Decades are defined by the relevance of events through the ten-year span, and range from pop-cultural to historical phenomena. Television, film, music, and fashion are some of the most common attributes of pop culture that strike a chord among the masses. The teen movie has been a sub-genre since the 1950s. The Blob, Rebel Without a Cause, and Teenagers from Outer Space are a few prime examples of teen films to emerge in 50s pop culture.
However, teen movies, also known as high school movies, really gained traction in the 1980s. Decades are just as defined by their movies, as movies are defined by the times. Here is the definitive teen movie of each decade thus far.
1950s: Rebel Without a Cause
Rebel Without a Cause was released in 1955 and starred heartthrob, James Dean. Dean’s career was short, having been killed in a fatal car crash, but made an impact on cinema forever. The actor was part of a three picture deal and gained traction for is role in East of Eden.
Rebel Without a Cause focuses on troubled teen, Jim Stark (James Dean) who moves to a new town for a fresh start. Yet, trouble still finds him as he falls for a local girl without a disgruntled boyfriend. Overall, the film is a 1950s classic, and is one of the best films about troubled youth. Despite his career being cut short, Dean sits among the greats of the decade alongside Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, and Marlon Brando.
1960s: West Side Story
Although often described as a modernized (for the 1960s) retelling of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story sits among one of the most beloved musical dramas of all time. Two rival gangs are set to face off, ultimately resulting in an unwarranted death. However, in the background, two young teens from each opposing side are falling in love.
The film was released in the same decade as Beach Blanket Bingo, Lolita, Bye Bye Birdie, and the 1960s retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Yet, West Side Story brings more cultural significance to the table as opposed to its counterpart Beach Blanket Bingo.
Grease is without a doubt the dominant teen movie of the 1970s. Despite the actors’ blatant appearance of being aged out of high school, the late-70s musical has reached generations for decades after its initial release.
Grease focuses on two groups of high school students, the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds as they navigate their senior year together. In the midst of their summer vacation, Danny (played by John Travolta) and Sandy (played by Olivia Newton-John) find themselves thrown together after their summer fling, when Sandy unknowingly transfers to Danny’s school. Grease hosts a number of beloved musical hits as well as dance numbers.
1980s: The Breakfast Club
The 80s is probably the most difficult decade to pinpoint one definitive film to define an era. However, it is easy to argue that when it came to teen movies, John Hughes owned the stage. In the 1980s alone, Hughes had over 13 movies released with multiple reaching cult fandom. Hughes inspired an entire generation of teen films, that would extend for decades to come.
From the various slashers and teen comedies that were released between 1980 through 1989, it is almost impossible to coin which film is the absolute number one teen movie of the decade. Especially with each being so different. However, 1985’s The Breakfast Clubintroduced and explored the notion of high school character tropes that are still used today (although often tweaked for the times).
Clueless has recently seen a bit of a revival, thanks to the 2023 Super Bowl commercial featuring Alicia Silverstone reprising her role as Cher in the ad. The film was Silverstone’s breakout role, putting her on the map as one of the top teen stars of the decade. The appeal of Clueless leans in hard on the 90s nostalgia, and features some of the most iconic outfits of the decade.
The film seeks to be completely self-aware of how absolutely clueless it actually is, and explores this in Silverstone’s protagonist. Like the 1980s, teen films of the 90s were being released rapid fire, and stars like Reese Witherspoon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Freddie Prinze Jr. were making their big debuts in films like She’s All That and Cruel Intentions.
2000s: Mean Girls
In 2004, Mean Girls was released with a screenplay written by comedian Tina Fey. The film featured a fresh take on teen films, but focused heavily on the relationships between high school girls and social stature. Mean Girls was also Amanda Seyfried’s film debut, putting her on the map as a rising star in the late 2000s through the 2010s.
The film structures itself around transfer student Cady (played by Lindsay Lohan) who is new to school, and becomes part of a plot to take down a group of popular girls. Mean Girls explores the toxic relationships between women in high school social groups.
Teen films of the 2010s shied away from comedy, and became more focused on coming-of-age dramas. Films like The Edge of Seventeen and The Perks of Being a Wallflower portray funny moments, but overall the tone is more serious than anything else. Yes, there were comedies like The Duff and Easy A, but when it comes to high school done right, Booksmart takes the cake.
Two best friends realize the day before their graduation that they spent too much time focusing on academics, and not nearly enough time socializing. On the night before graduation Amy (played by Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (played by Beanie Feldstein) set out to have the night of their lives with the classmates. Booksmart is easily one of the best coming-of-age films of the 2010s, and the definitive teen movie of the decade.
2020s: The Half of It
As far as the 2020s go, it is hard to determine the definitive teen movie so early in the decade. 2020’s Netflix film The Half of It focuses on a very familiar plot that is common in most teen movies, but with a very fresh twist. Ellie (played by Leah Lewis) helps the high school jock Paul (played by Daniel Diemer) land the girl of his dream, but unbeknownst to Paul, the two are interested in the same girl.
The Half of It uses the very tropes that films of the 90s and early-2000s introduced, but introduces a plot that is a bit more complex. The film stands out from others like Look Both Ways and Do Revenge for its structure in rooting itself in a familiar sphere. For example, Do Revenege almost feels otherworldly and the ideas of the film are a bit fantastical. However, The Half of It seeks to ground itself in an already established sphere all while modernizing the plot.
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