10 great teen films

With James Dean back in cinemas as the original teen troublemaker in Rebel without a Cause, we chart the growing pains of the coming-of-age movie across the decades with a selection of 10 terrific teen movies.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Rebel without a Cause (1955)

Rebel without a Cause (1955)

There’s a scene midway through celebrated teen melodrama Rebel without a Cause in which Jim Stark (James Dean) and his classmates visit the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Sitting in the darkness of the auditorium as a vast blanket of stars and galaxies is projected above their heads, they hear a stentorian narrator talk of the infinite stretch of space and time. “Man, existing alone, seems himself an episode of little consequence,” he remarks.

Jim’s frustrations at his parents, his railing against society’s staid conventions, his feuding with the other kids in school, his scrapes with the law – all seem to wash away into cosmic insignificance in this melancholy, frightening moment. This romantic despair, also clear and present in many other films by director Nicholas Ray, is what’s kept Rebel without a Cause more truly alive than the other groundbreaking delinquency dramas of the 1950s.

Coinciding with the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll on the radio, teen biker flick The Wild One (1953), with Marlon Brando, and classroom rebellion drama Blackboard Jungle (1955), with Sidney Poitier, were among the first films to reflect the excitements and discontents of teenage life back at the newly liberalised adolescents of the postwar period. Both those films remain important footnotes in the history of the rise of the teenager, but Rebel without a Cause still speaks to anyone looking around at the universe and wondering where they might fit in.

Ray’s classic is about to be rereleased around the country, along with James Dean’s two other star turns in East of Eden (1954) and Giant (1956). Time then for a look at some other peaks of the teen movie tradition that Rebel without a Cause helped to kickstart. 

If…. (1968)

Director Lindsay Anderson

One of the very best British films to come out of the 1960s, Lindsay Anderson’s boarding-school drama If…. encapsulated the moment of 1968 with its story of students violently rebelling against the old world order typified by school, church and army. Three years before his turn as the vicious teen anti-hero of A Clockwork Orange (1971), Malcolm McDowell made his screen debut as Mick Travis, a rebel with a cause who isn’t going to take the strictures and discipline of public school any longer.

After a career as a critic, Anderson had emerged as a director during the 1950s Free Cinema movement, but here moved up a gear with a strikingly original satire on English life that segues between black and white and colour and between horror and rhapsody, before ending with armed revolution on the roof of the school. 1950s British school movies in the St Trinians tradition weren’t without their own genteel anarchy, but If…. is the sound of a fuse being lit.

Bronco Bullfrog (1969)

Director Barney Platts-Mills

Another late-60s British drama with a less than rosy sense of the state of the nation, Barney Platts-Mills’ debut feature has been less seen than If…. and barely gets a mention in many histories of UK cinema. Bronco Bullfrog is about a gang of disaffected working-class teens growing up amid the postwar high rises of Stratford in east London. First seen breaking into an East End café, 17-year-old Del (Del Walker) and his mates live a life of delinquency and aimlessness with little hope for their futures. Even Del’s budding romance seems doomed with parental interference.

Filmed with non-professional actors and on a minuscule budget, it’s nonetheless a film of great charm and authenticity, vividly shot in black and white and with a structural looseness and sense of freedom that recalls French New Wave cinema. It’s rough and ready, but its proto-punk fierceness has kept it fresher than many more vaunted films of the time.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Director Peter Bogdanovich

Produced by BBS (the same stable that brought the world New Hollywood milestones Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces), The Last Picture Show is an elegiac story about a bunch of school kids coming of age in a small Texas town.

Critic-turned-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich had got his first break with Targets (1967) under the aegis of producer Roger Corman, who was responsible for many car, drug and beach teen exploitation movies in the 50s and 60s. With his second feature, which features star-making turns for Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd, Bogdanovich brought the teen film kicking and screaming through its own puberty and into a new maturity, sensitively tracing the shifting hopes and anguishes of its protagonists as they face up to the responsibilities of growing older. As Tom Huddleston writes in Time Out: “The different ways people become who they are – rich or poor, cultured or common, honest or treacherous, loving or hateful, sad or satisfied – were never more eloquently explored”.

American Graffiti (1973)

Director George Lucas

Like The Last Picture Show, George Lucas’s American Graffiti is a nostalgic return to an idealised America of the pre-Vietnam era. It takes place over one hot summer night in a small California town in the early 60s, where teenagers endlessly circle in their souped-up cars, racing, picking up dates and trying to score liquor. As with the Bogdanovich film, it’s a vision of a paradise that’s about to be eclipsed: graduate friends Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) are imminently off to college – leaving the west coast and their carefree adolescence behind them.

Based on Lucas’s own youth, American Graffiti was the director’s last stop off before his epoch-making Star Wars series. With its soundtrack of wall-to-wall rock ‘n’ roll classics, its distinctively loose round-round-get-around structure and its gleaming evocation of the period, it was an impressive show of directorial strength before Lucas’s arrested development in a galaxy far, far away.

Gregory’s Girl (1980)

Director Bill Forsyth

Glasgow-born Bill Forsyth had already proved his winning way with teenage actors with his 1979 debut That Sinking Feeling, but it’s with his second film that he lodged a place in the all-time coming-of-age movie canon. Again made with young actors from the Glasgow Youth Theatre, it stars John Gordon Sinclair as the eponymous Gregory, a gawky schoolboy who falls head over heels with a new female recruit to the school football team – though his courtship doesn’t take the path he expects.

All the growing pains, hormones and awkwardness of adolescence are here, captured with a wonderful warmth and good-spiritedness. Some whimsical elements suggest the film may have been an influence on Wes Anderson or Richard Ayoade, but Gregory’s Girl never feels twee or wilfully idiosyncratic, just charming, unassuming and hilarious. “As we follow Gregory on his roving, uncertain ‘date’,” writes Mark Duguid for BFI Screenonline, “Forsyth almost convinces us that the unglamorous, concrete new town of Cumbernauld is as romantic as Paris.”

À nos amours (1983)

Director Maurice Pialat

Maurice Pialat’s 1978 film Passe ton bon d’abord had all the sex, drugs and angst of the best teen films, presenting the bleak outlook facing a generation of graduating school friends in an impoverished region in northern France. But, five years later, À nos amours made an even bigger impression, matter-of-factly confronting us with the promiscuity of 16-year-old Suzanne, played – in one of film’s most dazzling debuts – by Sandrine Bonnaire.

Moving between a holiday in the country and her family life in Paris, the film charts Suzanne’s precocious sexual adventures alongside the turbulence she experiences at home. Pialat himself plays the father, and the dad-daughter relationship is movingly handled, though the family arguments are dramatised with a fierce, scalding realism. 

Heathers (1989)

Director Michael Lehmann

It’s difficult to know what to pick to represent the American teen movie of the 1980s – perhaps the genre’s peak period. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) bid adieu to the youth-nostalgia teen flicks of the early 70s, ushering in a new wave of films that were ribald, raucous and rebellious, including Porky’s (1981), Risky Business (1983) and nearly everything that John Hughes put his name to, from Sixteen Candles (1984) to Pretty in Pink (1986).

If Heathers earns its place above these fondly remembered favourites, it’s because it presented an antidote to Hughes’s more sentimental excesses with its oh-so-dark vision of the jostling for supremacy that defines classroom clique culture. Winona Ryder plays 17-year-old Veronica, who has fallen in with the three Heathers at Westerburg High School, all rich, beautiful and assured in their position as the school’s queen bees. Tired of their viciousness towards other students, Veronica begins a romance with bad-boy outsider JD (Christian Slater), little suspecting the extreme ends to which he will go in his hatred of their in-crowd vacuity. All the cutesy complacency of high-school movie tropes are stripped away by director Michael Lehmann, with bullying, bulimia and teen suicide all touched upon to remind us in our more rosy-tinted moments that school is hell.

Dazed and Confused (1993)

Director Richard Linklater

Just as American Graffiti peeled back the years to early 60s California, in 1993 Richard Linklater decided the time was right for a little 1970s nostalgia, ringing the bell for the last day of term at a Texas high school in 1976. Like Lucas’s film, it takes place over a night of cruising, partying, flirting and worrying, it features an earful of time-specific rock music (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper), and it provided a springboard for new acting talent: contemporary reviews talk of a sparkling ensemble cast of unknowns, but we all know Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich and Ben Affleck didn’t stay that way.

Free-wheeling and warm-hearted, Dazed and Confused counts Quentin Tarantino among its biggest fans. He included the film as one of his 12 picks for the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll in 2012.

Clueless (1995)

Director Amy Heckerling

As 80s as anything is, Amy Heckerling’s debut Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) was one of the first off the mark in the era’s deluge of sex-obsessed teen movies. Forward-wind 13 years and Heckerling was back defining a later era: 1995’s Clueless is surely one of the most evocative pop-cultural artefacts of the time, encapsulating a moment just prior to the ubiquity of the internet, and teaching us all catchphrases of flighty Valley Girl-speak (“As if!”) that have stuck ever since.

A clever, Beverly Hills update of Jane Austen’s Emma, it stars Alicia Silverstone as Cher, a rich kid with an outfit for every occasion and a knack for love-matching her school’s lonelyhearts. Spoiled and manipulative, she could have been insufferable, but Silverstone makes her a winning combination of smart and daffy, wreaking havoc and harmony in equal measure as she sweetly sets about putting her insular world to rights.

Y tu mamá también (2001)

Director Alfonso Cuarón

With scenes of vigorous quickies, masturbation contests and triangular sexual relations between its two boyish friends and an older woman, Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (And Your Mother Too) seems to glance north of the border to the outrageous comedy of the post-American Pie (1999) teen movie. One of the early 2000s films (along with 2002’s City of God) that had the English-speaking world talking about a new energy in Latin American cinema, it stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as the friends who set off on a road trip in company with twentysomething Luisa (Maribel Verdú) in search of a paradisial beach they’ve made up to tempt her along.

Cuarón and his regular director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (again the toast of Hollywood recently with Gravity, 2013) had returned to Mexico after a couple of big-budget American movies and came up with a funny, fresh and censor-baiting take on the coming-of-age genre. Set at the time when the 71-year reign of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party had finally come to an end, its evocative, socio-economic detailing put this a cut well above the average virginity-losing escapades of its American peers.

Your suggestions

Rumble Fish (1983)

Rumble Fish (1983)

  1. Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)
  2. The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)
  3. The Outsiders (Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)
  4. Nowhere (Gregg Araki, 1997)
  5. The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999)
  6. Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan, 1961)
  7. Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
  8. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1961)
  9. Weird Science (John Hughes, 1985)
  10. Risky Business (Paul Brickman, 1983)

The Coppolas ruled the roost when we asked you on Facebook and Twitter what we’d missed from our list. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film Rumble Fish, starring the young Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke and Nicholas Cage, took the top spot as the most suggested film, while Coppola’s other S.E. Hines adaptation from the same year, The Outsiders, also proved a popular choice. Sofia Coppola’s film The Virgin Suicides made it into the top 10 too. And just where, you asked, was The Breakfast Club?

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