You’re driving away from the dormitory, signs for parties and beer are all over the frat houses. You hope they will do okay, but it is all out of your hands now. Or maybe you’re waiting patiently for them to be gone so you can pull out the shots and party gear. Whether you are one of the parents leaving your child behind for college or a young adult taking the first steps in your real adult life, this time of transition is always one ripe with emotion. And what better place to turn to than film? College and the act of letting go or moving away has been in cinema countless times.
What follows are eighteen of the best films to watch for those going through watching their little ones grow up and become real people or trying to find your place in the adult world. These are films all about (almost) the empty nest, both letting go and leaving.
Lady Bird (2016)
One of the most personal and intimate looks at a mother-daughter relationship we have seen on the silver screen in years, this film nearly perfectly captures the struggle of letting go and trying to find a new self. This movie actually may be even better when looking at it from the mother’s perspective. The pain and struggle she goes through with Lady Bird is so real and honest.
A harrowing and frightful mother-child film about not even having the chance to let go, but rather being stuck together. Brie Larson gives an incredible performance of a complicated mother who didn’t want to be, but rather had to be. The scene where she actually has to let go of her child still gives me chills.
20th Century Women (2016)
A dense and moving period portrayal exploring how to raise a child, 20th Century Women is littered with great performances across the board. The film explores the complications and intricacies of gender in parenthood, “Do you need a man to raise a man? I don’t think so.”
Apart from just being able to see Tom Hanks act like a child, Big has something real and deep at its core. When it is time to grow up and move on, how soon is too soon. Now obviously Hanks’ character, or his child counterpart, is too young, but there is this bigger question in the film. When are you ready to grow up? When is anyone ready to grow up?
No, this is not about a dramatic shift or moment in parenthood but really just the peaks and valleys of it. Tully is an exceptional analysis of parenthood and mental illness. Being a parent is hard, every part of it. You are trying to make the best person you can, and you don’t know what will make or break your child. You love your kid more than anything, but at what point do you need help? When is too much… too much?
Martian Child (2007)
A very quirky and odd film for sure but movingly touching and detailed. The oddities and strangeness that come with parenthood are on full display here. John Cusack gives a very ‘Cusack’ performance, but nonetheless, an understanding of the uniqueness of raising a child is present.
Like Father, Like Son (2013)
What if you were raising the wrong child for the past five years? Does that even matter at that point? These are just a couple of the questions at the core of Like Father, Like Son. A beautiful portrayal of two very different families, unthinkable questions parents, and children, would have to ask themselves make this film a must for all.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Nothing short of emotionally rocking, The Pursuit of Happyness is masterfully crafted to make you pull your phones out and just give your dad a call. Will Smith gives a 100% believable performances, that is motivating and rich.
The Graduate (1967)
Coming home is never easy. Becoming involved with the mother of your crush is… well, something else entirely. The Graduate is a timeless film that with each viewing still gives you something new to wonder. And don’t get the ending wrong. Even after college you will still never know exactly what to do.
Believe me when I say this film is absolutely about parenthood and growing up. Hear me out: the amount of emotion the resolution this film brings speaks to how deeply love can go. Knowing all you know, ALL YOU KNOW, and still going through with something you know will fail for the reasons of being a mother and having that life.
Finding Nemo (2003)
Would you swim across the Pacific Ocean to find your son? A surprising (not really though because Pixar right?) portrayal of single-father families, Finding Nemo explores the empty Anemone and having to understand when to let go and allow someone to be their own.
Into the Wild (2007)
Another ‘bear with me’ movie: Into the Wild, on the surface, is not a great model for empty nest families, but what it does offer is how holding on too tight may force you to lose it all. Based on a stellar novel of the same name by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild is the epitome of trying to find oneself out in the wilds of adult life.
Spirited Away (2001)
A reversal of the tropes of many of the films on this list, Spirited Away follows Chihiro as she is on a quest to get her parents back from the grasps of a magical entity. Although the film explores a number of deep and complex themes—environmentalist, consumerism, gluttony—Spirited Away has its place on this list because of its messages about children having to find their way alone. Although she is on a quest to save her parents, Chihiro is really discovering who she is.
Paris, Texas (1984)
Yet another ‘letting go at the right time’ movie, Paris, Texas does so in one of the most heartbreaking ways I have ever seen. Rarely does a parent completely lose their way, but when both your mom and dad have lost their way, in such a way, they can’t even recognize themselves, you get a film like Paris, Texas. In the film’s final moments we see a full understanding of Travis making the hardest sacrifice a father can make.
Diablo Cody just understands human relations. In Juno, we don’t have a parent letting go of their child at eighteen, but rather a parent having to let go of their kid before they have even seen them. What Juno does so brilliantly is not rest so heavily on this little moment. What Cody does is transpose Juno’s situation with one that can’t have what Juno doesn’t want. This works as a rich and emotional, beautiful mess.
Young Adult (2011)
A bit of an outlier for the list, Young Adult is not about leaving home, but coming back … and all the messy bits that come with that. When you leave, you change as a person, and you have to be prepared for that, but Young Adult exposes this simple truth: you may never be prepared for what life throws at you.
Another film in the vein of Big, Jumanji is an odd entry for this list but still a very fitting one. Robin Williams literally leaves the nest and comes back after having experienced hell. Jumanji not only is a fun family romp with a clever hook but actually has a real depth in relationships and childhood.
The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005)
Daniel Day-Lewis can make any film decent. And The Ballad of Jack and Rose is no exception. When you are trying to prepare for that next phase in life, but just can’t quite do it. How do you cope with losing all you had? This film tackles complex questions in ways most films would not want to even get close to.