"The normal qualities of youth are naivety, idealism, humour, hatred of tradition, erotomania, and a sense of injustice" - French film critic Robert Benayoun.

Teen movies as a genre pose a definitional challenge largely because this genre is defined not so much by its narrative characteristics as it is by the demographic that the films are about and to whom they are directed.

What isn't contested is what drives the teen film industry. Disposable income. The teen movie emerged as the relatively wealthy American baby boomer teens had cash to burn. As teens asserted themselves as a social group distinct from adults in the mid 1950s, Hollywood collectively decided to juvenilize its content and reap the bountiful rewards. Whilst early attempts at the teen film lack the modern hallmarks of the genre, the central message was essentially the same: Parents just don't understand. Movies such as "Blackboard Jungle" and "Rebel without a Cause" catered to disillusioned youth wanting to rebel for rebellion's sake, or at least, wear leather in public.

Indeed the new popular music of the era, rock and roll seemed inexorably tied to the teen movie genre, and further underlined the emergent rebellion of teenagers against the old folk. Soon after the release of "Blackboard Jungle" and its subsequent hit song, "Rock Around the Clock", Variety magazine warned:

Rock 'n' roll - the most explosive show biz phenomenon of the decade - may be getting too hot to handle. While its money-making potential has made it all but irresistible to Hollywood, its Svengali grip on the teenagers has produced a staggering wave of juvenile violence and mayhem.

American movie theatres were caught between a "desire for teenage dollars and dread for teenage violence"1, a problem that could only be solved by one man, Elvis Presley. By the end of 1957, the King had made made three completely inoffensive teen movies: "Love Me Tender", "Loving You", and "Jailhouse Rock", all of which featured titular hits. Elvis trailblazed into the 1960s, opening the way for a tsunami of teen Beach Party movies. Think Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello or Fabian. From here, the teen genre faded into obscurity, mostly as a result of changing tastes of aging boomers. They were having children themselves, and teen rebellion was a thing of the past.

Through the 1970s, the genre lay dormant. Notable exceptions were teen musicals "Saturday Night Fever" or "Grease"; George Lucas' "American Graffiti"; and National Lampoon's "Animal House". It wasn't until the boomer children got some spending power that things began to get a bit lively.

"(I) feel like I'm in a John Hughes rite-de-passage movie" - Wayne, in "Wayne's World"

John Hughes changed everything. In his series of 80's teen flicks, Hughes managed to reignite the genre almost overnight. The Hughes style of teen movie was breezy, formulaic, and above all, very profitable. What distinguishes Hughes' oeuvre is his trademark of blending social commentary with the awkwardness of puberty. Brat pack film "The Breakfast Club" is still widely viewed as a classic, transcending generational barriers and echoing out as much to the current flock of teen film makers as to the last. Hughes launched the careers of actors Broderick, Estevez, Sheedy, Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall; actors synomynous with the genre which spawned them, propelling some to more varied projects, miring the others in an endless stream of type-casting.

Although the late 80s saw a waning of interest, self-confessed John Hughes fanatic, Kevin Williamson, helped revive two ailing genres at once - teen and horror. "Scream" shows all of characteristics of a 1990s teen movie - ironic dialogue and gratuitous self-parody, rampant trans-genre pillaging, and a horde of fresh-faced actorbots. Not only did "Scream" spin off into an endless stream of sequels, but inspired Hollywood to fund the new generation of teen film, from "Bring It On" to "American Pie" to dare I say, "Starship Troopers".

Selected Viewing2:

  • "Blackboard Jungle" (1955) - The Eisenhower administration kept it from being shown at the Venice Film Festival. And it wasn't because of Sidney Poitier.
  • "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965) - Even typing those words makes me feel slightly nauseous. With a tagline like "It's the game that separates the girls and the boys...into groups of two!" and a character named Eric Von Zipper, it is no wonder there wasn't a decent teen film during for the next decade
  • "Revenge of the Nerds" (1984) - This spun the plot element essential to all teen movies - Jocks versus Nerds - into an entire series. Was it really worth it?
  • "Sixteen Candles" (1984) or "The Breakfast Club" (1985) - His Master's Finest. Every teen movie requires bonding, no matter how badly written and poorly executed.
  • "Starship Troopers" (1997) - End of high school drama, following an impossibly attractive ensemble cast as they fight GIANT BUGS IN SPACE! Required nerd content provided by Doogie Howser, MD.

Footnotes

  1. Quotes from Thomas Doherty (1988). Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s . Unwin Hyman Ltd: London.
  2. I know you're asking why I didn't include Weird Science or Risky Business or Bring It On or Dude, Where's my Car? or every movie containing Matthew Broderick. I'm trying to showcase a range of films in the genre through the decades, not make a "best of" list.

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