Ah, to be a teenager again… No serious responsibilities, no bills to pay, just tons of homework and a lot of parental stress to get into the right college. Wouldn’t it be fun to go back and relive those years again? To take in all the freedoms you had that you don’t have now? HELL NO!! You could not pay me enough to endure the hell that was adolescence combined with the purgatory known as high school. Peer pressure, cliques, getting picked on, heartbreak, etc. If you’re offering me something in the six figures, we might be able to work something out, but it is highly unlikely. I spent ages after I graduated from high school to put all that crap behind me. Looking back, I am astonished how much of it I still remember even after over a decade has passed us by.
The best movies for teens in my opinion are the ones that really deal honestly with the life of a teenager. They can do it with seriousness or with a lot of laughs, maybe even both on occasion. I was never one for all the movies that made these years seem like the best of times, and I came to seriously despise those films that treated teenagers like complete idiots. Look, kids can do stupid things (haven’t we all?), but they don’t do stupid things out of a lack of intelligence necessarily. They do stupid things because they are bored. I so know what that was all about.
The movies I have placed on the list helped me get through what was the most frustrating period of my young life, and I shared them with the teens of today because even though some of them maybe stylistically dated, they also deal with situations that are still prevalent among teens to this very day. These films are being presented here in no particular order.
1) Pump Up The Volume
“High school is the bottom, being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point, surviving it is the whole point.”
Written and directed by Allan Moyle, the movie stars Christian Slater in one of his very best performances as Mark Hunter, a teenager who has just been uprooted by his parents who have moved from New York to Arizona. Mark has no friends, is not sure he wants to know anybody, and he feels like there is nothing to look forward to in America. By accident, Mark finds an outlet by hosting a pirate radio show over the airwaves where he vents his frustrations at the world and brings the kids of his high school together. Mark quickly becomes a folk hero in the town, and this of course upsets the adults who seem him as a threat.
What makes this still my all time favorite movie about teenagers is that it gets at the truth of growing up a teenager that most other movies don’t even dare do. It deals with touchy topics like homosexuality and teenage pregnancy and doesn’t hide from them. For me, this movie was a godsend because I related to Slater’s character so much in terms of how his life went through a major upheaval when his parents moved him to another town, and how he felt ostracized from everyone around him. It dealt with the utter frustration of being a teenager, and there were very few movies at the time that handled the subject matter in the same way. When Mark tells everyone that it can’t get worse and that it can only get better, you believe him completely.
Click here to read a review of this film.
Click here to purchase “Pump Up The Volume” from Amazon.com
2) The Breakfast Club
“Oh my god, are we gonna be like our parents?”
Now I am pretty certain that you will find this movie on just about every one of these lists of movies for teens. My parents let me and my brother watch the movie, and I was 10 or 11 at the time when I first saw it. Little did I know that this was the world and the different kinds of people that I was going to be exposed to when I got older. I should have been freaked at the time and been better prepared as a result, but I came naively came into high school thinking I could get everyone to like me. What the hell was I thinking?!
“The Breakfast Club” is one of those movies that are impossible for me to get sick of. Watching it again years later, there is still a lot to take from the film having been through all that stuff. The characters are introduced to us as stereotypes of classmates belonging to different cliques, and the movie is a journey from seeing these people as the stereotypes they are, and then soon evolving to where they open themselves up to each other and find that they are not all that different.
That’s the great thing about John Hughes movies like this one; he really takes the time to listen to what these kids have to say about their lives. Never does John condescend to these kids or talk down to them. Even as the adults get angrier and angrier at them at what they are doing, we never are allowed to see these characters the way they do. Hughes made a lot of great movies for teenagers in the 80’s, and “The Breakfast Club” was definitely the best of the bunch.
Also check out “American Teen” which is essentially “The Breakfast Club” as a documentary. Click here to read a review of it.
Click here to purchase “The Breakfast Club” at Amazon.com
3) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
“The key to faking out the parents is the clammy hands. It’s a good non-specific symptom; I’m a big believer in it. A lot of people will tell you that a good phony fever is a dead lock, but, uh… you get a nervous mother, you could wind up in a doctor’s office. That’s worse than school. You fake a stomach cramp, and when you’re bent over, moaning and wailing, you lick your palms. It’s a little childish and stupid, but then, so is high school.”
Another 80’s classic from John Hughes, this one stars Matthew Broderick as that kid we all wanted to be like when we were that age. In many ways, it was an unrealistic character in that no one could be that universally loved in high school, but we so wanted that to be true though. Ferris Bueller is balanced off by his best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck kicks ass here) who is the epitome of being one’s own worst enemy. Cameron encapsulates that one kind of person who is beaten down not just physically, but emotionally as well. By the end of the movie though, he realizes that he cannot be like that anymore. In his own words, he has to take a stand because the world is not going to be any easier as he grows up.
This movie is also one of the best comedies, and Broderick’s performance is one of his most iconic. It may not be as realistic about teens the way “The Breakfast Club” was, but it manages to effectively combine characters that are fantasies of what we wanted to be with characters that we are more alike with than we ever care to admit. It also is definitive proof of how important (and dangerous) to skip a day of school every once in awhile.
Click here to purchase “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” at Amazon.com
4) Better Off Dead
“Now that’s a real shame when folks be throwin’ away a perfectly good white boy like that.”
Young love, when it falls apart so suddenly, feels like the worst feeling in the world. Emotions in general seem so extreme when you’re young anyway, but breaking up with your boyfriend or girlfriend just cuts away at your heart and breaks it in ways that were never before thought to be possible. Writer and director Savage Steve Holland said he started to work on this movie after he was dumped by his girlfriend in high school, but while he intended it to be a serious film, it had the opposite effect on his friends in that they were laughing so much. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the future audience that awaited this classic 80’s comedy.
John Cusack gives one of his best performances in this one of many films he did back then (though he will probably never admit to that). As Lane Meyer, his attempts to commit suicide are hilariously pathetic, and he is surrounded by a host of characters who are ever so far from normal. Lane’s mother cooks the most bizarre of meals be it at breakfast or dinner, his younger brother is looking into dating trashy women, his best friend in high school has been going there for seven and a half years and then makes it clear that he is no dummy, and his father keeps wondering if his son will ever get that broken down Camaro off of his front lawn. Then there is the foreign exchange student Monique who ends up helping poor Lane out of his emotional rut and gives him some direction in his life. All of these elements add up a seriously funny comedy that should have received a bigger audience when it was first released in theaters so long ago.
This is a great movie for teens that have been dumped or for those who have discovered why crushes are really called crushes. It’s still a seriously funny movie.
Click here to read what Savage Steve Holland had to say about the making of “Better Off Dead.”
Click here to purchase “Better Off Dead” at Amazon.com
5) Fast Times at Ridgemont High
“I’m so wasted!”
Here’s another inescapable 80’s classic that cannot be ignored on this list. So many careers took off after this one including Sean Penn (Spicolli forever!), Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, etc. It’s interesting to note that Cameron Crowe, who adapted the screenplay from his own book, posed as a high school student to do research for this. His observations make this film one of the more realistic depictions of teenagers in high school, and it deals with such touchy subjects such as underage sex, drug use, and abortion. It’s highly unlikely that you will ever see a mainstream movie today deal with this stuff.
Plus, with the movie directed by Amy Heckerling, you get to see this from a female’s perspective which was very rare at the time. The scene where Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character loses her virginity is free of any glamour that any other movie would have, and her reaction it on the next day rings very true. The abortion scene is also handled with a lot of sensitivity, and I really liked the moment between Leigh and Reinhold in how understanding they are with each other. But of course, who can forget the famous Phoebe Cates red bikini scene, and of Reinhold getting caught with his pants down? Great stuff this movie is!
Note: The movie almost received an X rating (the equivalent of today’s NC-17 rating) which in hindsight, was utterly ridiculous considering who would most benefit from watching this film. I saw Director Heckerling talk about her battle with MPAA, and she referred to them as a lot of fascist bastards. That’s probably not far from the truth.
Click here to purchase “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” at Amazon.com
“I love you and your brother more than anything in the world. I would die for you, but I won’t leave you alone right now.”
If you thought that the start of your teenage years was rough, wait until you see this utterly raw and visceral piece of filmmaking.
“Thirteen” stars Evan Rachel Wood as Tracy, a straight A student who falls under the seductive spell of Evie (Nikki Reed), the most popular girl in school. From there, Tracy goes from being a good kid to a really bad egg as she resorts to drugs, drinking, sex, and the occasional bout of shoplifting. Holly Hunter plays Tracy’s mother, herself a recovering addict, and you can feel her ever growing horror at watching her daughter sink even deeper into a world of endless vices. This proved to be one of the more unsettling of movie going experiences because emotions are laid out bare for all to see, and the movie never shies from going to dark places that most after school specials live to avoid.
“Thirteen” was directed by Catherine Hardwicke who has since become better known for directing that teenage juggernaut known as “Twilight.” She directs Evan Rachel Wood, Holly Hunter, and Nikki Reed with a keen understanding of how peer pressure messes us all up in the end. Both Wood and Hunter are incredible here, and their acting is brave to say the least. You have a teen going through some hard times? Get them to see this movie. Once it’s finished, they won’t feel so bad about their own lives.
Click here to purchase “Thirteen” at Amazon.com
“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”
Another classic from the 80’s I am sure you all know about. One of the great films from Peter Weir, it stars Robin Williams as John Keating, the new poetry teacher at an exclusive prep school. His unorthodox teachings force the students to start thinking for themselves so they can get at what they really want to do with their lives. This soon upsets the establishment and those forever bound to the tradition of Welton Academy, and the parents have inescapable futures planned for their children regardless of what they might think of that. Schools need teachers like John Keating to ruffle the conservative people of education who are too busy sucking the life out of the kids who are dealing with excessive hormones among other things.
Sure, school is a drag most of the time, so it helps to have a teacher who does not necessarily fit into the norm. Kids need someone who speaks to them on their level and who doesn’t condescend to them in any way. Robin Williams perfectly personifies this kind of teacher, and it stands out as one of his most memorable performances. Robin is also backed up by a wealth of talent here with actors like Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke among others.
Click here to purchase “Dead Poet’s Society” at Amazon.com
“Dear Diary, my teen-angst bullshit now has a body count.”
Now this one is the mother of all teenage black comedies!
This is one of those movies that seemed to invent a language that was all its own, and there are many pieces of dialogue that are so unforgettable. Winona Ryder is perfectly cast as Veronica, a young woman who gets caught up into joining the most popular clique at Westerburg High School against her better judgment. Christian Slater plays J.D., the new kid and rebel at the same school who sweeps Veronica off her feet in close to record time. Strip croquet would certainly do that! Not to give too much away, but some of the characters end up getting murdered, and their deaths are treated like suicides. The town and the school’s reaction to all this is what brings out the humor in this one, as it forever changes the perception they had about certain people. The school’s biggest bitches and jock douche bags end up being seen as wonderful human beings in light of their deaths, and that’s even though we know better.
“Heathers” main target for laughs is not teenage suicide itself, but of the effect it has on others. That these hateful characters are treated as angels is so overwhelmingly pathetic that you can’t help but laugh. The more ridiculous the deaths get, the more laughs there are to be found in Daniel Waters’ witty screenplay. Don’t worry, there is nothing about taking your own life here that is glamorized, and the film makes it seem like an even more ridiculous option than it ever was before. I also love how the movie satirizes all the different cliques you could find in a high school, and director Michael Lehman really amps up the stereotypes to hilarious effect. Winona Ryder and Christian Slater are both perfectly cast in this movie.
Click here to purchase “Heathers” at Amazon.com
9) Risky Business
“It seems to me that if there were any logic to our language, trust would be a four letter word.”
Another seminal teenager movie from the 80’s, this one deals with teens right on the cusp of adulthood. When the parents of Joel Goodman (Tom Cruise) go on vacation and leave him alone with the house, our main character gets into more trouble than you would have expected before the movie starts. Joel calls a female escort, runs afoul of her abusive pimp, gets ripped off, almost completely destroys his dad’s Porsche (what a fine piece of machinery that was), and he ends up turning his family home into the Chicago equivalent of Mustang Ranch. Somewhere in there, he does have an interview for Princeton…
The interesting thing about this particular teen comedy is that it is actually quite dark and deals with some serious themes. Some of the truths to be found in this film are quite painful to where you have to find a way to laugh at them in order to deal with it all. This is still one of Tom Cruise’s best roles, and you really have to admit that even if you can’t stand the guy today. There is also great supporting work from Curtis Armstrong, Bronson Pinchot, and Joe Pantoliano. Rebecca DeMornay is ever so irresistible as Lana, the escort who captures Joel’s heart as well as his wallet.
Click here to read a review of “Risky Business”
Click here to purchase “Risky Business” from Amazon.com
“Your parents are probably wondering where you are.”
“Nah… I mean, I’m already pregnant, so what other kind of shenanigans could I get into?”
I know many of you are sick to death of hearing about this movie, but that’s your problem. I loved ever single moment of “Juno” and of taking in Diablo Cody’s brilliantly witty dialogue, and I have yet to get sick of the film.
As Juno MacGuff, Ellen Page gives us a memorable teenage character for the ages. Many of you may think that this will encourage young teenage girls to get pregnant, but give me a break already! Geez! In the end, “Juno” isn’t so much about teen pregnancy as it is about a girl who is coming of age in the most unusual of ways. There are sadly not enough female teenage characters like Juno in films today, and I think that’s what makes this movie so uniquely special. Juno MacGuff is a hero for teenager girls everywhere because she never apologizes for who she is, and she seems pretty comfortable in the way she expresses herself to others. Plus, she has a heart as big as a “cautionary whale.” It’s a wonderful character you can’t get enough, and she is brilliantly brought to life by Ellen Page.
Click here to read a review of “Juno”
Click here to purchase “Juno” from Amazon.com
Here are some other great teen movies to watch after you get through these ten:
Better Luck Tomorrow – Written and Directed by Justin Linn
Dazed & Confused – Written and Directed by Richard Linkletter
Election – Directed by Alexander Payne, from the novel by Tom Perrota
Carrie – Directed by Brian DePalma, from the novel by Stephen King
Boyz N The Hood – Written and Directed by John Singleton
Sixteen Candles – Another John Hughes classic from the 80’s.
Christine – Directed by John Carpenter, from the novel by Stephen King
Kids – Directed by Larry Clark, written by Harmony Korine
Bully – Directed by Larry Clark
Stand By Me – Directed by Rob Reiner, from the novella by Stephen King