The whole idea of the ‘teenager’ is a relatively recent phenomenon. The result of a booming post-war economy in America, parents who’d seen hard times (two world wars, a Depression and Prohibition will do that to you) wanted their kids to have the education, the privilege and the adolescence that they hadn’t had. No more military service or leaving school at thirteen to start working for a living.
Throughout the fifties, sixties and even seventies, teenagers were viewed as the product of indulgence, a pupal stage between childhood and adulthood that had somehow developed the ability to answer back and raid the liquor cabinet.
Art imitating life, that’s how movies about teenagers portrayed them: as rebellious, inarticulate dopes and mopes, children in near-adult bodies, heaving masses of hormonal drama and angst. Then the eighties kicked in, and those movies changed.
It was second generation syndrome. Instead of movies about teenagers by adults, intent on exploiting the new market with melodrama like Splendor In The Grass or dumbass sex comedies like Porky’s, the teenagers of the fifties and sixties had had teenagers of their own, and had begun making movies for those teenagers.
Ever since, teen movies have played a crucial role in defining whole generations of high school and college kids in popular culture. From the spikily-soundtracked contrarians of the eighties through the fashionista debutantes of the nineties and the self-referential metafests of the noughties, these are ten of the most inspirational teen movies you’ll ever see.
10. Mean Girls (2004)
“Calling somebody else fat won't make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn't make you any smarter.”
The high water mark for Lindsay Lohan’s acting career is actually pretty damn high indeed. New kid Cady Heron becomes a part of the popular girls’ clique at the school in order to ridicule them with her misfit friends, but finds that being a ‘mean girl’ is contagious…
Written by Tina Fey, based on a non-fiction book about helping your daughter survive high school with her self respect intact, the screenplay is about half and half comedy and sociological experiment. Unlike Heathers, whose protagonist finds herself in a similar boat, Mean Girls takes pains to allow the audience to empathise with all of the characters on show, not just the ‘underdog’ unpopular kids.
Mean Girls avoids cliché as much as possible, while still hitting all the right genre touchstones for a good teen flick - and this is a great teen flick, self-deprecatingly funny, charming and heartfelt. Cady’s complete inexperience with the high school dynamic allows for some cogent moments of clarity - like when she realises that until she started at high school, "I had never lived in a world where adults didn't trust me."
That’s a key experience for many people that age: having your power, your agency removed from you at a time when you need it to discover exactly who you are and who you want to be, because ‘teenagers can’t be trusted’.
The real story of Mean Girls is that Cady turns the problem around on her own: she sees how she screwed up, apologises, makes amends and gladly returns to being a math nerd, all without requiring the guidance of a wise best friend, sister, teacher or parent. Sometimes teenagers really can be trusted.