Establishing the origins of the teen movie is complicated by the fact that nobody seems quite sure which came first: teenagers or the teen flick. Popular opinion states that the genre came of age in the 1950s, at which time Hollywood executives started churning out films specifically catered to audiences nestled somewhere between childhood and adulthood. However, Hollywood also played a big part in forming the parameters of teenagerhood, creating lasting images of youthful rebellion with films like 1953’s The Wild One, which provided teenagers with a model of how to misbehave in the form of a lather-clad Marlon Brando.
Teenagers were still a relatively new phenomenon when films like The Wild One and Rebel Without A Cause came out. Previously, the odyssey years between the playground and the office were known simply as adolescence. However, a booming post-war economy coupled with mass consumerism, sales-oriented market research, and a new interest in the study of sociology all combined to transform what had been a vague and fleeting period into the oh-so-marketable teenage years. For filmmakers, this newly identified demographic was an essential source of revenue. It quickly became apparent that teenagers were both reliable cinema-goers and provided exciting narrative material. In 1956, Rock Around The Clock, one of the earliest films to be marketed solely to teenagers, worked wonders at the box office. Its success served as a balm to a declining Hollywood studio system, and a wave of similar movies targetted at the same demographic promptly followed.
Throughout the 1960s, beach party films like How To Stuff A Wild Bikini and Ride The Wild Surf found the perfect balance between comedy, romance and sex, establishing a neat formula that, in the 1970s, crossed over into other genres such as horror, (Carrie), musical (Grease) and romance (Love Story). Like the beach party films, slasher horror films were incredibly cheap and easy to make, usually requiring just one isolated location and a small cast. The 1970s also saw the arrival of a classic teen movie trope: the 24-hour narrative arc, which was first featured in George Lucas’ 1973 nostalgic road-trip movie American Graffiti, set on the final night of a group of teenagers’ summer vacation.
The 1980s was a golden age for high-school teen movies, the bulk of which were created by John Hughes and include films like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty In Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The emphasis on the high-school setting during this era introduced a set of archetypal characters that have since been recreated and spoofed countless times over. I am, of course, talking about the brutish jock, the platinum blonde cheerleader, and the spotty nerd. Perhaps even more influential, however, is the idea underpinning all of Hughes’ work: the concept that, as Ally Sheedy states in The Breakfast Club: “When you grow up your heart dies.” This sentiment has been the bread and butter of teen movies from the very beginning. In all the films we’ve name-checked so far, adolescence is defined by its opposition to adulthood, by the belief that adults have let their dreams fall by the waist side for the sake of stability. Hughes’ films repeatedly attempt to cast teenagerdom as a realm of transcendent understanding. Sadly, once you leave, you can never return.
The 1990s saw the release of some of the most iconic teen movies of all time, many of which owe a huge debt to their predecessors. Take Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, for example, which follows the same 24-hour structure as American Graffiti, as does 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait. The decade also saw a wave of classic texts reimagined as teen flicks, with Clueless, Ten Things I Hate About You, and Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet being the most memorable examples. While some directors were looking back to the renaissance for inspiration, the makers of films like American Pie were only going as far as the 1960s, bringing sex and comedy to the fore once again.
By the early 2000s, the teen movie had been a staple for so long that directors were able to start spoofing it left, right and centre. Films like Not Another Teen Movie, Scary Movie and Mean Girls found ample material to mock the genre’s endless list of tropes, including the obligatory nerdy-girl-get’s-hot moment. But the 2000s offered viewers more than snarky postmodernism. Films like Juno, Napolean Dynamite and Superbad attempted to recalibrate the teen flick, peeling away the artifice to make the genre infinitely more relatable.
The teen movie is in good health today and seems to be embracing a new kind of maturity. Films like Booksmart and Lady Bird utilise many of the genre’s tropes while avoiding the complacency that has haunted it over the years. Booksmart singlehandedly revitalised the genre by acknowledging that the platonic relationships we form in high school are just as important, if not more important, than the romantic ones. Yep, it looks like teen movies are here to stay.