10 great American teen films of the 1980s

With the decade’s most subversive teen film, Heathers, back in cinemas, we celebrate the freaks, geeks and cliques of the American teen movie’s 1980s golden age.

Heathers (1988)

No doubt about it: the 1980s were a golden age for the American teen film. As US cinema emerged blinking from the dark paranoia of the 1970s, when The Exorcist, Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now all made their impact, the likes of John Hughes, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis began to tap the huge appetite of the emerging youth market. The introduction of the PG-13 certificate in 1984 helped things along: it gave directors a license to work with more mature themes for a younger teen audience.

With this new demographic holding sway, it’s no surprise that the American high-school experience became a defining characteristic of 80s movies. Not all of the decade’s teen films are concerned with cliques and geeks, however. Some filmmakers used their teen protagonists to explore ideas of equality, sexuality and even global warfare – though, admittedly, some of these subtexts need some degree of excavation.

Before we get on to some of the moment’s greatest hits, it’s interesting to note that the 80s teen film landscape demonstrates a pronounced lack of diversity. An overwhelmingly large proportion of its adolescent protagonists are white, straight and male. Even so, there are traces of subversion to be found, and plenty of gold, with many smaller gems worthy of rediscovery. As in the classroom, it’s not just the most popular ones that are worth celebrating…

The Outsiders (1983)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

The Outsiders (1983)

Four years after his epic Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola turned his attention closer to home with this adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel about teenage gangs in Nebraska. While the two films may be set worlds apart, they both offer similar explorations of the ruinous psychological impact of violence.

Set in the 1960s, The Outsiders sees frictions between two rival gangs from opposite sides of the tracks – the poor Greasers and the rich Soches – escalate into murder. Told through the viewpoint of 14-year-old Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell), a quiet young man swept into the situation by his hot-blooded best friend, it’s a hard-hitting allegory of the devastation of toxic masculinity, and the shocking ease of ending up on the wrong path. The same year, Coppola also directed another Hinton adaptation: the more stylised Rumble Fish.

Risky Business (1983)

Director: Paul Brickman

Risky Business (1983)

Before Tom Cruise became a bona-fide fighter-piloting, building-scaling, world-saving movie star, he was just another goofy teenager attempting to navigate his way through life. In Paul Brickman’s 1983 comedy, his Joel is a Chicago youngster whose decision to call a prostitute (Rebecca DeMornay) while his parents are away results in litany of catastrophes.

Released in the same year as Coppola’s The Outsiders, in which Cruise also had a role, Risky Business has a more comedic view of the consequences of youthful idiocy. It’s bolstered by two excellent performances from Cruise and DeMornay, the latter transcending the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ cliché to become a character with genuine substance.

WarGames (1983)

Director: John Badham

WarGames (1983)

Not all 80s teen films were concerned with prom invites and parties. Some had loftier ambitions. While movies like E.T. (1982) and Explorers (1985) pitted teens against the expanse of the universe, WarGames sees a pair of high-school computer geeks accidentally stumble into a Defense Department computer that challenges them to play a ‘wargame’ – one that starts the countdown to a real-life nuclear strike.

In combining lingering Cold War paranoia with emerging suspicions surrounding man’s increasing reliance on computer technology (and, in 1983, this was cutting-edge, unfamiliar stuff), director John Badham made a kind of adolescent Dr Strangelove for the Reagan era, with excellent performances from Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy as youngsters staring a potential apocalypse in the face. Deservedly, it was nominated for three Oscars, including best original screenplay for Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes

Old Enough (1984)

Director: Marisa Silver

Old Enough (1984)

This little-seen film is a rare beast, an 80s teen narrative with not one but two female protagonists: 12-year-old Lonnie (Sarah Boyd) and 14-year-old Karen (Rainbow Harvest), who meet during one New York summer. As the streetwise, lower-class Karen teaches the affluent  Lonnie how to wear make-up, do her hair and shoplift, a rock-solid bond is formed that transcends their backgrounds and sees them both learn valuable lessons from one other.

While the class division between the two may be drawn along obvious, generic lines – Karen is a wise-cracking petty thief, Lonnie a guileless ingenue in training – writer-director Marisa Silver absolutely nails the intensity and emotion of adolescent friendship. She’s helped by charming performances from the two young leads and some evocative imagery from celebrated cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, previously known for his collaborations with Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Beat Street (1984)

Director: Stan Lathan

Beat Street (1984)

Uniquely among American teen films of the 80s, Beat Street explores the urban African American experience, playing out in the cash-poor, culture-rich neighbourhood of New York’s South Bronx. Among its ratag group of dancers, rappers and graffiti artists attempting to make their fortune are musician Guy Davis as a talented rap artist, Rae Dawn Chong as a music major and Robert Taylor as a brilliant break dancer.

While more cynical audiences may view it as merely a vehicle to launch the successful soundtrack album, Beat Street deserves to be recognised and celebrated for presenting a visceral, alternate view of American teendom at a time when Hollywood largely turned a blind eye to these communities.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Director: Wes Craven

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Not just a milestone slasher movie, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street also demonstrates a classic teen movie template. True, the peril on display here may be rather more life-threatening – falling foul of Freddy Krueger’s claws clearly way worse than a bad date or a house party gone wrong. But familiar themes of adolescence and self-discovery are in here too among the gore.

Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends find that the unfamiliar territory of puberty, sex and sexuality (further explored with the character of Jesse in 1986 follow-up A Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy’s Revenge, whose struggles with his burgeoning homosexuality open him up to Freddie’s advances) leave them ripe for defilement by the nightmarish, haggard boogeyman. It’s no coincidence that Freddy comes to them in their dreams: their subconscious becomes a battleground and the innocent sanctity of their beds is – literally and metaphorically – ripped wide open.

Just One of the Guys (1985)

Director: Lisa Gottlieb

Just One of the Guys (1985)

Another unique 80s teen film to concentrate on the female experience and, over 30 years after its release, its central message is a dishearteningly familiar one. “Just because I’m cute, nobody takes me seriously,” laments Terry Griffith (Joyce Hyser), an attractive high schooler whose desire to get positive attention from her teachers leads her to cut her hair and pass herself off as boy. And, while her disguise is far from real-world watertight, it works.

Frothy as Just One of the Guys may be, with rather too much attention paid to Terry’s physical transformation, it makes some valid points about the damaging impact of gender bias during our formative years.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Director: John Hughes

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

As portrayed by Matthew Broderick, Ferris Bueller is the poster child for a generation, and this story of one epic day in his life, on which he pulls a sickie and parties his way through Chicago with girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), is a balls-to-the-wall celebration of teen optimism and energy. Yet the real genius of John Hughes’ film is that, behind that euphoria of youth, the real story belongs to Cameron – and it’s far more nuanced a narrative.

As Cameron trails in his friend’s wake, his eyes are opened to his own depression and a fire is lit in his belly to take control of his own fate and confront his bully of a father. It’s a powerful, evergreen exploration of self-acceptance, and Ruck’s performance is one of the best, and most underrated, of its time. 

River’s Edge (1986)

Director: Tim Hunter

River’s Edge (1986)

While Crispin Glover was brilliant as Marty McFly’s dad in Back to the Future (1985), his performance in the lesser-known River’s Edge, just a year later, deserves equal attention. His wired, rebellious Layne is one of a gang of teen dropouts. United by uncaring parents, and having fallen through the gaps of society, they drink and do drugs, not to party, but to get by. It’s a marker of how far removed they are from normality that, when buddy Sampson (Daniel Roebuck) reveals the body of a woman he’s killed, hidden in woodland, they cover up the crime, regularly visiting the corpse with detached, morbid fascination.

Based on a true story, Tim Hunter’s film is a study of extreme behaviour, misplaced loyalty and, ultimately, fear. While Layne’s gang may be far from ideal, he is driven by the idea of keeping them together. Devastatingly, they’re everything he has.

Heathers (1988)

Director: Michael Lehmann

Heathers (1988)

If River’s Edge marked a darkening of tone in teen movies towards the end of the decade, two years later Heathers came along to tear down the genre’s most sacrosanct emblem: the all-American high school. Winona Ryder’s Veronica Sawyer is, like so many of her contemporaries, buffeted by the institution’s violent social currents, but single-mindedly determined to do something to redress the balance. Falling under the spell of the gorgeous but sociopathic Jason ‘JD’ Dean (Christian Slater), Veronica is driven to bump off the popular clique who is destroying her life – the ‘Heathers’ of the title.

In some ways, Heathers conforms to much of teen movie tradition, with snappy dialogue, underdog heroes and a good-looking cast. Yet, it also flirts openly with topics previously unaired in these hallowed halls, including eating disorders, shootings and suicide. The result is a cynical, subversive satire about the usual gloss of this type of film, the way in which the genre polishes over the pain and suffering of adolescent experience. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the climactic image of Veronica lighting her cigarette from JD’s exploding suicide vest, sending old notions of teenhood out with a bang.

BFI Player logo

Stream landmark cinema

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try for free