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Nostalgic Impulse: The legend of the teen movie

My teenage years are sadly long behind me, but that does not mean that I can’t appreciate a well-crafted teen movie. Teen movies have a bad reputation and it is true that many of them are soulless, crude, sappy, or forgettable (or all of the above). To tar them all with the same brush, however, is unfair.

Most of my personal favourites rely heavily on sexual references, which some people mind find grotesque or inappropriate, but I love it. Your teenage years are all about exploring your sexuality, so why not have great films that aren’t afraid to talk about it? It doesn’t all have to be crude and lacking substance, but sometimes the straight up, in your face, gross out comedy can be used for good.

Another area where teen movies have excelled is in ‘loose adaptations’ and general reliance on popular culture and classic texts. Adaptation films are often a little bit stuffy and far too concerned about keeping as close to the original text as possible. While I absolutely see that there is a place for that kind of adaptation (i.e. the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice), that isn’t all that we can do with a great story. For instance, do we really need yet another version of Romeo and Juliet that is so faithful to the play? It doesn’t really say anything interesting or new about the text if it is ‘interpreted’ in such a way. But if you play with the ideas present in these classic texts and bring them into the modern world, well, you just might have something very special.

I would like to share with you a number of teen movies that I think stand the test of time (and a few relatively recent ones too). They are listed in order of release.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

According to the IMDB trivia page, John Hughes wrote the screenplay for The Breakfast Club in only two days. He reportedly found it difficult to get a studio to produce this film (with him at the directorial helm), and instead produced the inferior Sixteen Candles first. Studios didn’t like the idea of having the entire film set in one location. Since then, it has become a quintessential film of its age, and the one teen film that they have all since been held up to.

This film has everything that a teen movie should have: sex, drugs, bad attitudes, attempted suicide, and rebellion. Much of this film’s appeal arises from the variety of teen stereotypes it encompasses. I don’t think anyone could watch this film and not somewhat relate to at least one of the characters. And how do they manage to relate to each other? Through mutual hatred of their parents and authority figures.

What really makes this film stand out is that they don’t try to make out that the characters have become forever friends. They are honest about who they are and how they will behave once they are back out in the hallways amongst their friends and the peer pressure that dominates high school. If Hughes had gone down the path of almighty cheese and tried to claim that this magical day in detention bred love and understanding across multiple groups of teens, no one would have given a damn about this film.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Hughes really was the king of 1980’s teen films, creating not one, but two of the greatest teen films to ever grace our screens. This film is far more upbeat than The Breakfast Club and employs some fun slapstick comedy with the exploits of the hapless Ed Rooney. The premise is simple and something that everyone can relate to – Ferris wants a day off (you don’t have to be a teenager to want to get out of school; you could be an adult and desperately want to beg off work, it happens).

So why does everyone love Ferris so much, Jeanie? Well, for me, it is definitely his cheek – and possibly the confidence and charisma too. He does what all of us have always wanted to do. Ferris takes a day off and gets away with it. Not only that, he makes a party of the day. He does a little bit of computer hacking, puts on a disguise, drives a sports car, eats at a fancy restaurant, dances to thriller, performs on a parade float, and goes swimming with his sweetheart. Now that is a good day.

This teen film lacks a lot of the darker themes that pervade other classic teen films, but it gets away with it out of sheer cockiness.

Empire Records (1995)

My best friend introduced this film to me in high school. I saw the cover (of the VHS!) and looked smugly at her, ‘You really think I’m going to like this shit?!’ Boy was I wrong. This is a great film and sadly underrated (it blows my mind how many people I meet who have never even heard of this film). Plus, there are some great actors in this film: Liv Tyler, Renée Zellweger, Anthony LaPaglia, Rory Cochrane, and Debi Mazar (to name a few).

The film relies on a similar conceit to Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, with the action almost entirely taking place in the space of one day and one location (the very first scene takes place the night before and sets up the events of the following day). Also like The Breakfast Club we have a lovable group of misfits: the popular slut, the nerd on speed, the weird kid, the artist, the musician, the loner, the druggy, their put-upon, well meaning boss, and ‘the man’. Oh, and then there’s Rex Manning! There are many more similarities to its eighties predecessor, including (but not limited to) the attempted suicide leading to the group discussing their feelings about each other and their lives.

Empire Records brought The Breakfast Club into the grungey nineties. It set itself apart from the Brat Pack classic with a brilliant soundtrack. There was a lot of negative critical feedback surrounding The Breakfast Club’s soundtrack for being filled with forgettable 80’s tunes and dull musical interludes. Well, Empire Records showed what you can do with music in a teen film (oh yeah, and given it is set in a record store, it was just the film to do it!). With classic tracks by The Cruel Sea, Gin Blossoms, Edwyn Collins, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and The Cranberries, I find the soundtrack still feels relevant.

Clueless (1995)

One of the earliest of an ever-growing number of teen films that borrow heavily from classic literary texts. Clueless is based on Jane Austen’s Emma. I always enjoy Austen and I think this film is great fun. At the core, Austen’s heroine is supremely silly and often ridiculous, and Alicia Silverstone’s version as Cher is perfect. It pokes just enough fun at silly blondes with rich daddies while still remaining likeable. And Paul Rudd? The ultimate Mr Knightley!

This film also featured early in the careers of a number of talented actors. The one who always stood out for me was Breckin Meyer’s performance as chilled out skater dude Travis opposite a fresh-faced Brittany Murphy. Jeremy Sisto (who can now be seen in the ‘totally awesome’ Suburgatory) and Scrubs’ Donald Faison also make early appearances.

Clueless is a tongue-in-cheek comedy and not meant to be watched seriously. Some might say that it is silly fluff, and perhaps they are right. But I don’t think anyone could say this film isn’t fun. And a popular virgin who likes to think she’s better than everyone, but ultimately gets put in her place? Who doesn’t love a good story like that.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Last Friday night I saw The Taming of the Shrew performed by the Globe Theatre on tour. I’m ashamed to admit that this was the first time I had any real exposure to the play outside the very loose adaptation of 10 Things I Hate About You. It was performed by a cast of all women, and I’m glad it was. During the last scene of the play, I felt acutely uncomfortable. Katharina gives a rousing speech on how a woman must be obedient and submissive to her husband. The play felt disgustingly misogynistic and I was disappointed in Shakespeare as a result.

Since then, I have read up a little on the controversy surrounding the gender issues in the play. While I think it is total bollocks to say that Shakespeare was ‘obviously’ poking fun at the ideals presented in the main plot through the use of the play within a play framing device, I admit that I hope he wasn’t encouraging the misogynistic view. I suppose I should go easy on him, it was a long time ago, and according to most, he really only loved men.

Thankfully, 10 Things I Hate About You avoids any of the pesky submissive gender issues that surround the play. Kat is a very strong character and she never really submits to Patrick. Meanwhile, Bianca’s growth during the film (which actually gives the character some personality – something that is sorely lacking in the play) involves her becoming a strong, independently minded woman. She makes the prom an event to remember when she beats ‘the hell out of some guy’.

This is another teen film that really uses music as a strength. The soundtrack perfectly encapsulates the time and is used to illustrate the personalities of the characters. Sure, we leave the film wondering why the hell Letters to Cleo are performing on top of the roof (and how they got there), but we’re pleased that they are. 10 Things I Hate About You, like so many other great teen films, features some brilliant actors, including Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, David Krumholtz, Allison Janney, and my favourite Hollywood man of the moment, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Easy A

Yet another teen film borrowing material from classic literature, Easy A makes references to The Scarlet Letter throughout the film. Olive relates to the novel she is forced to read for high school English, perhaps a little bit too much. What I love about this teen film is that the adults aren’t relegated to the sidelines. There are actual adult characters that the teenage audience can like and relate to just as much as the teenage characters. Particular commendations should go to Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as Olive’s parents. And of course, superstar Emma Stone makes this film.

I have mentioned that I love the straight talking teen film approach to sex and this film is quite possibly the best example of it. Olive’s parents are open with her and talk to her about sex and relationships without talking down to her. Olive is a strong, intelligent, likeable female protagonist who, while letting peer pressure get herself thoroughly dragged into the rumour-mill, doesn’t give in to peer pressure when it counts. Oh, and there’s some not so good natured fun to be had at the expense of high and mighty Christian kids. Gotta love that.

About Megan Leigh

Writer and editor of Pop Verse. Co-host of Breaking the Glass Slipper. My special interests include publishing, creative writing, and geekery.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this one , I will be watching some of these again and a couple for the first time !!

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