Updated: Feb 14, 2022
I watch many coming-of-age movies. Statistically speaking, it is my favorite genre. Growing up in the internet era, the hunt for relatability is endless. I want someone to stand for what I stand for, embrace particular character flaws that I recognize in myself, demonstrate that growth is possible after a period of trial and tribulation. Coming of age movies come in many forms- but by far, their most common interpretation is that sweet spot in adolescence: high school.
High school, when the rules don’t apply exactly the same as they do in the real world. When you’re defining your identity, to either accept or reinvent come post-graduation. For some a living hell, for others, their peak.
I believe that life can only get better. This is perhaps naive and optimistic coming from a girl who is the self-proclaimed protagonist of her own great coming-of-age flick, with desire to be older and yet very little sense of what being older truly implies.
But movies are my, and I assume many others', guide for what to expect, or what to steer clear of. I believe that each little journey with a given set of characters provides simulated life lessons (that is, without suffering the consequences, with the exception of occasional secondhand embarrassment).
So, where did it start, and how has the genre changed over the years?*
*In this particular evolutionary study, I am going to focus on American teen films, because I have no distinct expertise on the cult high school films that exist elsewhere and also no personal experience to verify them. So, as much as I respect and adore Les 400 Coups for being what now is known as the grandfather of the modern coming-of-age movie, I am going to stick to my local offerings.
The 50s: Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
I am going to affiliate this movie’s release with that of the publishing of Catcher in the Rye. Why? Simple. Teen angst.
Teenagers were not very prominently featured in the Golden era. You were Shirley Temple or you were Ingrid Bergman. I theorize that a pressure to grow up fast during hard times matched with a desire for big Hollywood executives to feature glossy pictures in which case still-growing teenagers didn’t quite fit the bill for soothing romanticism accounted for the lack of teens depicted.
When The Catcher in the Rye was released in 1951, it validated an entire generation of young people struggling to adapt to the weight of the world. Being juvenile and unsure didn’t mean failure, it just meant that you needed some help. We’ve all read the book for English class. It was a turning point for young people who suddenly realized they had a voice.
Rebel Without a Cause marked a similar sensation. The name was stolen from a book about the hypnoanalysis of a psychopath by psychiatrist Robert L. Lindner. Nicholas Ray and the producers thought it was a pretty good fit for a movie about the modern teenager.
James Dean’s star power and the considerable credibility it offered to the kids compared to the traditionally praised adult characters earned it a spot in pop culture history as part of the shift to the teenaged counterculture alongside rock n’ roll and drug culture.
Rebel Without a Cause was not without an effect.
American Graffiti (1973)
There are a couple of other examples in the 60s of teen films but none gained great acclaim. You’ll find Beach Party movies: Beach Party, Pajama Party, Beach Blanket Bingo... low-budget, low effort projects that contain more fluff than potential legacy. The next step had to be taken by a man from a galaxy far, far away.
George Lucas based American Graffiti after his own teenage years in the small town Modesto, California in 1962, all condensed into one fateful night. He moved in between studios, writers, and funds as he tried to get his “mainstream” piece picked up for financing, often being rejected for not having enough violence or sex. Eventually, Universal Pictures allowed him total creative control over the project, given that he work on a low budget. Clearly, it was a success. Part nostalgia piece, part futuristic multi-arc design, it was contained enough to feel cozy and buoyant enough to inspire awe. The film was well-received and was even nominated for Best Picture at the 1974 Academy awards. It consistently appears in AFI’s top 100 films, 100 movies for its cultural relevance and earnest depiction of teenagers, even, of course, if several of its lead actors were well into their 20s (a curse we have yet to break from entirely).
Other classics from the 70s include musical extravaganza Grease (1978) (shoutout to 34-year-old Stockard Channing!) and the ever-so depressing The Last Picture Show (1971).
What’s the trend? All are set a decade or two before the current era. Few have captured, shall we say, the “current climate.”
70s/80s Slasher Films
I want to give a quick shoutout to 70s horror movies for being one of the most teenager-friendly genres during the era.
Starting with Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but not officially lifting off the ground until 1978’s Halloween, the slasher genre has been a staple of the teen film. Whilst predominantly featuring teens in their films, these movies were often too gory and too suggestive to be classified by the MPAA as official teen films. Obviously, then, it became a mission for teens to seek out these “age-inappropriate” slashers.
The 80s proved to be a very successful era for teen slasher films and the key to their success was the fact these films were very cheap to make, but made an exceedingly large profit. Often these films took place in one secluded location and required a small cast. Friday the 13th (1980), which was a response to the successful Halloween two years earlier and spawned nine sequels, was made off of a tiny $500 thousand budget, yet made over $60 million at the box office. These movies were tiny cash cows of the film industry. It didn’t matter if not many people saw the movies because studios weren’t losing money anyways. There was no “lose-lose” scenario. Teens loved violence and sex!
Welcome to the premium white opus for coming of age movies. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t deny that Hughes created a class of all his own, originating iconic tropes and characters that are still referenced on a regular basis.
Hughes turned mundane suburban angst into something palpable and entertaining. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains the superior Hughes movie in my eyes, but who hasn’t begrudgingly bopped along with The Breakfast Club or found themselves oddly captivated by charismatic villain Steff in Pretty in Pink?
John Hughes provided quality movies for a decade and a half- even as many of its caricatures and stereotypes see rightful criticism in the light of day (I’m looking at you, Sixteen Candles).
He had honorable messages: be true to yourself, reject oppressive authority, don’t judge a book by its cover, live in the moment. And, by teen movie standards, he spawned a revolution.
Others worth mentioning:
Say Anything (1989), Footloose (1984), The Outsiders (1983), Dirty Dancing (1987), Back to the Future (1985).
Not Basic? Try These
Not all 80s teen films were made for the generic. The 80s were also a time where we saw filmmakers pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to depict teenagers doing, saying- murdering. There was a new wave of sardonic writers, embracing stoners and darker, “edgy” comedy.
Heathers (1989), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) have all gained a cult-like following, the former even receiving a Broadway musical interpretation AND a Riverdale musical episode based on that musical. So, you win some you lose some.
Risky Business (1983) belongs up there as one of the more morally questionable and aesthetically confusing contributions to the teen movie genre, while Teen Wolf (1985) was one of the sillier fantastical takes on the fickleness of fame.
This is my personal favorite era. Teen movies were seen as legitimately bankable investments (oftentimes due to the young stars having pre-established fan bases), the broad entries were matched with the quirkily idiosyncratic, and everything is so incredibly soapy. I love that you can’t even tell if it was the intent of the writers to make it that way.
Nerdy Girl Gets Hot:
She’s All That (1999), Never Been Kissed (1999)
One Epic Night – American Graffiti Structure:
Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), Dazed and Confused (1993)
The Colorful Cult Films:
Rushmore (1999), But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
The Greatest Movies Ever Made:
Clueless (1995), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
And we were even blessed with the beginning of the teen sex comedy, with American Pie (1999), which would go on to spawn three additional films in the 2000s and years worth of poorly thought out "ironic" gags done by Frat guys.
The 90s Don’t End Until 2006
There are a lot of movies that were released in the early 2000s that seem like honorary 90s movies. This is not to say that they are unoriginal, just not quite revolutionary enough to fit my next category. Here are a couple of key films:
A Cinderella Story (2004), Bring it On (2000), Save the Last Dance (2001), A Walk to Remember (2002), and The Princess Diaries (2001).
Also, this includes pretty much any Disney Channel Original Movie released between 2000 and 2009.
The High School Musical Trilogy (2006-2008), Freaky Friday (2003), Cadet Kelly (2002), Cow Belles (2006), Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2006) The Cheetah Girls (2003), Read it and Weep (2006).
2000s: Time for Farce
Willa Cather once wrote: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” Such is true for films.
By the 2000s, the 80s and 90s had covered most of the ground for high school stories. White leads, different needs; someone reads, good deeds! repeat.
So, why not make fun of the formulas?
Scary Movie (2000) from the Wayans brothers offered a horror-comedy hybrid that spoofed decades of tropes and garnered enough attention to gain not one, not two but four sequels.
Not Another Teen Movie (2001), although less well-received, bravely persisted with the same goal.
Less directly, films like Juno (2007) and Napoleon Dynamite (2004) spoofed the supposed excitement of high school life by turning it into something down to earth and relatable. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but most come from the naivety of the leads or bluntness of the supporting characters. There is no Dirty Dancing high jump, no moment at the dance where all eyes fall on the girl. Both movies end very modestly, uncertain fates being the product of lowered expectations.
Of course, there are some fresh ideas to be reckoned with.
How does a film like Mean Girls (2006) remain so influential?
Why is Superbad (2007), with all of its shenanigans, able to convey so much humanity?
How does She’s the Man (2006) do Shakespeare better than Shakespeare himself?
That last one was a joke (sort of), but nonetheless, the point remains.
Great comedic minds collaborated on these projects in order to both entertain audiences and slyly convey good advice about growing up, remaining humble, and realizing that there’s more to life than high school. Kids don’t need to beat themselves up so much about what may seem like the biggest thing in the world when you’re 16.
That was the piece a lot of films were missing from the 70s-90s, when most filmmakers were attempting to depict teens without speaking to them.
That’s why the 2010s have really begun to work in teen movie favor.
2010s: The Concept Comes Full Circle
There have been some epic high school movies released in the past ten years.
Of course, there have also been Netflix Original Movies:
Tall Girl (2019), SPF 18 (2017), The Kissing Booth (2018), Sierra Burgess is a Loser (2018).
There have also been SEVERAL John Green movie adaptations (kissing in the Anne Frank house, anyone?) and other YA Novels:
The Fault in Our Stars (2014), Paper Towns (2015), Before I Fall (2017), Every Day (2018), Five Feet Apart (2019)
Blah, I just needed to get the bad taste out of my mouth first and foremost. We’re not going to focus on those, because it’s mostly lame attempts by executives at pandering to tweens and romance novel junkies to give them unrealistic expectations for their high school experience.
Now, the semi-in touch:
Easy A (2010), Lady Bird (2017), Love, Simon (2018), The Edge of 17 (2017), The Kings of Summer (2013), The Spectacular Now (2013)
These movies, if not inherently huge risk-takers with their story or presentation, are really solid because of their earnest performances. They solidify that teen dramedy type that has gotten so much attention these past few years.
The following 2010s films are the epitome of the teen movie, evolved since its origin.
I don’t know if you guys have seen this movie- but it’s wild. A 100 minute adrenaline rush, I struggle to locate in it a cliche. With a script as sharp as a tack, up-and-comers Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, and Kiersey Clemons in the main roles, and a colorful backdrop like Los Angeles, this movie throws all it can at the wall- and a surprising amount sticks. The inexactitude of its moral recommendations allows for it to avoid spoon-feeding its audience, distinctly appealing to older teens looking for an escape from the monotony and/or drama of whatever their high school reality might be. It's cool, retro-modern innovation wherein the style pushes the limits while maintaining earnestness with its leads. I look forward to seeing more teen films with this much character.
Me and Earl the Dying Girl (2015)
Teen book adaptations that don’t sacrifice the razor sharp observational first person format after transferring to screen are hard to come by. This movie goes above and beyond to recapture the essence of the novel’s sometimes awkward tone, and gives so. much. attention. to detail. I’ve seen this movie four times now and I know there’s still stuff I’ve missed. Charming leads and an intentional emphasis on the unromantic make this a very pleasant, undramatic watch until the finale catches up with you all of a sudden; the bulk of it starts to have a lot more meaning. If all teen movies were made as meticulously as this one, I would have few complaints.
Look, I’m not saying this movie is much different from the “One Epic Night” formula initiated by American Graffiti. It hits a lot of similar story beats. But it does breathe new life into that genre. The style is contemporary and hip, the soundtrack is great, at least two of the given protagonists are sympathetic at any given time- it’s enjoyable. I think it helps that it reinvents the dynamic between a lot of high school kids by giving each person an opportunity to be a fully-fledged being instead of a mere caricature. No one is invisible. It shows that a contemporary romp in the park such as this one can be fun without skimping on the tenderness.
I’m really glad that, beyond depicting less romanticized versions of high school, films have made the gradual move towards diversity of characters and living situations. Looking at this list from afar, it doesn't look like much.
Being an upper-middle-class white girl, I am pretty well represented in teen movies up to this point, and that’s probably the reason I’ve seen so many of them. They cater to me and my aspirations.
We clearly still have a long way to go, but I’m wishing it into a trend that the 2020s greet us with more varied representations of the “typical American teenager.”
Let me know if I missed any of your favorites – special shoutout to Almost Famous (2000) and Ghost World (2001), which despite having very fervent fanbases, didn't quite make it into any specific categories.
(with special help from Max who knows lots about slasher movies)