‘Nostalgia’ comes from a combination of the Greek words ‘nóstos’, meaning homecoming, and ‘álgos’, a pain or ache. It’s often dismissed as regressive, inauthentic and sentimental, especially in a political climate when nostalgia is often played upon for reactionary purposes. Yet evoking that yearning sense of displacement, the existential need to return to a distant place or far off time, can make for powerfully emotional cinema – especially in films about childhood, where youth and innocence are so often bound together by joy, longing and recaptured memory.
From Citizen Kane’s famous ‘Rosebud’, signifying the sledge of a childhood long since lost, to the eerie regret and wasted youth of The Virgin Suicides (1999), film history has always been fascinated with the loss of youth. Many filmmakers turn to their own younger years for inspiration, making coming-of-age stories full of personal touches and long-held memories. And in recent times, this nostalgia has become magnified through retro aesthetics and throwback pop-cultural pastiche.
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Actor Jonah Hill is the latest to take this route in his directorial debut. Mid90s recreates his skateboarding 90s teenage years in LA via instantly familiar soundtrack, fashion and video-game references. Although the period is not completely idealised – 13-year-old hero Stevie must also navigate maternal neglect and sibling bullying at home – the result is a touching exploration of childhood bonds and the youthful need to break free.
As Mid90s rolls into cinemas around the country, here are 10 more films about childhood that are shot through a nostalgic lens.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Director: Victor Fleming
“There’s no place like home” in this Hollywood musical classic. Every child dreams of someday escaping from their troubles, yet Judy Garland’s Dorothy gets her wish after she and her dog Toto are lifted away by a fierce tornado to a Technicolor land of singing munchkins, flying monkeys and wicked witches. Accompanied by an immortal songbook and her new friends Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, Dorothy tries to make her way along the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, from where she hopes to get back to her Kansas hometown and the family she realises she misses and loves.
The nostalgic love of home was a theme for several of Hollywood’s golden age musicals, and Garland would conjure a similar domestic yearning five years later as she sang ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ in Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).
Peter Pan (1953)
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Disney’s gorgeously animated version of J.M. Barrie’s classic stage play is a joyful mix of the magic and imagination that children conjure up, tinged with the melancholy inevitability of lost youth.
This timeless tale about ‘the boy who wouldn’t grow up’ introduces that theme of lost innocence when the children’s father, Mr Darling, proclaims that Wendy is too old and grown up for the nursery she shares with her younger brothers. Thus they meet Peter, with whom they fly away from their London home, off for an adventure to a Neverland of pixie-dust, pirates and mermaids. Yet Wendy’s wish to return is an acknowledgement of the reality of ageing, even as, in the touching final scene, Mr Darling himself recognises Peter’s pirate ship in the clouds, a recollection of his own past adventures and since forgotten childhood.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman’s sumptuous biographical masterpiece sees the renowned Swedish director return to the subject of his own childhood for a richly textured portrayal of wealthy family life in Uppsala at the turn of the 20th century. Told through the young, bright eyes of the eponymous brother and sister, this epic tale sees their life change dramatically when, after the loss of their beloved father, their widowed mother marries an austere bishop. This results in a painful, joyless move away from the theatrics and sumptuous splendour of their indulgent home-life to a strict and stark house of cruelty.
Bergman’s final film as director until his late-career comeback Saraband (2003), Fanny and Alexander reflects on the haunting nature of remembered youth with a heady mix of moody realism and vivid enchantment.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Winning the 1990 Academy Award for best foreign language film, Giuseppe Tornatore’s evocative ode to childhood and cinema is drenched in romance and longing. The sweeping emotion of Ennio Morricone’s score accompanies Salvatore, a successful director, on his journey of memories and regret as he returns to his Sicilian home after the death of a friend. There he recalls his early childhood years, his friendship with an ageing projectionist and his discovery of the joys of the silver screen.
So often through cinematic history, the wonders of both youth and film have been closely entwined, from Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011). While Cinema Paradiso is too schmaltzy for some, it’s all but irresistible for many more, becoming a huge hit in the late 1980s and helping to revitalise the Italian film industry.
Only Yesterday (1991)
Director: Isao Takahata
Much of acclaimed Japanese animation Studio Ghibli’s beautifully crafted output touches on a childhood world of imagination, usually with an emphasis on nature and always with an enormous sense of warmth and heart. This is certainly true of this underrated gem from director Isao Takahata, which tells the story of a young woman who decides to take a rural break from her office in the city to return to a countryside where she always felt her soul belonged. As she travels by train through a gorgeously realised, hand-drawn landscape, she reflects back on her 10-year-old self and memories of summer and her childhood in the 1960s.
Here the memories of youth evoke not so much a loss of innocence as a sense of lost opportunity and the disappointment that comes as hope and potential fade away from a life that once seemed endless with possibility.
Little Women (1994)
Director: Gillian Armstrong
For some, the definitive adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic American novel. Gillian Armstrong’s period piece sparkles with treasurable performances from a cast of dependable 1990s faces, including Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Gabriel Byrne and Christian Bale, with Susan Sarandon’s ‘Marmee’ a maternal role model for the ages.
It opens as the March sisters prepare for the Christmas season, with an absent father and lack of funds during the American civil war, as Ryder’s Jo recounts her memories of “that winter as the coldest of our childhood”. Yet the film evokes a deep sense of warmth and familial love while also arousing an aching sense of loss as the sisters grow up and the memories of their childhood theatrics become distant through the passing of the seasons. The plans they once shared together morph and change through tragic grief, determined independence and eventual maturity.
Now and Then (1995)
Director: Lesli Linka Glatter
This cult 90s drama was largely dismissed on release, perhaps due to a lack of interest in female coming-of-age stories from mostly male critics and frequent comparisons to Rob Reiner’s acclaimed Stand by Me (1986).
Directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, the film focuses on four friends who, now all grown up and apart, return to their childhood home in Indiana, summoning memories of the long, hot summer of 1970, when the friends navigated such tumultuous early teen pitfalls as parental divorce, body image and struggles with self-belief. There’s also a tender depiction of the endless pleasure and camaraderie that comes with school holidays: from water balloons and boys to bicycle adventures and a stand-out scene as the girls – wearing baggy checked shirts – paint the garage to The Archies’ ‘Sugar, Sugar’. There’s a simplicity of spirit in the film, with the friends bringing joy and fun to their everyday mundanities.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Director: Lee Unkrich
The third part in Pixar’s much-loved animated series (with number four set for release in 2019), Toy Story 3 is a brightly entertaining and affecting meditation on not just the loss of youth but the nostalgic ache of what it means to be no longer useful or wanted. Just as the boy Peter Pan refuses to grow old, old toy favourites Buzz Lightyear and Woody the cowboy refuse to accept their own obsolescence. As their owner Andy, now a teenager and too old for playthings and imagination, prepares to leave home to begin a new life at college, the toys accidentally find themselves discarded and trapped in a terrifying daycare centre and must find an escape and a new sense of purpose.
The last act includes one of the most traumatic and tearful escape sequences ever committed to the screen, leading to a desperately melancholic but hopeful final scene.
Super 8 (2011)
Director: J.J. Abrams
The film that kicked off a wave of retro throwbacks to the era and style of E.T. (1982) and The Goonies (1985), from hit Netflix phenomenon Stranger Things to the remake of Stephen King’s It. With his mentor Steven Spielberg producing, J.J. Abrams’ lens-flared follow-up to his Star Trek reboot is not just a loving tribute to the bonds of childhood but to the medium and textures of film itself.
This sci-fi adventure, set in 1979 Ohio, tells the story of four geeky boys and one cool-kid girl, who escape from the pain of absent mothers and the embarrassments of adolescence by making a short film on their Super 8 camera. As they accidentally capture a mysterious alien on the film, and embark on a quest to uncover the conspiracy, the film pays earnest tribute to the lost era of 80s blockbusters that have proved so formative for Abrams and many other pop-cinema filmmakers of his younger generation.
Minding the Gap (2018)
Director: Bing Liu
Bing Liu’s Oscar-nominated debut is an intensely personal documentary that begins as an exploration of friendship and camaraderie as he focuses on his own group of childhood friends, brought together by a mutual love of skateboarding and a need to hide from the troubles that come from living in the deprived town of Rockford, Illinois. Gradually, it unfolds into an honest, open and often painful exploration of toxic masculinity and the cyclical nature of domestic abuse.
Over a period of 12 years, Liu casts a nostalgic gaze over a world of youthful escape while examining the hidden home lives of his friends. A stand-out scene comes when he turns the camera on to his own life as he interviews his mother about their traumatic past in a moment of poignancy and compassionate sincerity.