Growing pains are the same no matter the decade.
Since Hollywood found that teenagers represented a vast, untapped market, the teen movie (or, for the English majors, "Bildungsroman") has been an ever-evolving staple of the cinema landscape. These movies try to get at the heart of what it means to be a teenager; some do it so well you would think you're watching a documentary.
From the rock & roll-laced homages of Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti to more recent entries into the genre, such as Bo Burnham'sEighth Grade, teen movies have always been a means through which filmmakers can explore the trials and tribulations of humanity through the innocence and sentimentalism of adolescence.
Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is at the top of her high school's social order and has everything a teen girl could want. After succeeding at sparking a romance between two of her teachers, Cher takes on an even greater act of charity, giving the hopeless new girl Tai (Brittany Murphy) a complete makeover. However, as Tai's popularity outgrows Cher, she enlists the advice of her step-brother (Paul Rudd) to turn things around.
Representing the ironically-glossy excess of the late nineties/early 2000s films we most often associate with the term "teen movie," Amy Heckerling's standout feature is the hilarious story of a well-meaning but woefully misguided spoiled rich girl trying her hand wading into the murky waters of adulthood. While not an accurate depiction of contemporary teenage life by any means, Heckerling's characters possess a key element of adolescence that is often missed by other works; they are wholeheartedly endearing.
At the end of another semester in May 1976, Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London), a star athlete at Lee High School in Austin, Texas, is asked to sign a waiver stipulating that he abstain from drug use so as not to "jeopardize a Championship winning season." After the evening's celebratory plans are ruined when another teen's parents discover his debaucherous plans, Randall and his cohorts cruise the streets of Austin in search of a good time.
Dazed and Confused, for all its beer chugging, high school hazing, rock & roll blasting, joint smoking antics, is an incredibly poetic observation of teenage malaise, the waning urge to rebel against a system that promises success in exchange for conformity.
When Gregory Underwood (John Gordon Sinclair), a cheeky, awkward teenager at a Scottish High School, is replaced as the centre forward on his school's miserable football team by Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), the team's new star player (and its only girl), he instead falls head over heels for her.
Far from American shores, Gregory's Girl is one of the quintessential Scottish coming-of-age films. Director Bill Forsyth's vision is as exuberant and exciting as his colorful cast of characters. The awkward, childish games they play with one another have an authentic charm to them that is rarely found in other teen media.
It's the last evening of Summer in 1962, and the streets of Modesto, California, are teeming with teens, cars, and rock & roll. We follow a number of concurrent vignettes of the teens, played by the likes of Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard, as well as an appearance from Harrison Ford, as they encounter greasers, mysterious blonde women, and all manners of trouble and intrigue as they cruise the strip.
George Lucas' breakout feature took some time to get itself off the ground, but with the help of friend and colleague Francis Ford Coppola, he convinced Universal Pictures to give his film a chance. Boasting one of the best and most extensively compiled rock & roll soundtrack albums, American Graffiti's story and characters might be a little farfetched at times, but the world of sock-hops, drive-in diners, enigmatic disk jockeys, and hot rods prove a potent time capsule of the era, one crafted with genuine love and nostalgia by a man who lived it.
When Martine (Alice Houri) discovers that her best friend Marlene (Jessica Tharaud) has lost her virginity, the French teen becomes dead-set on doing the same. The pair decide to go to a party they've been invited to, but upon finding it quite lame (with even the parents getting in on the dancing), they decide to track down Martine's brother (Gregoire Colin), who is at a supposedly much cooler affair.
An early, made-for-television film from French director Claire Denis, U.S. Go Home is a party film without the rampant fervor of its contemporaries, instead presenting itself and its characters as somewhat subdued, with a French-new-wave cool tinged with the awkwardness of teenage angst. Denis' view of adolescence is candid and authentic: Martine's inability to make meaningful connections with any of the men at the party speaks to her lingering innocence, especially when she seeks her older brother to confide in.
A group of teens who call themselves the "Imperial Skate Board Club" cruise the streets of L.A., causing mischief and trying to pick up girls. When one of the teens finds romance, his club-mate becomes jealous and challenges him to a skateboarding duel.
U.S. Go Home and American Graffiti offer their own portrayals of adolescence in the '60s, with American Graffiti even being set in California, but Skaterdater is the real deal. Featuring original surf music made for the movie and shot on any location that director Noel Black could gain access to, the film is, beyond its plot, a genuine artifact of teen culture at the time.
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is thirteen years old and just weeks away from completing middle school, and eighth grade cannot end soon enough. Kayla struggles to make enduring friendships, and her well-meaning attempts at connection are often met with disinterest or the genuine mean-spiritedness the teenage social hierarchy seems to demand.
Bo Burnham's debut feature is a meditation on loneliness in an overwhelmingly connected age, as well as a self-reflexive look at a genre that had struggled to keep up with the realities of the teenage experience for the better part of a decade.
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a teenager struggling to stay afloat after her father's death, the person she felt most closely connected to in life. Left with her obsessive mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and much more popular brother, Darlan (Blake Jenner), she struggles to connect with either and relies heavily on her friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). However, even this relationship becomes tenuous when Krista and Darlan begin dating.
This debut feature from Kelly Fremon Craig found immediate critical success, praised as an example of the modern teen-movie genre's return to form following the rise and fall of the previous wave of '90s/2000s era teen films. The film also features an incredibly charming Woody Harrelson, who plays Nadine's teacher and unwilling confidant.
Greg (Thomas Mann) cruises through high school with complete anonymity. Earl (RJ Cyler) is his only friend, and together they make short films, often parodies of older, famous pictures. When his mother discovers that his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has leukemia, she forces Greg to befriend her, and from there, the safety of his secret world begins to unravel.
Hilarious, tragic, frustrating, and cathartic, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's work explores adolescent innocence obliterated by the knowledge that the world will eventually heap on you and the highs and lows of friendship, love, and life.
When Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Junior) gets into another fight at school, his mother, who is working towards her Master’s degree, sends him to live with his strict but well-meaning father (Laurence Fishburne) in South Central L.A. There, he befriends "Doughboy" (Ice-Cube) and his older brother Ricky (Morris Chestnut), who lead two very different lives.
The history and canon of the "teen movie" is overwhelmingly white (and heteronormative). Movies that depict the lives of teenagers from outside this background are often treated as more adult "social dramas" first and depictions of teenage life second. While it does not share the same levity as some of the other films on this list, the late, great John Singleton's debut masterpiece treated its subject with a tenderness and understanding that was often left out of the mainstream conversation, offering a film that is real, and, as a result, utterly devastating.
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