2010, is about a kid growing up in New Zealand during the ‘80s (much like Waititi did), and in 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows, with its coven of vampire forever flatmates, you really saw how even on the fringes bonds are what makes life worth enduring. But it was 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople that really put Waititi on the map as a modern great who can capture the magic and whimsy of coming of age in ways that convey the timeless challenges of overcoming odds. It’s also basically a live-action Up filled with familiar Waititi collaborators like Sam Neill (Jurassic World Dominion) in one of his greatest recent performances, Rachel House (Moana), and Rhys Darby (Our Flag Means Death).

Stranger Things

Stranger Things very easily has an equal amount of blatant Amblin homages that both do and don’t work — I’m sorry, but The NeverEnding Story duet nearly threw me out of last season’s arc as just pure nostalgia placement. In season four volume one, the use of Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill” worked so much better, giving Max a weapon through her Walkman and her friends’ quick thinking to reel her back to life with it. The Duffer Brothers are great at creating characters, they just need to let go of the nostalgia crutch and they’ll do right by our Hawkins heroes. The show is most powerful when it focuses on each character’s journey and anchors them with a symbol or theme of the era.

Bumblebee

Somehow after a whole series of action films, Bumblebee managed to ground the explosive franchise with a simple story of an unlikely friendship between a girl (Hailee Steinfeld) and a Transformer. The Travis Knight-directed instalment is very E.T.-like! It had a grand sense of adventure without getting too muddled in action set pieces. It’s only a bummer we didn’t get more as its sequel has seemingly fallen through.

Hot Tub Time Machine

Hot Tub Time Machine is a weird one. It manages to pay homage to Back to the Future in really clever ways that almost get away with reboot elements of a property that’s known to be untouchable. It even got Crispin Glover, who avoids most anything to do with the Zemeckis franchise he fell out with, to participate as a memorable side character, and he seemed to really enjoy being a part of it. However, this movie was released in 2010 and is definitely a product of the raunchy comedies of the time, something that undercuts its potential to be timeless.

Riverdale

From its start, Riverdale has taken the comics’ small-town Americana feel and soaked it in sexy intrigue, usually to cringeworthy effect. Its retro-tinged future serves as only a hollow backdrop for melodrama that over the course of many seasons has made genre-mashing choices that surely must be doing something for its dedicated fanbase, at the very least.

Midnight Special

This Jeff Nichols indie definitely got the tone of an Amblin film but was maybe too mature. It shares a thread that Stranger Things explores with Eleven, a super-powered kid who is protected by loved ones. But Midnight Special alienated, perhaps even purposefully, a wider audience with its heady take on the genre.

Ready Player One

It pains me to put Amblin’s own Steven Spielberg on this list but Ready Player One was simply atrocious and contrived. And that’s on the book and not the legendary director’s fault. It was a complicated ask to give material that was not as smart as it thought it was to the person who inspired the Easter egg shell thin plot. Ultimately, the film didn’t so much play as Spielberg finding magic in a greatest hits sort of medley (don’t get me wrong, some moments were breathtaking in a good way), it just fell flat. At least he had the foresight to not pay tribute to himself in big ways. Who was this movie for? The core of an Amblin film is to speak to kids growing up or have adults reminisce about their youth but there was nothing for new generations within the material to latch onto. Mostly, it was just a bunch of “Oh, look, it’s [fill in the nostalgia blank]!” moments.

Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.