Full disclosure: the first day of seventh grade I wore the same straight-cut jeans I’d been wearing throughout elementary school (or possibly stirrup pants–if so I’ve blocked it out). It was immediately apparent I needed flared jeans, ASAP. Everyone else was wearing them, and I got all sorts of nasty looks for being a baby geek. I also tried to jokingly grab a friend’s hand in the hallway, and she shrugged me off (pushed me away actually) because “people might think we’re gay!” It’s worth noting that I got called a narc on the first day of seventh grade, too. It was total culture shock, and in some ways it never got easier, and I bet I’m not alone.
Your teenage years are about navigating the sea of hormones and riding the wave of everyone else’s whims. For girls they’re about being sexy, but not slutty; being smart, but not too smart. For boys (according to my sources) your teens are about the constant pursuit of sex while feeling alternately invincible and utterly insecure. Your teenage years are about learning how to interact with the gender to which you’re attracted without turning lobster red. They’re about living up to everyone else’s expectations while trying to develop a unique personality—but not too unique, lest you be characterized as a total weirdo. Your parents are the least cool people in the world, and they have no idea what you’re going through. Most of us become totally unbearable humans in our teenage years—as our parents will gladly tell us later—and many of us don’t make it out unscathed.
Teen movies used to be about these things, too. Michael Lehmann’s hilarious, subversive black comedy Heathers (1988) is probably the best movie ever made about high school—and it is supremely dark and vicious. Finji Fukasaku’s brilliant Battle Royale (2000) strips the ego from its teenage protagonists and lets them unleash their hormonal fury on one another with bloody and horrific results. Far be it from me to claim that teen movies need to feature murders (prominent violence in teen movies is unpopular since the Columbine shootings), but I’ll be damned if there isn’t a more confusing, roiling, reckless, and aggressive time in your life than the years between 13 and 17. The best of the teen movies acknowledge that and run with it.
From Rebel Without a Cause to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Fame to Angus, But I’m a Cheerleader to Saved!, teen movies have the ability to speak to some part of us (no matter how small) that recognizes how miserable (and wonderful) it is to be a teenager.
At least, they used to do that.
In the last ten years or so, movies for and about teenagers have gotten progressively more vapid and shallow. Flicks like Whatever it Takes, John Tucker Must Die, The Perfect Score, She’s the Man, Sex Drive, 17 Again, the High School Musical movies and I Love You, Beth Cooper, assume the worst of teens: that they’re too dumb or too self-absorbed to realize how stupid these movies are.
The best teen movies grant their characters the politeness of giving them depth. Even films with huge ensemble casts like Richard Linklater’s 1993 comedy Dazed and Confused and Alan Parker’s 1980 musical drama Fame managed to create sympathetic protagonists: virginal kids, teens who have abortions, kids who fight their parents’ wishes tooth and nail, teens who come out of the closet, kids who wrestle with drugs and sex, and ones who beat up on the weak to vent their own frustration. In one of Dazed and Confused‘s most honest moments, Randall “Pink” Floyd says, “If I ever start calling these the best days of my life, remind me to shoot myself.” In the best of the teen movies, high school is portrayed the way it should be: with all the ups and downs and in-betweens.
Even the sentimental, lighthearted John Hughes movies were subversive and smart (the Academy recognized this on Sunday, giving Hughes a separate tribute at the Oscars following his death earlier this year). After all, who among us didn’t know people who fit into the trappings of The Brain, The Princess, The Athlete, The Criminal, and The Basket Case? Who didn’t suffer an unrequited crush like Pretty in Pink’s nerdy, sweet Duckie? And is there a teenager out there who doesn’t long for Ferris Bueller’s version of playing hooky?
There were exceptions in the last decade, of course. Mark Waters’ and Tina Fey’s 2004 comedy Mean Girls (which takes a distinct cue from Heathers) and Brian Dannelly’s 2004 satire Saved! are, by virtue of good scripts and snarky tone, in the vein of the older teen movies. Then there are the true indies: Thirteen (2003), despite its slightly hysterical “these kids today!” tone, is respectful of teenagers’ plights; Rian Johnson’s neo-noir Brick (2005) gives teenagers maturity and agency, things we all longed for; and the 2008 documentary American Teen chronicles Indiana teenagers’ struggles with popularity, sexuality, love, and longing for freedom. In the late ’90s, Can’t Hardly Wait and 10 Things I Hate About You (’98 and ’99, respectively) managed to revive the teen comedy genre, but that fizzled in the wake of total flops She’s All That, Get Over It, Drive Me Crazy, and Never Been Kissed.
Most of the teen movies I love were released when I was learning how to walk and chew solid food, so I don’t think it’s my advancing age that’s making me aware of just how badly popular teen movies have sucked in the last ten years. Helicopter parenting is on the rise, sexting makes the news every other day, the ad campaign for “Gossip Girl” gets dirtier by the season, reality TV rewards terrible (and sometimes criminal) behavior, and I don’t think life’s getting any easier for teens. So why are teen movies so vapid?
Are we sinking into complacency? If you can’t come up with an interesting name for your kid, just change the spelling! If you can’t think of a new plot for a movie, recycle an old one! Leggings, legwarmers, and purple skinny jeans have crept back onto teenagers, so why can’t we bring more satisfying teen stories to the screen? I watched a redband–not safe for work!–trailer for Deadgirl last night. “Every generation has its story about the horrors of growing up,” it trumpets. Where’s mine? Where is today’s teenager’s?
I beg of you, please bring back respectful, well written, intelligent, affecting teen movies.
Everyone Who Has Ever Been a Teenager.
For a fairly comprehensive list of good teen movies, go here.