Troubled Teens on Screen

Jeremy Cropf | Monday, August 21, 2023

Troubled Teens on Screen

Believe it or not, the term “teenager” is a somewhat recent, American invention. First introduced in the 1940s, it didn’t actually take off until the mid-1950s when it became a buzzword for youth within the context of consumerism. Advertisers needed a moniker for those who embodied the youth culture of that era, and began specifically marketing products to that demographic. 

For almost as long as the term has existed, Hollywood has provided us with on-screen depictions of teens. But there is a difference between “teen films” and films about teenagers. Nicholas Ray’s 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause is one of the first mainstream depictions of teenage alienation on film and it’s undeniably a classic, but its insistence that teenagers are a social problem to be understood keeps it from being a true “teen movie.” Teen movies approach being a teenager from a uniquely teen perspective, appreciating and validating their lives experiences, rather than exploiting them and portraying them as “the other.”

What’s great is that within this genre framework, there’s actually a lot of flexibility for filmmakers to tell all kinds of different stories. That’s why there are so many sub genres within the “teen movie” genre: teen sports drama (Friday Night Lights), teen noir (Brick), teen slasher (Scream), teen Shakespeare (10 Things I Hate About You), and the list goes on. Personally, I’ve always gravitated towards the darker stuff.

On Wednesday, August 30 I’m leading a Film Talk at SIFF to discuss Hollywood’s continuing fascination with, and representational strategies around, teenagers on screen. To help prepare, here are five troubled teen movies that were essential in the formation of this subgenre:

Over the Edge (1979) - Fourteen year-old Matt Dillon makes a blistering screen debut in this cult classic following a group of disaffected teenagers living in the planned community of New Grenada. Ignored and invalidated by the adults in their lives, the kids turn to drugs, booze, and sex for fulfillment. Tensions between the adults and kids boil over, building up to a corker of a finale that I won’t spoil here. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused) and shot by Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), this lesser known film is bona-fide classic of the genre and features an anthemic soundtrack by Van Halen, Cheap Trick, The Ramones, and more!

River’s Edge (1986) - This intense morality play features a killer ensemble cast including Keanu Reeves, Crispin Glover, Ione Skye, and Dennis Hopper. The film follows a group of high school friends who are disturbingly unaffected when one of their own commits a brutal murder. One of the lesser known and most-bleak films from this era, the film’s powerhouse ensemble, effectively stark and muted cinematography and thrash metal soundtrack all come together in one of the very best 80’s films of all time. 

Heathers (1988) - There’s not a lot about this movie that hasn’t already been said so I’ll keep it brief - without Heathers, the troubled teen movie (and teen movies in general) as we know them would not exist. This cult-classic not only ushered in a darker, more experimental era for the genre but it also turned the genre on its head and set the standard for just about everything that’s come since. 

Donnie Darko (2001) - This was my personal introduction to the world of troubled teen and it’s still the one that resonates the most. It wasn’t just one thing. It was all the things. Not only did it provide Jake Gyllenhaal with his big breakout role, it also featured glorious supporting performances from the likes of Jake’s sister Maggie, Jenna Malone, Noah Wyle, and 80s icons Patrick Swayze and Drew Barrymore. The film’s blurring of the lines between the real world and the supernatural one results in some truly mind bending twists and the film’s indelible use of 80’s rock classics resulted in a classic soundtrack (one of my all-time favorites!). In my mind, while a lot of film’s mimicked the ways high schoolers in the 80s spoke, this may be the one that actually captured that voice in the most authentic way. A masterpiece. 

Mean Girls (2004) - I’ll admit that I was not a big fan of this the first time I saw Mean Girls but time and multiple rewatches has changed my view on it that helped me realize how off my initial read of it truly was. Feels like one of the last big “teen” movie phenomenons to be released in theaters, as the teen media monoculture that helped produce it was phased out by the 2010s. So fetch!

Check out Jeremy's complete Troubled Teens on Screen Letterboxd list.

Tickets are now available for Jeremy Cropf's film talk, The Kids Aren't Alright, happening August 30 at SIFF Film Center and virtually on Zoom. This Film Talk is associated with BACK2SCHOOL—a 10-film series at SIFF Cinema Egyptian August 25–31—including Heathers and Mean Girls.

  • Date: August 21, 2023
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