When I was growing up, the stories I enjoyed about other teenagers came to me via movies. Like YA fiction, they featured protagonists for whom everything is new and vivid, feelings are intense, and the world is full of possibility. It’s easy to see why these teen stories, whether on page or on screen, have the power to connect with audiences of all ages. With this in mind, here are ten of the teen movies that most touched and inspired me, back then and today.


The Breakfast Club

Perhaps the definitive teen movie. Five angst-ridden teenagers trapped in a Saturday detention. It contains all the types we’ve come to know and expect from teen drama: the jock, the princess, the criminal, the brain, and the basket case. Over the course of the day, the labels are peeled back to reveal common bonds. Watching this movie as a teen, I was mesmerized by Judd Nelson’s air punch, Molly Ringwald’s outfit, but mostly by Ally Sheedy’s dandruff. And then there’s the anthem—“Don’t you forget about me”—which I clearly took to heart.

Rebel Without a Cause

This was my first teen movie experience, and according to some, it invented the concept of the teenager. These young characters feel truly tormented and isolated, violently rebelling against 1950s middle-class conformity with tragic consequences. The knowledge that the three leads all died young makes watching this story even more poignant. James Dean’s desperate cry—“You’re tearing me apart”—is just as heart-wrenching today as it was then.


This ’90s retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma has spoiled airhead Cher (Alicia Silverstone) as its meddling matchmaker. Like its many designer labels, the movie takes an old pattern and restyles it, making it feel fresh, fun, and fashionable. From its memorable slang to its candy-colored wardrobe, Clueless revived the teen movie genre just when it needed a breath of fresh air. It parodies the very rich but Cher is so guileless and well-meaning that you can’t help but be won over.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I think this might be my favorite teen movie. John Hughes’s biggest box office success brims with the irrepressible energy of youth. Matthew Broderick is oh so smooth as the eponymous Ferris, Jennifer Grey bristles and boils as his angry sister, while Alan Ruck as neurotic best friend Cameron adds a darker, more sensitive tone. Overall, though, this movie is a celebration of what it is to be a teen, albeit white and rich. Life, as Ferris tells us, moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around, you might miss it.


Diablo Cody’s clever, funny script and Ellen Page’s winning performance make Juno a teen movie that transcends this genre. It’s a story of teen pregnancy that’s heart-warming as well as sharply observed. Refusing to be a victim, Juno takes matters into her own hands and finds prospective parents for her unborn child. Jennifer Garner shines as the uptight woman desperate to be a mother, while Jason Bateman plays her failed rock star husband who turns out to be more of a teenager than Juno herself. A sweet story with plenty of sharp edges to pierce any potential sentiment.


Donnie Darko

This cult classic has a mind-bending plot, a great ’80s soundtrack, an unsettling atmosphere, and arresting visuals, including a seven-foot, skull-faced bunny who first visits Donnie while he is out sleepwalking the night before a plane’s engine crashes into his bedroom. Jake Gyllenhall plays the teen with these almost mystical hallucinations about the end of the world. Though the film defies full interpretation (at least to me), it is a disturbing, engrossing watch that, by the end, has real emotional impact.


I just couldn’t leave this one out: one of the most successful musical movies of all time. I watched it at an impressionable age and was swept away by its sheer energy and sense of fun. Who can forget Sandy and Danny, Rydell High, the T-birds, and Pink Ladies, but mostly the songs that are irresistibly catchy? The leads, though far from teenagers themselves, embrace their roles with style and vitality, and special mention has to go to Stockard Channing who simmers with attitude. Love it or not, this movie has become an important part of American culture.

Say Anything

Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut is a tale of first love between a seemingly ill-suited pair: the laid-back, underachieving, optimistic Lloyd (John Cusack) and the detached, valedictorian, college-bound Diana (Ione Skye). The film’s most memorable moment is Cusack holding a boom box above his head outside of Skye’s window. But the movie is full of funny and touchingly honest lines that make this warm and engaging teen romance a cut above most.

Sing Street

I watched this 1980s Dublin-set movie only last year and fell for this story of how music offers an escape from the strains of home and school life. Fourteen-year-old Conor tries on the mantle of various musical styles—writing lyrics, shooting videos, sporting fashions—in an effort to find his own voice. He starts the band to win the heart of a wannabe model and orphan who is planning her own getaway to England. However, the film is as much about brotherly love as it is about romance. Both nostalgic and hopeful, the tone is just as Conor describes the music of The Cure: “happy sad.”


The Last Picture Show

I’ve left this one for last as I’m hesitant to pigeonhole it. It’s one of cinema’s greats, dealing with the end of an era —for the local picture house, for the dying Texan town, for the Wild West and a type of American man, and for a group of teenagers on the brink of adulthood. Many of the struggles of adolescent life are dramatized here. Friendship and romance, confusion and ignorance are brought to life by Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and Cybill Shepherd. However, it is the bleak, wind-swept backdrop that they are set against, and the lives of the larger cast of townspeople that they are connected to that make this story so profound.

Posted in Films, Young Adult.

Leave a Reply