The 15 Best Movies About Self-Discovery and Finding Yourself

Some of the most engaging stories happen on the inside, when characters struggle against themselves and learn to overcome.
The 15 Best Movies About Self-Discovery and Finding Yourself

If you buy something using our links, we may earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!

On the one hand, we could argue that ALL films are "about self-discovery"—in that the whole point of the hero's journey is to learn a lesson, overcome an obstacle, and end the movie as a changed person.

But some films take it a little more literally: characters go on physical journeys that navigate their own inner ones.

Whether they're seeking change, healing, or adventure, these protagonists go on some sort of expedition to "find themselves."

Here are our picks for the best movies about self-discovery and finding yourself, which may inspire you to do the same.

15. The Kings of Summer (2013)

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Starring Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias

Adventure, Comedy, Drama (1h 35m)

7.1 on IMDb76% on RT

Coming-of-age movies are all about self-discovery and steering that rocky minefield of adolescence.

The Kings of Summer perfectly encapsulates this, telling the story of three boys (played by Nick Robinson, Moises Arias, and Gabriel Basso) who ditch home to live in the woods.

Their makeshift hut provides a haven of freedom away from the shackles of lame, overbearing parents.

Within the forest, they discover the true meanings of friendship, love, family, and where they really want to be headed in the world.

14. Captain Fantastic (2016)

Directed by Matt Ross

Starring Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler

Comedy, Drama (1h 58m)

7.8 on IMDb83% on RT

Many self-discovery movies involve leaving the office desk to bask in nature. For Ben Cash (played by Viggo Mortensen), there isn't any desk to leave; in fact, his problem is the reverse.

Ben and his wife have raised their six kids in the Washington wilderness ever since becoming disgruntled by right-wing capitalism. But they're not a pack of wolves! Ben's children are quite educated, self-sufficient, and encouraged to work creatively as a team.

When their mother dies, things get difficult as the family is forced to integrate with the outside world for her funeral.

Despite their intelligence, the kids have no social or material world skills, showing how we need a middle ground between being in touch with our communities and with the natural world.

This is a lesson that Ben has to learn, too, who's forced to rethink his anarchist mindset and discover a more balanced way of life.

13. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Directed by David O. Russell

Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro

Comedy, Drama, Romance (2h 2m)

7.7 on IMDb92% on RT

Recently diagnosed with OCD and bipolar disorder, Pat Solitano (played by Bradley Cooper) moves back in with his parents. His catchphrase is "Excelsior"—meaning "ever upward"—and he goes on many runs while trying to get his life back together.

Sadly, the incessant pursuit of self-improvement that modern society so emphasizes doesn't work. So, when Pat befriends the grieving and equally unfiltered Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence), they exchange favors and develop a connection.

An interesting and subtle point to note in Silver Linings Playbook is that Pat and Tiffany's mental health and quality of life don't improve until they stop obsessing over it to instead focus on helping each other. In other words, human connection and kindness are key.

Even though Pat's mental health problems will forever be there, his discovery of helping others and not pining after somebody who doesn't love him (i.e. his cheating ex-wife) makes it easier to bare.

12. Eternity and a Day (1998)

Directed by Theodoros Angelopoulos

Starring Bruno Ganz, Isabelle Renauld, Fabrizio Bentivoglio

Drama (2h 17m)

7.9 on IMDb95% on RT

Theo Angelopoulos's lyrical drama reflects on the universal topics of death, love, poetry, and regret.

After finding out he's terminally ill, Alexandros (played by Bruno Ganz) is pushed to look beyond the boundaries of his small life.

While trying to get his affairs in order, Alexandros manages to save a young boy from human trafficking and complete Dionysios Solomos' unfinished poem, as an avid lover of 19th century poetry.

Setting out on these adventures and projects brings back memories of his deceased wife—memories Angelopoulos takes us through gracefully, testing the boundary between life and death.

11. The Bucket List (2007)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Starring Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes

Adventure, Comedy, Drama (1h 37m)

7.4 on IMDb41% on RT

The threat of death spurs the need for more life in Rob Reiner's comedy-drama The Bucket List.

Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman star as two terminally ill men who share a hospital room. Despite living different lives, neither of them have managed to do what they've always dreamt of.

So, from skydiving to climbing Mount Everest, the two embark on a wild journey together. Through these experiences, Carter (played by Morgan Freeman) and Edward (played by Jack Nicholson) uncover what it means to really live.

As it turns out, the value of life has little to do with fancy cars and tourist attractions but rather the connections we make along the way.

10. American Beauty (1999)

Directed by Sam Mendes

Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch

Drama (2h 2m)

8.3 on IMDb87% on RT

American Beauty is a classic midlife crisis story, if a little perverted. Kevin Spacey leads as a disillusioned telesales operative who's hungry for a change of pace.

He quits his job to start flipping burgers, smoke weed, and work out instead—essentially, he reverts to the life of a teenage boy. And that means liking teenage girls, too.

After ditching all social expectations of himself, Lester (played by Kevin Spacey) is euphoric with liberation. And yet, he reveals something dark and twisted buried within.

Sam Mendes directs this Oscar-winning black comedy, which acts a satire of suburban American culture. Academics have frequently analyzed the film's take on identity, paternity, materialism, and modern life.

9. Big Fish (2003)

Directed by Tim Burton

Starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup

Adventure, Drama, Fantasy (2h 5m)

8.0 on IMDb75% on RT

Big Fish is a multi-layered narrative that can be reduced to two main plotlines. At the top, it's about a father and son reuniting after a cancer diagnosis, learning a valuable lesson in understanding and forgiveness.

Beneath that is the life story of Edward Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney at different ages) and how he came to be the father of Will Bloom (played by Billy Crudup).

Although Will's lesson in forgiveness is a self-discovery campaign within itself, the bulk of Big Fish is made up of Edward's literal life journey, told as fantasy-infused flashbacks.

Joining the circus and fighting in the Korean War seem like minor points in Edward's story. What he's really trying to tell his son—something that Will takes a while to get—is to enjoy life.

Romanticize it, embellish it, and live it to the fullest, befriending everyone you can along the way.

8. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Directed by Wes Anderson

Starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman

Adventure, Comedy, Drama (1h 31m)

7.2 on IMDb69% on RT

Wes Anderson's vibrant movie takes us on a trip across India. When the death of their father reunites three estranged brothers, they decide to take the train ride as a chance to bond.

And through learning about each other (which isn't easy), they learn more about themselves.

Wes Anderson uses the colorful religious backdrop of Hindu temples, Himalayan convents, and more to explore the spiritual side of life—one that the three brothers have been neglecting.

Striking a perfect balance between humor and grief, The Darjeeling Limited starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman remains a firm favorite among Anderson fans.

7. Eat Pray Love (2010)

Directed by Ryan Murphy

Starring Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, James Franco

Biography, Drama, Romance (2h 13m)

5.8 on IMDb36% on RT

Eat Pray Love has all the ingredients of a good "finding yourself" flick: meditation, religious retreats, street food, and travel.

The biographical romance-drama stars Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert, who has everything she's supposed to want in life. The job, the car, the husband... yet, somehow, it's just not enough for her.

Elizabeth makes the bold decision to leave her comfort zone and travel the world—something all of us have probably dreamed of doing at some point in our lives.

Director Ryan Murphy provides us a nice breath of fresh air in this movie (as one of the lighter movies featured in this list).

6. Wild (2014)

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman

Adventure, Biography, Drama (1h 55m)

7.1 on IMDb88% on RT

Jean-Marc Vallée directs Reese Witherspoon in his adaptation of the memoirs by Cheryl Strayed.

It's summer, 1995, and Cheryl decides to hike the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. But why? She's certainly no fitness freak. Well, we soon learn that Cheryl's journey is one with a much deeper purpose: to heal.

Bad weather conditions and lack of supplies don't stop Cheryl from pushing on, determined to redeem the trauma she faced earlier in life.

Wild is your classic template for a self-discovery movie. There's even a recurring spirit animal! The red fox symbolizes to Cheryl the guidance of her mother, who sadly passed away from cancer.

5. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Directed by Gabriele Muccino

Starring Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandiwe Newton

Biography, Drama (1h 57m)

8.0 on IMDb67% on RT

In The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith plays Chris Gardner who's in pursuit of many things: a career, a salary, a home, and a family. He's in pursuit of a full life, which he simply doesn't have.

Director Gabriele Muccino takes a look into what it really means to be broke and how difficult it is for people to get out of it.

As a struggling salesman who can't even make rent, Chris doesn't have the luxury of "finding himself" on a fancy vacation halfway across the world. Instead, Chris must live on the streets with his five-year-old son (played by Jaden Smith) while juggling an unpaid internship.

That said, he learns a lot about himself and the real values worth holding onto in life. His rough and painful labors ultimately make victory taste that much sweeter.

4. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Directed by Ben Stiller

Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Jon Daly

Adventure, Comedy, Drama (1h 54m)

7.3 on IMDb52% on RT

Ben Stiller directs and stars in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which is definitely a one-of-a-kind movie.

A unique blend of fantasy and realism grabs our attention from the offset, taking us on a breathtaking visual roller coaster. It tells the familiar story of a man who ditches the monotony of his office job to walk on the wild side. At least, he daydreams of it.

It's not until one famous photojournalist's photo goes missing that Walter actually does anything about it. His fantasy world suddenly comes to life, leading him through mountains, volcanoes, and shark-infested waters.

3. The Truman Show (1998)

Directed by Peter Weir

Starring Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney

Comedy, Drama (1h 43m)

8.2 on IMDb95% on RT

Played by Jim Carrey, Truman Burbank's moment of discovery is quite drastic compared to anything experienced by most.

In The Truman Show, Truman finds out that his whole life is actually a huge reality TV show. From birth, his entire life has been broadcast live through secret cameras across the nation. While Truman is the star, he's also the only person who doesn't know the truth.

Lighthearted rom-coms and feel-good family dramas present life discoveries as simplified realizations, like "we should live more in harmony with nature and with each other." Movies like The Truman Show, however, take a deeper and more philosophical approach.

Truman's simulated reality raises questions about free will, ethics, and the illusions of reality, whether spiritual, societal, or scientific.

The iconic shot of Truman climbing the sky stairs at the edge of (his) world is a great symbol of how closed-minded we are about the power we hold to substantially change our own lives.

2. Wild Strawberries (1957)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin

Drama, Romance (1h 31m)

8.1 on IMDb94% on RT

Age can do a lot to a person's mentality and sense of self. Artists, writers, and professors are particularly susceptible to the agonizing realization that life is slipping past them. There's a desire to find meaning in it, as they spend their whole lives thinking.

Professor Isak Borg (played by Victor Sjöström) is 78 when he takes an unexpected dip into his past.

Traveling from Stockholm to Lund for an honorary award, Isak is troubled by dreams and hitchhikers, who put his lonely, egotistical life into perspective. Isak's conclusion? What a waste!

Wild Strawberries feels like a Swedish version of A Christmas Carol, if we actually dove deep into the psyche of Ebenezer Scrooge instead of meeting up with a couple of ghosts.

Director Ingmar Bergman was a legendary filmmaker in critical, commercial, and artistic circles, known for his profoundly intelligent reflections on the soul. Wild Strawberries is a perfect example.

1. Into the Wild (2007)

Directed by Sean Penn

Starring Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener

Adventure, Biography, Drama (2h 28m)

8.1 on IMDb83% on RT

Into the Wild is the most potent movie on this list because, first, it's based on a true story, and second, it's unbearably tragic.

The malnourished corpse of Christopher McCandless was found in Denali National Park in September 1992. He was only 24 years old. With this film, director Sean Penn ensures that Christopher won't only be remembered for that.

Poetically narrated by Jena Malone, Into the Wild is a passionate account of Chris's life, who decided to cut and run from society as soon as he graduated school.

Across a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, we witness Christopher's desperate search to find peace and fulfillment in nature, adventure, and change.

But his extremes prove to be too much. On the brink of death, he writes down his final revelation: "Happiness is only real when shared."