The life of a teenager is one of maturity, sadness, triumph, intimacy, and revelation. Within this peculiar hybrid of emotions lie the football games, first loves, parties, late night study sessions, and juvenile misadventures that occupy these awkward years. While high school students stumble through life and maneuver their own dilemmas and dramatics, another interesting medium takes a very creative approach to tackling minors: the world of cinema.
Monotone speeches and complicated surveys that are commonly associated with the media, science, and politics tend to bore the youth. On the contrary, seeing other youngsters on a big screen, grappling with their own plights and basking in their own extroverted glory, spike the interest of struggling youth. Perhaps it’s the alternate reality presented in these stories. Maybe it’s the charismatic performances that provoke laughter or tears, and sometimes both. It could also be the sense of resolution at the end, with the feeling of “everything will be okay” aiding as the conclusion to the movie.
Not every film gets it right, though. In fact, let’s analyze a few films from over the decades and see how on-point each was at truly encapsulating the teenage spirit. A spoiler warning for all of these films is in full effect.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Serving as one of filmmaker John Hughes’ most recognizable and iconic films, The Breakfast Club follows five high school students as they serve a Saturday detention for various wrongdoings. Each representing a different personality type, they begin to connect on a different level and discover more about each other and themselves through deep conversations and shocking discoveries.
Although Hughes has taken many swings at hitting the “perfect teen film” ball out of the park with similar films Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, this particular film notably sticks out in his filmography for its simplistic yet groundbreaking approach. What should be a quiet, pen-tapping number of hours waiting for the punishment to be over rather becomes a celebration of imperfections, insecurities, and relatability. The film thrives on the teenage need for human interaction and connection, and successfully showcases the human desire to feel understood and appreciated. Whether it’s being depressed due to bullying, fearing the disappointment of rigid parents, or being constantly underestimated due to your social status, each character brings a different perspective to what it’s really like being an everyday high schooler.
Something problematic about the film is the separation initially created between the characters through the use of stereotypes: the beauty, the brain, the jock, the rebel, and the basket case. Leniency can be provided due to the time period, but these types of basic cliques have long been abandoned on the social scene. Sure, everyone has their niche, their own group of friends, their own set interests and behaviors. Still, each friend group sees diversity between its members, and the beauty of growing up is realizing the complexity of each individual you encounter. Lumping each character into a basic category of strengths and weaknesses takes away some of the realness intended. The whole point of the film was to show how intricate the life of a teenager is, but instead it follows an extremely outdated belief system of different high school stereotypes.
The Breakfast Club paves the way for future films of its kind with its realistic themes and dialogue, though it may not serve as effectively in the present day.
The Breakfast Club is rated R.
The satirical comedy film starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater follows the popular girls at an Ohio school, three of which are named Heather, as their lives are disrupted by a psychopath who hates the masses of society. An analysis of suicide, peer pressure, and adult misunderstanding of youth, Heathers is blunt, brutal, and beyond compare. The film attempts to center itself on the chaotic minds of teens, while explaining away their behaviors and interactions with violence and dark humor.
On a large scale, the film achieves what it sets out to do. Teens move in hoardes these days, constantly doing whatever they can to fit in. Though they may be well aware of the consequences of their actions, being able to fit in is much better than standing out. Obviously taken to an elevated level with that action being suicide, it makes the message only that much clearer. Many adolescents suffer from a follow-the-leader mentality when it comes to the social scene of high school. Especially in modern times where social media and the idea of a “trend” is the most pressing matter on everyone’s mind, Heathers offers a grim but authentic look at how dangerous imitation can be in high school.
Despite its purposeful extremity, the film borders the line of making suicide seem like a joke. While the characters in the film are clearly ignorant and flamboyant to fit the narrative, a suicidal teen watching could hear the fabricated whims and gripes of the preppy Heather Chandler and think their problems are invalid. The whole film centers on the stir made by several popular kids “offing themselves”, while the overweight and severely bullied Martha Dunnstock walks straight into traffic, survives, and gets no more attention than the end credits of the movie. While trying to prove a point about the copycat mindset seen in many secondary establishments, Heathers, in keeping true to its subtle nature, ignores the fact that some kids are actually struggling. The adults in the movie seem inept to handle any sort of negative situation when it comes to teenagers, which is a sentiment that can translate to a real world circumstance and prove detrimental to a teen’s livelihood. Still, it’s satire. How very.
Heathers delivers on its lifelong messages of bad decisions and peer pressure, though its over-the-top nature overlooks an important group of its target audience.
Heathers is rated R.
The 1995 film Clueless follows the affluent Cher Horowitz as she traverses the high and lows of friends, love, and maturity. Throughout the movie, Cher manipulates her way into better grades, upgrades a new student in school, and accidentally falls in love with a gay man. Before the film’s conclusion, her own ironic cluelessness is finally overcome where she finds love in a truly unexpected and yet very obvious guy. One of the most notable teen films of all time, it continues to be reviewed very positively by contemporary critics.
With its main theme being that of friendship, Clueless shows the undeniable relationship between one’s popularity and ego. After new kid Tai is transformed into an admired token girl of the school, her once laid-back, sarcastic nature is traded in for one that relies on boasting, flexing, and over exaggeration. Eventually, Tai begins to lose interest in the ones she initially became friends with to seek after a more prominent sense of living. Too often in high school, kids desire to be noticed so badly that they are willing to completely change who they are to fit a more appreciated standard. Though it may fulfill a temporary need for attention and high school fame, it is nothing more than that. The hype will die down, and you’ll soon realize that you are no closer to attaining the truth as to who you really are. Similar to one of the movie’s last scenes, the natural desire for staying true to yourself is chosen over the glitz and glam. This revelation comes sooner or later for different people, but it comes nonetheless.
But is this film one without flaw?
Ugh, as if!
A flaw that is hard to overcome is Cher’s vapid and ignorant persona. Despite moments of intelligence, she is portrayed as an artificial airhead for the majority of the film, pronouncing words wrong and focusing oral presentations on garden parties. The narrative attempts to tackle the crossroads between brains and beauty, but fumbles with ultimately giving us hope that Cher isn’t actually as clueless as she seems. Some of the film’s most humorous and iconic moments thrive in Cher’s naïveté. Still, it is at the expense of proving that not every popular, pretty blonde is actually clueless.
Though its characters lack versatility, Clueless offers a stylish lens into the world of popularity, friends, and romance.
Clueless is rated PG-13.
Bring It On (2000)
The cult classic Bring It On features the cheerleading squad of Rancho Carne High School as they vie for yet another national championship title. First-year captain Torrance realizes the horrifying reality of their competition, however, when it is revealed that the squad’s previous captain stole choreography from the less fortunate yet better talented East Compton cheer team. The following battle of backflips and poses sees the teens discovering what it means to be a part of a team, accept new challenges, and, above all, fight for what you want. Of course, a love story is sprinkled in between things to create the perfect ambiance for this enthusiastic feature.
The film clearly sets out to rebrand the stereotype surrounding cheerleaders, to show them as more than just short skirts and ponytails. In some ways, it succeeds. The fierceness and strong will necessary to compete in such a marginalized activity is exemplified through the characters, who are in a constant battle to prove their worth to their family, friends, and school. Still, most of the characters lack a distinguishable storyline, making most of the Rancho Carne Toros look like a copy-and-paste of the same surface level cheerleader. The most profound the film gets is when dealing with the East Compton Clovers. A predominantly black team, the girls on the squad have enough sass and strength to go around. More importantly, they represent people who will get what they want through their own means and not through the charity of other people. Rejecting the white savior effort presented late in the film, the girls prove that they are not going to let themselves be handicapped by their race, providing a resoundingly positive message to viewers who share their complexion.
Additionally, the film relies heavily on the disrespect of the male cheerleaders. Their sexuality is constantly in question by prejudicial jocks and annoying younger siblings. Though each cheerleading squad in the movie has an impressive number of male members, and the translation of homophobia and stereotypes is imperative to the real life application of the movie, that should not be the extent of their inclusion in the film. Characters like Jan and Les deserve deeper storylines that show they are more than just a stereotype. Their sexual orientation should not be the only thing that makes them relevant in the movie. For teens who identify as such in the audience, their limited screen time can only cause more repression and personal abashment.
Bring It On may inspire teen cheerleaders watching, but its dull characters and flat storyline prevent it from having a prominent impact on the teen film landscape.
Bring It On is rated PG-13.
Starring Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, Superbad follows the unforgettable night of a trio of high school seniors who are scrambling for alcohol to bring to a party, in hopes that they will be able to lose their virginities to their love interests. Encountering cops, drug addicts, and menstruating women along the way, the reckless and daredevil spirit of being a teenager is pushed to new heights in this extroverted comedy. The film’s greatest strength is its ability to balance profanity with meaningfulness. Within each swear word and drunken rampage is a lesson that reflects an aspect of growing up and being a true friend.
The awkwardness and discomfort that comes with facing new situations is perfectly exhibited throughout this comedy of errors. Evan’s diffident personality and Seth’s raging horniness set up laughs and misfortunes that highlight how many teenagers are in over their heads when it comes to trying to rebel. The vexatious nature of third wheel Fogell adds to the sheer chaos that ensues within the narrative. A departure from teen movies that have somewhat put-together kids in the spotlight, Superbad instead chooses to focus on the outcasts, the background characters, the ones who really have no idea what they’re doing.
Comedies in general are prone to missing the mark when it comes to addressing the social issues that arise in its plot. The problem with Superbad in particular is the normalization of sexual assault by providing an excuse of insecurity. Instead of addressing the fact that Seth wanted to get Jules drunk to have sex with him, the dialogue focuses on Seth’s personal battle with self-esteem. Although Evan manages to control his hormones long enough to avoid having drunk sex, Seth’s storyline is made comedic and empathetic in his favor. Seth’s intention was probably not to take advantage of Jules, but someone who is unable to look past this paramount flaw in his plan will feel as though the film makes everything seem okay. Considering that the relationship between sexual assault and alcohol/drugs is one often overlooked in real life, a potential opportunity to educate is passed up in favor of light-hearted adolescence. Depending on the viewer, this may or may not make a difference in your overall opinion of the film.
Superbad trades social intelligence for outlandish humor, but shines in its ability to show the awkward struggle of obtaining teenage glory.
Superbad is rated R.
The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Featuring the likes of Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson, The Edge of Seventeen follows Nadine Franklin, an introverted high school junior who is doing her best to remain in the shadows throughout her life. Her teenage world is flipped upside down, however, when her lifelong friend, Krista, hooks up with Darian, Nadine’s older brother. Reeling from her father’s death a few years prior, this news shakes up the protagonist’s comfortable state of being. She then embarks on a journey of self-discovery as she tries to make new friends, find love, and understand her family. Though simplistic in nature, the film’s sharp screenplay and outstanding performances give it a sense of depth and relevance.
A deftly balanced dramatic comedy, the film takes a strikingly different approach to creating new relationships between characters. Unavoidable circumstances, such as seating arrangements in class, allow the paths of different people to converge. These characters are less sex driven and more communication driven, deflecting the commonly used stigma that teens just want to hook up in high school. Nadine particularly wants to talk, get to know, and connect with people in a way she has been previously unable to. In a desperate struggle for friends and allies through life, the harsh realities of growing up are unearthed through realistic conversations rather than one night stands. This authenticity stretches further to provide an overarching theme to the movie: life isn’t fair. Everything doesn’t always work out, and some things just simply are not meant to be. Some days won’t go your way and there is absolutely nothing you can do but go to bed and hope tomorrow is better. This kind of hopelessness is one that everyone goes through, and must eventually learn to accept.
An unrealistic component of the film is the idea that friendships can always be restored. Despite the initial fights that drive a wedge between Nadine and Krista and kickstart the rest of the story’s drama, the two friends are reunited by the film’s conclusion. Furthermore, most of Nadine’s relationships are restored to something positive. When compared to the main idea of the film, this is not a feasible thought to leave with audiences. As you grow up, a number of relationships you thought would never be fractured end, and very few return in any form. Of course, a person’s individual willingness to salvage what once was will greatly determine the reignition of past flames, but for the most part, growing up involves letting people go and moving on.
The Edge of Seventeen’s smart script and pertinent themes showcase the complicated connection between sadness and growth that every teenager will one day experience.
The Edge of Seventeen is rated R.
Lady Bird (2017)
The breakout solo turn from Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird sees Christine McPherson, a high school senior who longs to escape the doldrums of Sacramento and attend college on the East Coast, despite her mother’s disapproval and family’s financial struggles. In between secret applications appear the lost and new friends, first times, and parent-child fights that are all too familiar to some kids. The film takes an unfiltered look at how the relationship between a child and parent can affect both individuals. Petty arguments prove to be less destructive than the unsaid when it comes to the long-term, as the film’s final touch of uncertainty leaves the audience with the idea that your life is yours to live, and you will have to live with the benefits and drawbacks of your decisions.
This proves to be one of the film’s greatest strengths: the idea that there is not really a right or wrong way to live your life. While some may look at Christine’s final decision as selfish and cruel, others may sympathize with her and support her sense of independence and determination to go after what she wants in life. An undeniable assertion, however, is to ultimately be grateful for what you have. Too many teenagers become so consumed in their parents not letting them go out on a Friday night or being too controlling over their everyday activities that they fail to notice the overwhelming support system created by their strong parenting style. They only want to see the best for you, even if the best differs between the two individuals. Along with looking at body image, eating disorders, depression, and sexuality, one of the film’s standout moments is the sex scene between Christine and boyfriend Kyle, played by Timothée Chalamet. An awkward few minutes, it showcases the reality of life. Most of the things we wait so long for prove to not be all that they cracked up to be, and sometimes taking your time through life can serve you better in the long run, and possibly spare the embarrassment of a bloody nose.
Similarly to The Edge of Seventeen, the film becomes too formulaic in the late reunion of two close friends, driven apart by the ways of the world. Though not catastrophic to the film’s end goal of capturing teen life, a story where the protagonist’s friends shift in a more permanent way could be more accurate and not lead vulnerable teens in the wrong direction.
Lady Bird provides the authenticity, emotion, and personality necessary to set the bar high for future generations of coming-of-age cinema.
Credit is certainly due to the film industry for getting better at representing teenagers in film. We have long moved past basic stereotypes, and modern films attempt to challenge these common thoughts and present teens as more complex beings. With the dynamic lens of adolescence always shifting, checking every box in a teen film may be virtually impossible, just as with any other film genre. Still, it is important to keep the character and their thoughts at the center, and let those outstanding moments of innocence and growth be the driving force behind every story.
Lady Bird is rated R.
Alex Prince is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl