The 1960s was a period of great cultural change. With 15 years between society and the Second World War, the 1960s was a moment of becoming, an era in which that society was itself coming of age, shedding its skin to reveal a new form, green wood hidden beneath the bark.
That sense of change was reflected in the cinema of the time. The 1960s were a period of intense cinematic innovation. The previous decade had seen the dominance of Hollywood dwindle, leaving room for European nations to develop astonishing and highly idiosyncratic cinematic movements of their own.
This was also an era of immense controversy. As the tastes of the cinema-going public began to change and the gulf between generations widened, directors took on a new ferocity, using their cameras to shed light on issues previously ignored. In Britain, a stream of socially conscious directors began to rail against the “bastards” and place their focus on working-class families in impoverished parts of the UK.
Elsewhere in Europe, sex became a favourite subject of experimental directors, leading to a surge of highly explicit films that utilised depictions of sex not simply to titillate their audiences but to comment on the politics of sexuality and society as a whole.
The changes of the 1960s can still be felt today. Whether it’s fashion, music, cinema or politics, our cultural landscape is defined by that seismic and tumultuous decade. What better way to explore the era than through a genre for which change and turmoil are essential criteria: the coming of age film.
Best coming of age films of the 1960s:
KES (Ken Loach, 1969)
From acclaimed British director Ken Loach, this portrait of working-class northern England has been called one of the best British films of the 20th century. Based on Barry Hines’ novel A Kestral For A Knave (published in 1968), KES tells the story of a 15-year-old miners son called Billy, who develops a strong bond with a wild kestrel, providing him with an escape from the grim reality of life in a dead-end industrial town.
Taking the kitchen-sink realism of the 1950s and early ’60s, Ken Loach pushed the “angry young man” film into new territory, employing nonprofessional actors and authentic locations to craft this utterly transcendent coming of age drama.
I Am Curious – Yellow (Vilgot Sjöman, 1966)
Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious—Yellow is undoubtedly one of the most controversial films of the countercultural era. Chronicling the sexual revolution of Swedish society in the 1960s, this charming document of love and sex in a time of cultural upheaval tells the story of Lena, a rebellious and (hence the title) curious young woman.
We follow her as she embarks on a personal quest to explore her own sexual identity. Sjöman blends documentary and narrative storytelling techniques to craft a highly interrogative film concerned not only with the sexuality of the individual but with capitalist society and the politics of sexuality. It’s decades ahead of its time and feels as fresh and vital now as it did all those years ago.
The Learning Tree (Gordon Parks, 1969)
As well as being a writer, composer and photographer, cultural polymath Gordon Parks was the first Black American director to make a Hollywood studio film. Based on his semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, The Learning Tree traces the life of new Winger, a young descendant of Exodusters – African Americans who fled to North Carolina following the civil war.
This tender portrait of adolescence in rural America explores not only the injustices of the inherently racist American legal and educational systems but the power of friendship, family, and first love. Beautifully shot on location, this nostalgic and politically resonant offering paints a portrait of a young man attempting to uncover the road to adulthood in a harsh and morally complex world.
Daisies (Věra Chytilová, 1966)
Perhaps the most celebrated film to emerge from the Czechoslovak New Wave movement, Daisies is a film that defies categorisation. At once surreal, experimental and highly comedic, this anarchic and aesthetically riveting cinematic marvel was released just two years before the Prague Spring of 1968
Věra Chytilová’s Daisies follows the absurd adventures of two aristocratic young women who live their lives according to the assumption that their actions have no consequences. Believing the world to be “spoiled”, they set to attempt to inject new life into bourgeoisie society with a series of pranks. Nothing is sacred in this absurdist offering. Gender, power, food, war: everything is a toy to be played with, and boy do they play.
The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
Noted for bringing the music of Simon & Garfunkel to the masses, The Graduate is one of the most beloved American comings of age dramas of all time. It also won director Mike Nichols an Oscar and introduced the world to the great Dustin Hoffman, who would go on to appear in another American classic, Midnight Cowboy, in 1969.
The Graduate follows Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) in a moment of early-adult existential confusion. Having just finished college, he is confused and angst-ridden. Eventually, he strikes up a sexual relationship with an older woman, Mrs Robinson, before becoming sexually involved with her daughter. But this film isn’t really about sex; it’s about age and the power of fantasy. Brilliantly funny and infinitely quotable, it’s no wonder The Graduate was an instant classic.