Teen Films

I can trace my enduring fascination with teen films back to a specific moment in my personal history: when I moved to the U.S. in my early twenties to go to graduate school. When I arrived here, I had seen almost no teen movies, in any language, but as soon as I encountered my first examples of the genre (Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge, Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia, Brian De Palma’s Carrie), I was instantly captivated. As a young immigrant fashioning a new life in a land whose strangeness and otherness simultaneously attracted and disoriented me on a daily basis, I resonated deeply with the doubt, anxiety and excitement of teenage life as represented in these films.

But the factor that played the biggest role in the deep affinity I developed with teen movies had to do with my cinephilia: specifically, the continuity I felt, on multiple levels, between American teen films and the movies that gave birth to my passion for cinema in the first place—1970s Hindi popular cinema.

Two quick clarifications. I will use 1970s here to designate a period spanning the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s. Further, I will not use the word “Bollywood” — I’m with those who use this term to refer only to contemporary Hindi popular cinema, and not all Hindi popular cinema from all periods of film history.

Now, what makes the continuity between the two very different cinemas particularly interesting is that the genre of the “teen movie” is non-existent in ‘70s Hindi cinema. Nevertheless, a close look reveals that American teen movies and ‘70s Hindi popular cinema are fundamentally similar in at least three ways.

1. They deeply value the principles of energy, speed, and moment-to-moment invention. Ironically, it wasn’t until I read the critic Manny Farber, later in life, that the shared traits of the two cinemas began to emerge for me. In a wonderful tribute paid by one critic to another, Donald Phelps wrote of Farber’s writing that it “advances horizontally, in all possible directions, never seeming to exist for a simple progress from A to B […] What really, valuably alarms about his writing is […] its wildness.”

What strikes me as curious about Phelps’ essay is how similar his characterization of Farber’s writing is to Farber’s own idea of “termite art,” which prizes movement, vigor, and constant invention, but without ambitions or aspirations to ‘importance’. I’m reminded immediately of the rich and unceasing inventiveness of films as ostensibly dissimilar as Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995) and Amar Akbar Anthony (Manmohan Desai, 1977).

The material that forms the basis of Clueless’ constant creativity is that of pop-cultural knowledge: fashion, dating practices, music, even the construction, in one scene, of an anthropological classification of the various communities in high school. For Lesley Stern, Clueless creates an entire “fictional ethnography” that includes, among many things, an imaginative lexicon. (The Jane Austen Society of Australia maintains a page that catalogs all the slang and neologisms in the film.)

Amar Akbar Anthony, set a world away, is, if anything, even more fast and furious in its inventiveness than Clueless. This is one of the great unclassifiable films in cinema, but while it does lie at the outer limits of imagination and zaniness, it is not atypical in Hindi popular cinema. This ‘masala’ classic is many things: a family melodrama, a slapstick comedy, an action film, an ethnic farce, a gangster film — and let’s not forget its many great song and dance sequences. Philip Lutgendorf provides a packed description of it; he begins with tragedy and intrigue, and passes through decades of time to what appears to be a great climax — only to then confess to us that we have only arrived at the opening credit sequence, after a 25-minute prologue!

2. A passionate embrace of ‘low’ culture, fearlessly combining it with ‘high’ themes of social critique and commentary, but doing so without aiming for cultural prestige or respectability. Years before Slumdog Millionaire’s opportunistic and superficial portrayal of the poverty-ridden Bombay slum known as Dharavi, Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975), one of the canonical Hindi films, shows us great, powerful, documentary images of this site. The film is set in motion by the struggles of a workers’ union against greedy and murderous capitalist factory owners. Poor people – their way of life, their folk customs, their music and dance – are everywhere in Hindi popular cinema of this period. It is extremely common for protagonists to belong to the working class in these films, so much that films with predominantly middle-class characters were tagged by critics as a separate genre, “middle cinema”.

Something similar can be seen in American teen movies. In Abel Ferrara’s modern-day Romeo-and-Juliet teen drama, China Girl (1987), the Italian boy and the Chinese girl meet while dancing in a crowded disco. But earlier, the hard-hitting opening of the film (like the fiery union demonstrations that open Deewaar) quietly lays out the terrain of bitter rivalry and ethnic hatred: a series of close-ups of Italians watching impassively as the first Chinese business hoists its sign on their street in Little Italy.

Another example: Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986) is driven by a wonderful pop music soundtrack, but it is also very seriously a film about class difference. The vitality of ‘low’, DIY culture (Molly Ringwald’s colorful clothes are self-designed and self-made) is opposed to the bloodless enervation of the rich (James Spader and Andrew McCarthy most frequently wear white, pale blue, light gray and beige). Like the opening (political, materialist) images of Deewaar and China Girl, Pretty in Pink’s first shot is of a street sweeping machine moving through Ringwald’s working class neighborhood at sunrise. The camera pans to show us train tracks, thus underlining the part of town in which she lives (the ‘wrong side of the tracks’).

3. A pervasive use of – and devotion to – popular music. I particularly love the way that music is present so powerfully in both cinemas that its use extends actively into both the diegetic and non-diegetic realms. Music is part of the story world of Pretty in Pink (the scenes in Trax, the record store; and a live performance by the Pittsburgh punk-pop group The Rave-Ups) but also comprises its extremely popular soundtrack. A different and particularly intriguing instance of this diegetic/non-diegetic mix can be found in a scene from Allan Moyle’s Times Square (1980), in which Robin Johnson is striding down the sidewalk of a busy New York street, dragging a cart behind her, with Roxy Music’s “Same Old Scene” playing on the soundtrack. She turns into a dark alley, pulls out an electric guitar and amp from the cart, and begins flailing away at the guitar … to the song on the soundtrack! She goes in and out of tune and rhythm with the song, furthering our confusion (where is that song actually coming from?), until we see, in a corner of the frame, a boom box in her cart. Times Square also boasts a marvelous double-LP soundtrack.

The ubiquity of singing and dancing in Hindi popular cinema is, of course, legendary. The reason the “musical” genre doesn’t formally exist in India is precisely because nearly all popular films of the ‘70s, de rigueur, contain song and dance sequences.

* * *

Teen films don’t get nearly as much serious attention and thought from cinephiles, critics and scholars as they should. And so I invite you all to name a few of your favorite lesser-known teen films. (Please define “lesser-known” as loosely as you like.) I would love to get acquainted with some good teen films I’ve not seen. Thank you!

* * *

Along with about twenty writers, I contributed a piece to a new bilingual dossier called “Teen Moments” in the Spanish film magazine Transit . The pieces appear in two sections, as marked. The dossier opens with Adrian Martin’s introductory essay, “Live to Tell”.

Part One:

Sergi Sánchez on Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
Girish Shambu on Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)
Daniel de Partearroyo on L’âge atomique (Hélena Klotz, 2012)
Cristina Álvarez López on The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)
Toni Junyent on Happy Campers (Daniel Waters, 2001)
Adrian Martin on Never Been Kissed (Raja Gosnell, 1999)
Albert Elduque on Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957)
Stephanie Van Schilt on Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
Pablo Vázquez on Lemon Popsicle (Boaz Davidson, 1978) / The Last American Virgin (Boaz Davidson, 1982)

Part Two:

Ricardo Adalia Martín on Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)
Yusef Sayed on The Legend of Billie Jean (Matthew Robbins, 1985)
Carlos Losilla on El sur (Víctor Erice, 1983)
Óscar Navales on Wild Boys of the Road (William A. Wellman, 1933)
Sarinah Masukor on Stealing Beauty (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1996)
Carles Matamoros Balasch on Back to Stay (Milagros Mumenthaler, 2011)
Covadonga G. Lahera on Confessions (Kokuhaku, Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)
Sergio Morera on Whip It (Drew Barrymore, 2009)
Laura Ellen Joyce on Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011)
Antoni Peris i Grao on The Aviator’s Wife (Éric Rohmer, 1981)

Comments (17):

  1. Chuck

    February 12, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    These are pretty familiar (and since you mentioned Moyle, I'd imagine you've seen them), but I've always been a fan of "Pump up the Volume" and "Empire Records." Both–quite obviously–have major connections to music.

    I also enjoy all of the late-1980s Savage Steve Holland films, especially "How I got into College." More recently, "Accepted" seems to have capitalized on a similar sense of energy and an oddly charming DIY ethos. Plus, Lewis Black!

  2. Anonymous

    February 12, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    Detention deserves at least the same attention other teen films got. Hope someone will write about it.

  3. Peter Nellhaus

    February 12, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    One film I liked a lot was Shunji Iwai's Alice and Hana. I also just saw Toshiaki Toyoda's Blue Spring. The Thai critical and popular success, My Girl is available on Netflix Instant.

    Also, another vote for Savage Steve Holland. My favorite is his debut, Better Off Dead.

  4. Mike Grost

    February 12, 2013 at 3:58 pm

    From the 1980's:

    Porky's (Bob Clark)
    Grease 2 (Patricia Birch)
    The Lords of Discipline (Franc Roddam)
    Porky's II: The Next Day (Bob Clark)
    Valley Girl (Martha Coolidge)
    Footloose (Herbert Ross)
    Oxford Blues (Robert Boris)
    Girls Just Want To Have Fun (Alan Metter)
    The Heavenly Kid (Cary Medoway)
    Just One of The Guys (Lisa Gottlieb)
    The Legend of Billie Jean (Matthew Robbins)
    Mask (Peter Bogdanovich)
    Rappin (Joel Silberg)
    Real Genius (Martha Coolidge)
    Tuff Turf (Fritz Kiersch)
    Vision Quest (Harold Becker)
    Dangerously Close (Albert Pyun)
    Modern Girls (Jerry Kramer)
    La Bamba (Luis Valdez)
    Campus Man (Ron Casden)
    Stand and Deliver (Ramon Menendez)
    Student Exchange (Mollie Miller)
    Shag (Zelda Barron)
    Damnation (Béla Tarr)

    Pop quiz: Which one of the above is NOT a teen movie?

  5. Sean Rogers

    February 12, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Wonderful post, Girish! I see Adrian Martin mentioned VALLEY GIRL in his essay, which was one of my favourite recent discoveries; another is LADIES AND GENTLEMEN THE FABULOUS STAINS. Both feature ongoing concerns about class divides, strong connections with music, and distinctive location shooting.

  6. Brian Darr

    February 12, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Some of my favorites (in addition to aforementioned films like Rebel Without A Cause, Carrie and Times Square) include:

    Borzage's No Greater Glory & Young America, Wellman's Mayor of Hell & DeMille's This Day and Age– the latter has more of a co-ed cast of youths than the first three in this pre-code set, and therefore may hold more affinity with the other films discussed here.

    Altman's first film The Delinquents is my favorite of the Rebel Without A Cause-inspired wave of teen films made just as the first baby boomers were hitting preteen- and teen-dom.

    I also love about 96% of his 80s wave film O.C. And Stiggs. Also a fan of Adrian Lyne's Foxes. The teen film that affected me most during my own teenage years was Lucas by David Seltzer. Revisiting it a few years ago on the big screen it held up remarkably well. A lot of 70s-90s teen movies play the Castro Theatre to appreciative audiences thanks to my friend Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, which reminds me of a pair of 1970s oddities Ficks has shown, that perhaps do and perhaps don't belong in this discussion are Alan Parker's gangster musical Bugsy Malone and Richard Lerner's high-school set soft-core-porn (co-written by Nathaniel Dorsky) Revenge of the Cheerleaders.

    Some of my favorite 21st Century teen films have come from Japan. Two of the best in my book are Akihiko Shiota's Harmful Insect (which is pretty dark) and Nobuhiro Yamashita's Linda Linda Linda (which is not).

  7. Anuj Malhotra

    February 12, 2013 at 6:59 pm


    This is an essential post. Nomenclature-related confusion is, I believe, one of the reasons 'teen movies' aren't considered seriously or looked at with a prism of judgment reserved generally for more 'important' films is. Popular culture usually classifies 'teen cinema' as cinema meant for teenage audiences (though that by itself is not a minor achievement as well) as opposed to how we should actually be seeing it – films with teenagers in them, or if you will, teen-spirit. Considering how full of confusion, discovery, vulnerability, revolution, anger and fear teenage actually is, one would believe that it should actually be a fertile source for a filmmaker or a documentarist of any sort. It is also interesting how many 70s Hindi films actually did feature a number of teenage-characters who were vessels of these very feelings. Rishi Kapoor, incidentally, featured in atleast three films where he played such a character – his debut in his father's very ambitious Mera Naam Joker (1971), the follow-up and its logical extension, Bobby (1973) and the title you discussed, Amar Akbar Anthony (1977); in all these films, he played a teenager or someone barely-not, and was channeling in each a sort of revolution; sexual, social and communal, respectively. There are other films too – such as Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Mili, Guddi and Bawarchi, as also Basu Chatterjee's Khatta Meetha which featured teenage characters who were written with a definite appreciation for human complexity.

    Among recent films, I believe Michel Gondry's vastly overlooked The We and the I is an excellent teen movie, and then there are, of course, Moonrise Kingdom and also, The Class.

  8. Cristina Álvarez

    February 13, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    This post is beautiful, Girish!!

    Regarding this idea that Anuj comments (teen cinema as a cinema meant for teenage audiences) there’s another curious paradox I’ve experienced and don’t know if other people share: there were very few teen movies that caught my attention when I was a teenager. It has been only recently that I came to appreciate them. Of course there’s an obvious explanation to this: today I’m more aware of their cinematic values, but I also have the sense that in my teen years it was really dificult for me to feel any kind of identification with the characters and problems portrayed by these movies. I think this may be related to some sense of uniqueness and authenticity of the teenage-me, like if my life/feelings/experiences could not be shared or compared to other lives/feelings/experiences. And it’s only now, with the distance, when, at last, I can feel really close and related to many things portrayed in teen movies.

    So, some non-American teen movies that I love and have not been mentioned here yet (and you may or may not have seen):
    -Uli Edel’s ‘Christiane F.’, this one has everything you comment in your post: a very dark energy and intensity, actors that have the same age as their characters (not so common in American cinema), social critique deployed through cinematic references, mix of fiction and documentary, lots of music, and David Bowie in the best fan-idol scene ever!!
    -Teresa Villaverde’s ‘Os mutantes’, very strong movie about kids raised in social centers and struggling with the absence of a family.
    -Carlos Saura’s ‘Deprisa, deprisa’ (in English: 'Fast, fast'), specially for this wonderful scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FsYLnkf9a0
    -Jerzy Skolimiwski’s ‘Deep End’, very bleak teen movie, full of cinematic invention, beautiful work with colour. SIMPLY AMAZEBALLS.
    – And ‘Atomic Age’ directed by Héléna Klotz, maybe the greatest teen movie I saw last year.

  9. Fredrik Gustafsson

    February 13, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    Excellent post! I'd like to add Roy Andersson's magnificent A Swedish Love Story from 1969.

    It's not a favourite but should Bergman's Summer With Monika be counted as a teen film?

    A recent one that hasn't been mentioned here is Easy A with Emma Stone. It's a great film.

  10. Joel Bocko

    February 14, 2013 at 3:51 am

    Growing up from the mid 90s to early 00s I was always bothered by how the American cinema didn't really seem able to 'get' my generation's teen experience. It's interesting you bring up music because one of the biggest disconnects to me was how all teen movies (at least the ones not set in the inner city, which is to say almost all of them) used the limp rock music of the time eater than hip-hop which felt much more alive and energetic in this period. As a result of this and other creative decisions, I think teen movies of this period felt more 'limp' than teen movies of the 80s, say, or even early 90s, when Hollywood may have had a better sense of the zeitgeist.

    I wonder how they are doing with today's kids? Probably not so well, considering that 10 years into adulthood, they STILL haven't figured out my own generation…

  11. ZC

    February 14, 2013 at 4:14 am

    Girish, have you seen Myth of the American Sleepover? I can't recall at the moment – it's possible that you've seen it and it was even something you said about it got me to catch it myself. But I love that film a little bit; it's such a sharp recapitulation of a few decades' of nostalgia – on a single viewing I'm not even sure if it's much more than that, but fans of teen movies who haven't seen it would do well to check out its charming textures & tropes.

  12. girish

    February 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Thank you, all, for so many great suggestions and ideas!

    Chuck and Peter, yikes, I'd not even heard of Savage Steve Holland until you both mentioned him. (I'd heard of the films, but haven't seen them).

    Gekko, I've just rented DETENTION.

    Fredrik, I've sent away for the Roy Andersson film, which is available on DVD in the UK but not here.

    Brian, I must see LUCAS, which has long been on my radar because you recommended it to me a few years ago. I also like both HARMFUL INSECT and LINDA LINDA LINDA very much.

    Cristina, I've seen NONE of the films you recommend! I'm about to order CHRISTIANE F. and DEEP END from the UK. DEPRISA, DEPRISA (for those in the USA) is streaming in HD at Hulu Plus.

    Anuj, GUDDI also reminds of its Tamil remake, CINEMA PAYITHIYAM (1975), in which actress Jaya Chitra plays the Jaya Bhaduri role. It is an interesting, paranoid cautionary tale about cinema's "negative powers" and its "corrupting" influence on Tamil teenagers.

    Joel, it's interesting to me that there is a bit of a disconnect between the avowed values of the characters in films like VALLEY GIRL (Nicholas Cage) and TIMES SQUARE (Robin Johnson)–and the music (both diegetic and non-diegetic) used in the films. Cage and Johnson both have a strongly "punkish" persona and sensibility in those films, but the music featured in those films isn't really punk. In VALLEY GIRL, it's a kind of indie guitar pop (Peter Case/The Plimsouls), and the climactic, closing music in TIMES SQUARE happens to be … by the Bee Gees!

    One film that has a complete consistency and continuity between the ethos, lifestyle and attitudes of the characters and the music on its soundtrack is Penelope Spheeris's SUBURBIA (a film too little talked about)…

    Zach, I think you recommended MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER on your Facebook page a year or so ago. Based on that recommendation, I rented it, and really liked it. In contrast to so many of the archetypal teen films (like those by John Hughes or Amy Heckerling), all of which have a certain energy in common (whether it's a positive energy fueled by the editing style or by the pop music on the soundtrack; or a negative energy that springs from the angst and restlessness of the characters), MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER turned out to be a very muted and contemplative film, with a "low-volume" soundtrack and relatively long takes, which turned out to be a nice surprise…

  13. girish

    February 15, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    P.S. Sean, I managed to catch up with THE FABULOUS STAINS on Netflix streaming last year–a good film with very interesting casting. (A backing band composed of members of the Clash AND the Sex Pistols? Wow.)

  14. celinejulie

    February 17, 2013 at 10:33 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. celinejulie

    February 17, 2013 at 10:34 am

    My favorite teen films include:

    1. THE CHERRY ORCHARD (1990, Shun Nakahara, Japan)
    2. ENFIN (2012, Sitthipong Wong-ard, Thailand)
    3. LIGHTS OUT (2010, Fabrice Gobert, France)
    4. NIGHT TIME PICNIC (2006, Masahiko Nagasawa, Japan)
    5. NOTHING CAN TOUCH ME (2011, Milad Alami, Denmark)
    6. OTHER GIRLS (2000, Caroline Vignal, France)
    7. STRONG SHOULDERS (2003, Ursula Meier, Switzerland)
    8. TEEN STORIES 2002-2008 (2010, Béatrice Bakhti, Switzerland, documentary, 397 minutes)
    9. THIS WINDOW IS YOURS (1994, Tomoyuki Furumaya, Japan)
    10. TYPHOON CLUB (1985, Shinji Somai, Japan)

    I also make a list of my twenty favorite films about young girls here: http://celinejulie.blogspot.com/2008/06/poll-23-young-girls.html

  16. Unknown

    February 18, 2013 at 6:31 pm


    Have you checked out any of Nobuhiko Obayashi's works, particularly SCHOOL IN THE CROSSHAIRS (1981) or THE LITTLE GIRL WHO CONQUERED TIME (1983)? They display a fascinating mixture of genres and fluctuate between fairly complex teen anxieties of identity and desire with pop sensibilities of fashion and music. But are rather slow and normal in comparison to the more well known HOUSE.

    also, THE RUNAWAYS (2010).

  17. girish

    February 19, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    Thank you, Jit and Andrew.

    Of Obayashi's work I know only HOUSE, so I'm excited to explore the other films.

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