Teen movies are much like real teenagers. Adults either fear them or sneer at them... but then go right ahead and copy their language, clothes and attitude. And as much as we love noirs, Westerns and sci-fi, few can lay a claim to being as resonant in our lives as the teen flick. After all, we've all agonised about asking our high-school crush out or bickered with our parents, but few of us have tried to rescue imperilled terraformers or shot Lee Van Cleef. With that in mind, Empire recruited Garry Mulholland, author of teen movie compendium Stranded At The Drive-In, to compile ten films that will enable you to master the genre. All deal with the most crucial phase of every person’s life; when raging hormones and the drive to ascend from childhood to adulthood make every event and emotion so dramatic and vivid that we can never entirely leave our teenage selves behind.
Director: Jason Reitman
As any director and actor will tell you, a movie is only as good as its script allows it to be. So this scabrous, poignant, politically charged and lovably hip comedy-drama wins top prize because it has the best screenplay of any movie of the last decade. First-time screenwriter Diablo Cody, whose only previous experience was a blog detailing her experiences as a stripper, presents, in Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), the first teenage single mother in fiction history who is neither slut nor victim, moron nor scrounger. Instead, Juno is a counter-culture heroine, dealing with her One Big Mistake with waspish wit and cool logic as she offers her baby for adoption to unhappy middle-class couple Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner). A perfect coming-of-age tale where vicious gags contrast with winsome indie-pop and feminist bonding. Page is simply astounding.
Director: François Truffaut
Truffaut’s debut and the first classic of the French new wave is the semi-autobiographical tale of a misunderstood 13-year-old boy sent to borstal by his parents. Antoine Doinel, played by 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Leaud, is the first realistic celluloid teenager, and his co-star is 1950’s Paris, shot by Truffaut in dramatic monochrome as it went about its business. The documentary style was the polar opposite to the lurid exploitation of 1950’s American teen cinema and invented future verite teen classics by everyone from Ken Loach (Kes) to Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank). The 400 Blows’ final freeze-frame remains the most accusatory image in cinema.
Director: Tony Richardson
Almost 50 years before Juno, Rita Tushingham introduced us to another pregnant teen who refused to be anyone’s victim. This movie version of Shelagh Delaney’s classic Angry Young Woman play broke taboo after taboo: an interracial sexual relationship, a three-dimensional young gay character, a mother (played brilliantly by Dora Bryan) without any maternal instincts. Like The 400 Blows, its bleak-but-beautiful rebellion against the hypocrisies of the time was both a prophecy of and contribution to the cultural upheavals of the sixties. But instead of sexy Paris, this is set in a grimy, atmospheric Manchester that struck such a chord with young Steven Patrick Morrissey that he stole a couple of lines of fruity dialogue for early Smiths song Reel Around The Fountain.
Director: Brian De Palma
Before we Brits even knew what ‘the Prom’ was, this Stephen King adaptation made the American high school graduation dance into a metaphor for our worst nightmares. This still-stunning shocker stars Sissy Spacek as the pale teen outsider given telekinetic powers by the abuse and repression of her insanely religious mother, memorably played by a wildly over-the-top Piper Laurie. In De Palma’s heavily Hitchcock-influenced hands, this unlikely horror tale became a grand guignol mix of school bullying, bad haircuts, buckets of pig’s blood, male terror of menstrual blood and apocalyptic supernatural mayhem. And then there was the hand shooting out of the grave. People fainted in cinemas and the makers of Buffy The Vampire Slayer made 144 shows out of that heart-stopping moment.
Director: John Hughes
Five teens talk and talk and bloody talk in a school library. Yet for many, John Hughes’s second film as director remains THE teen movie. As Simple Minds clanged and bellowed on the soundtrack, Brat Packers Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall and the goddess that is Molly Ringwald used a Saturday morning detention at their Illinois high school to discuss the angst involved in being The Athlete, The Basket Case, The Criminal, The Brain and The Princess respectively. It worked so brilliantly that the movie invented every subsequent high school stereotype while simultaneously howling at the injustice of stereotyping. A definitively eighties orgy of delicious bad taste in which awful dancing, the phrase ‘neo-maxi-zoom dweebie’ and Ms Ringwald’s thousand-yard pout vie for our undying affection.
Director: Tim Burton
A revenge-of-the-nerd masterpiece, in which Burton deals with his own angst about being an alienated goth teen by reinventing himself as a fairy-tale Punkenstein worshipped by Winona Ryder and played by the most beautiful actor on the planet. Johnny Depp’s unforgettable turn as the unfinished project of Vincent Price’s mad scientist is joined by Burton’s sumptuous magical realism, Danny Elfman’s hauntingly original score and a tale of lost love so romantic that you almost overlook the whole ‘suburban society can’t accept difference’ subtext. How Depp manages to convey so much emotion when tarted up like a goth robot and only allowed two facial expressions remains a mystery. But it rightly made the guy a superstar.
Director: Nicholas Ray
Doomed James Dean dominates the Daddy of all teen movies as the troubled boy suffering from extreme Daddy issues. Ray’s juvenile delinquent classic, released in cinemas four weeks after 24-year-old Dean’s death in a car crash, is suffused with pre-60’s moral values about male domination and Freudian clichés that are now laughably outdated. But the intensity of the performances by Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo and Ray’s virtuoso ‘chickie run’ and planetarium set-pieces still define teen angst as something sexy, thrilling and enduringly rock ‘n’ roll, even though the movie’s jazz score and beatnik language refused to acknowledge the existence of Elvis and his peers. Every movie bad boy since has taken something from Dean’s neurotic, hysterical ‘method’ performance.
Director: Alexander Payne
Payne’s second and best film is a wonderfully original high school comedy based on a true-life incident. When popular liberal teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) attempts to fix his school’s presidential election so that terrifying right-wing Lolita, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) can’t win, his hypocrisies are exposed and his life falls apart. On one level, this is a very funny knockabout comedy with sparkling direction, great music and acute dialogue. On another, it’s a brilliant satire about why well-meaning liberals always seem to lose to those nasty conservatives. While Broderick is Ferris Bueller if he’d grown up an underachieving dickhead, Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick is a baby Thatcher-meets-Sarah-Palin in one of the finest performances in teen cinema.
Directors: Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund
The first truly epic teen gang movie; GoodFellas in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Alexandre Rodrigues stars as the fledgling photographer trying to survive and thrive in the crime-ridden ghetto suburb Cidade de Deus in a tale that follows over a decade of the real-life Brazilian drug trade and the ordinary people who are dragged into its brutal orbit. Plenty of gunplay, eroticism and great action sequences... but what grips is the novelistic sweep of the story, the grim irony of its climax and a set of unforgettable characters played by amateur actors plucked from the City of God itself. The movie picked up four Oscar nominations and spawned Brazilian TV series City Of Men.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Still the most controversial teen movie of all-time, Kubrick’s extreme visualization of Anthony Burgess’s science fiction novel caused such furore (and reported copycat crimes) upon its release that Kubrick effectively banned it from being shown in Britain until his death in 1999. Its still difficult to judge whether its an acute satire on western hypocrisy or a sadistic celebration of rape and violence, as Alex (Malcolm McDowell) leads his gang of ‘droogs’ on psychopathic rampages, gets caught and imprisoned, and volunteers for a new aversion therapy involving drugs, Beethoven and being forced to watch films of sickening violence. From the bowler hat and boiler suit uniforms, to transgender composer Walter/Wendy Carlos’s synthesized versions of classical favourites, to the unique ‘nadsat’ language, A Clockwork Orange is still twisted genius and an indefensible pleasure.
Stranded at the Drive-in: The 100 Best Teen Movies by Garry Mulholland is out on November 24, Orion Publishing.