After the teenager became a culturally significant demographic in the 50s and the British New Wave began telling unvarnished stories of working class life, British films geared towards or about the country’s youth, and their increasingly racy love lives, began to appear onscreen. Many of these films dealt in the often harsh realities of young love: the disappointments, heartbreaks, marital discord, unplanned pregnancies and tragedies that crushed hopeful hearts and imagined futures. It’s a tough learning curve for besotted adolescents, vulnerable souls and impressionable minds, as giddying highs are counter-balanced with emotionally draining lows.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
As the era progressed so too did the representations of youthful love, as same-sex and interracial relationships reflected life as it was being lived, with homophobia and racism an added complication to teenage romances. Growing up and finding your place in the adult world is tough, and many of the adolescent romances depicted in British films tell often painfully-learned life lessons. To be young and in love in British cinema is to have your hopes and dreams stripped bare. Here are 10 of the best films on the subject.
A Taste of Honey (1961)
Director Tony Richardson
When Salford born Shelagh Delaney put pen to paper to write her first play, which she completed in just ten days, little could she have imagined both the impact it would have on theatre audiences and the lasting influence the big screen adaptation would have on British cinema. A significant contribution to the British New Wave, A Taste of Honey was, for the time, an unfamiliar look at the turbulent life of working class 17-year-old Jo (Rita Tushingham). Looking for love and security, Jo falls for and falls pregnant by a black sailor, Jimmy (Paul Danquah), before going on to share a flat with her gay co-worker, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin). As brief as Jo and Jimmy’s interracial relationship may have been, its onscreen depiction was progressive for the time, as was the representation of Jo’s close friendship with Geoffrey. Jo’s fleeting experience of young love is anything but a dream come true, but it is life-changing.
The Leather Boys (1964)
Director Sidney J. Furie
For a few years in the early 60s, Rita Tushingham was the go-to girl for playing teenagers grappling with the ups and downs of their first serious love affairs. Following her multiple award-winning performance as Jo in A Taste of Honey, Tushingham played Karen in Girl With Green Eyes (1963), who sees her relationship with an older man fall apart. As Dot, in Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys, her marriage to teenage biker Reggie (Colin Campbell) is a fractious, unfulfilling union. Cut from different cloth, Dot and Reggie spend much of the film at each other’s throats, with the shadow of infidelity cast over both parties. Adapted and toned down for the screen from her own 1961 novel of the same name by Gillian Freeman, The Leather Boys was still considered bold and provocative owing to its portrayal of the deep friendship that grows between Reggie and gay biker Pete (Dudley Sutton).
Deep End (1970)
Director Jerzy Skolimowski
Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End is a genuinely offbeat tale of obsessional adolescent love. Set in London but largely shot in Munich, and featuring a memorable, sexually predatory cameo by Diana Dors, Deep End takes place in and around a suburban public baths and swimming pool. Critically acclaimed at the time and the first of Skolimowski’s numerous British productions, this sexy, dark and uncomfortable tale of young love sees 15-year-old school leaver Mike (John Moulder Brown) fall under the seductive spell of his older co-worker Susan (Jane Asher). Mike’s infatuation with Susan, and her promiscuous behaviour and toying with his feelings, leads to an increasingly complicated relationship between the pair. Fantasy, reality and a dash of absurdist humour course through Skolimowski’s film, with visual symbolism and foreshadowing pointing to Deep End’s unsettling climax. Rarely has young love been so strikingly portrayed in British cinema.
Gregory’s Girl (1980)
Director Bill Forsyth
For the generation who were experiencing their formative years in the early 80s, Bill Forsyth’s loveable romantic comedy, Gregory’s Girl, would have struck a very recognisable chord. The beauty of Forsyth’s enduringly popular, self-penned narrative, though, is that despite its very particular place and time, its themes cross cultures, genders, generations and eras. The unrequited love gawky, inexperienced school kid Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) feels for Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) is emblematic of the emotional, hormonal and peer pressure-driven minefield that is one’s teenage years. Who among us didn’t have that one special person who regarded you as a friend at best, and an irrelevance at worst? Pleasingly devoid of the often-spiteful characters to be found in American films of the same ilk, Gregory’s Girl is charming, witty and astute in its observations about youth, vulnerability and the lessons in love that we all, eventually, learn.
The Rachel Papers (1989)
Director Damian Harris
Although it may not have created many waves, critically or financially, during its theatrical run, Damian Harris’s The Rachel Papers contains many astute, relatable observations about adolescent love and its highs and lows. Adapted by Harris from Martin Amis’s 1974 debut novel of the same name, the film tells the tale of smart but egotistical teen Charles Highway (Dexter Fletcher) and Rachel Noyes (Ione Skye), the first real love of his young life. Charles meets Rachel at a party he has gate-crashed and is instantly infatuated, despite Rachel’s apparent lack of interest. Employing various strategies to win Rachel over and away from her American boyfriend, DeForest (James Spader), Charles succeeds in his scheme and the pair become romantically involved. The narcissistic and naïve teen learns a vital lesson, however, about putting people on pedestals, as the girl Charles thought was ‘perfect’ turns out to be just as fallible as everyone else.
Young Soul Rebels (1991)
Director Isaac Julien
The only full-length feature film to date to be directed by artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien, Young Soul Rebels has two key romances threaded through its multi-themed tale. Funded by the BFI and written by Julien, Paul Hallam and Derek Saldaan McClintock, this period piece, set against the backdrop of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, is part coming-of-age tale and part crime drama. At the film’s outset, teenage soulboys and pirate DJs Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and Caz (Mo Sesay) are unwittingly drawn into the murder investigation of one of their gay friends, TJ (Shyro Chung). As the drama unfolds, racial tension, youth subculture clashes, generational divides and homophobia come to the fore of Young Soul Rebels’ narrative, as the career-minded Chris begins a relationship with commercial radio worker Tracy (Sophie Okonedo) and Caz becomes romantically involved with gay punk Billibud (Jason Durr). The latter pairing is the film’s symbolic and hopeful heart.
Beautiful Thing (1996)
Director Hettie Macdonald
Not originally intended as a theatrical release, Channel 4 Films’ Beautiful Thing earned itself a place in cinemas thanks to its well-received television screening. Initially an award-winning stage play written by Jonathan Harvey, who also penned the screenplay adaptation, Beautiful Thing has a tender, developing romance between two teenage boys at its heart. Shot and set in Thamesmead amid its predominantly working-class council estates, Harvey’s work was adroitly directed by Hettie MacDonald in her only feature credit to date. Neighbours and classmates Jamie (Glen Berry) and Ste (Scott Neal) both come from dysfunctional families, and their teenage lives are further complicated after a kiss while Ste stays over at Jamie’s, after taking a beating from his drunken father. Young love triumphs in Beautiful Thing as the boys’ eventually embrace their sexuality and affection for each other, despite Ste’s initial difficulties accepting where his heart, and future, lie.
My Summer of Love (2004)
Director Pawel Pawlikowski
Having earned international acclaim for his second feature, 2001’s Last Resort, for which he won a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer, Polish born director Pawel Pawlikowski followed up with an offbeat, sometimes edgy, coming-of-age drama. Featuring strong performances from its three leads, Natalie Press, Emily Blunt and the always-excellent Paddy Considine, My Summer of Love revolves around the blossoming relationship of two teenage girls over a summer in the Yorkshire countryside. Loosely adapted from Helen Cross’s 2001 novel of the same name, the catalyst for My Summer of Love’s bittersweet narrative is a chance meeting between working-class Mona (Press) and the sophisticated, spoiled Tamsin (Blunt). To the consternation of Mona’s ex-con born-again Christian brother Phil (Considine), the girls’ friendship develops, with Phil suspicious of the older, upper-middle-class girl. Both Mona and Tamsin subsequently find themselves on a painful learning curve about love, but for very different reasons.
An Education (2008)
Director Lone Scherfig
Lauded after its premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and subsequently nominated for three Academy Awards, Lone Scherfig’s An Education brought its then 24-year-old lead, Carey Mulligan, international recognition. Based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoirs and adapted for the big screen by Nick Hornby, Scherfig’s stylish sixties-set coming-of-age drama centres on the relationship between Mulligan’s 16-year-old schoolgirl, Jenny, and a handsome but deceptive older man, David (Peter Sarsgaard). A recent school leaver with her sights set on a place at Oxford University, Jenny is swept off her feet by the attentions of the debonair and experienced David, who instantly wins over Jenny’s parents with his worldly charms. Young love for Jenny is, however, an emotionally complex experience, as David is revealed to be not all he initially seemed.
Director Richard Ayoade
Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 Swansea-set, coming-of-age novel, Submarine, was adapted and brought to the screen in stylish fashion by debut feature director Richard Ayoade. Having cut his teeth behind the camera on the likes of Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace and music videos for The Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend, Ayoade confidently brought his hip aestheticism and pop culture referencing eye to bear on Dunthorne’s tale of adolescent angst, awkward romance and approaching adulthood. 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is besotted with Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), who, having seen her plan to make an ex-boyfriend jealous backfire, becomes romantically entangled with the smitten schoolboy. Parental problems, the spectre of death and Craig’s own unsettled behaviour, however, conspire to have a detrimental effect on the fledgling relationship. Smart, poignant and often painfully truthful, Ayoade’s self-aware dramedy ends on an ambiguous note with Craig and Jordana’s future unwritten.