Teen Speak: Do Teen Movies Still Put Bums on Seats?

Emma Farley

Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk






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The emergence of teen films is a big part of film history. The teen film genre is instantly recognisable with its stock characters (teenagers, parents, teachers, high school cliques), locations (shopping malls, school, bars) and situations (relationships, parents not understanding their children, sex, growing up and fearing change/adulthood). Even though character types have varied over the last fifty years, deep down narratives are still the same.

Film has strong links with identity as when we watch a film we look for representations of ourselves. Genre films are more accessible and are are interesting as they change over time and hybrids develop. They are also reflectionist – they reflect social attitudes as films embody the basic anxieties and values of a society. Many people, particularly young people, turn to films to discover more about themselves and develop their identities. They are a key audience as they are the biggest consumers and have a large disposable income.

Teen film narratives focus on issues facing teens giving them something to relate to – teens seek representations of themselves. Teen films help teens to make sense of the world and themselves in it; make sense of their lives. They need to know that they aren't alone in how they are feeling, so there is a kind of universal truth in these films. It is important in teen films that the boundaries between cliques are broken and the teenagers come to some sort of understanding, such as The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985), Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1989) and Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004). A lot of the entertainment value in film lies in identification.

Teen films are popular all over the world, they are not a Hollywood genre. Key youth films from World Cinema include the French film La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995) about the riots in Paris in the 1990s, Lilya-4-Ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2002) about a girl living in Estonia who falls into prostitution and Real Women Have Curves (Patricia Cardoso, 2002) which is a coming-of-age story about a Mexican-American girl living in Los Angeles. Not all teen films are mainstream and indie films such as Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007), Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005) and Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004) have proved that there is a bigger audience for these kinds of films than first thought.  

The cinema was popular with teens in the 1920s and 1930s. At this time, films about teenagers focused on adult fears of youth rather than discussing the problems and issues that teenagers had to face. Attendance grew in the 1940s and 1950s but hit a slump with the introduction of television. After the Second World War, teenagers became a distinct social group and seemed to be the only people still going to the cinema. They had a new found independence and freedom and producers realised this was the group to target if they wanted to continue to make money.

Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) is one of the most famous teen films of all time and is still popular with teenagers today. James Dean is the typical teen rebel and was the spokesperson for an entire generation of teenagers. Stars are hugely influential and are a big source of pleasure and identification in film. After the release of Rebel, t-shirt sales soared and red jackets were also popular. James Dean was the first rebel and gave teenagers an identity. The film still matters to teens today as people who weren't even born when it was first released can relate to the characters.

Some would argue that Rebel is quite dated. The Hays Production Code was in force until 1968, so films were quite heavily restricted at the time of Rebel's release. If it was re-made today, the chances are Jim and Judy would have a more physical relationship, guns would be used instead of knives and the characters would be working class. However, part of the charm of Rebel is its innocence. It is also very character-driven. Up until Rebel, teens were seen as a problem that needed to be understood and solved.  

What makes Rebel so unique is that it is about ordinary children in an ordinary neighbourhood. Middle class children have problems too – delinquency isn't restricted to the ghetto, as is seen in such films as Boyz N The Hood (John Singleton, 1991) and City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002).

The late 1970s and early 1980s was an era during which experimentation with sex and drugs among young people was on the increase. The Hays Code was abandoned in 1968 so, although restrictions were still in place, filmmakers were able to increase the content regarding such issues. To keep audiences going to the cinema, had to keep up with changing interests and lifestyles among teenagers to continue making a profit. This meant that teenagers were offered more within the genre in terms of characters and situations that related to their own personal lives.

History is an important aspect of film analysis as the time of reception needs to be considered. Although a film may seem dated on viewing forty years after it was made, at the time of its original release, society was different and so the film says a lot about the time it was made, not just the time it represents. Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978) was made in the 1970s but set in the 1950s.  

Grease is quite risqué and makes a few brief references to sex and teen pregnancy. Kenickie and Rizzo are about to have sex in the back seat of Kenickie's car when the condom splits. They decide to have sex anywhere and Rizzo has a pregnancy scare. Although the Hays Production was no longer enforced at the time of the release, filmmakers still have a moral obligation to film audiences. They cannot be seen to encourage unsafe sex. It is also worth noting that it was rare to feature teen pregnancy in films at this time. It has become a more acceptable narrative in recent years with Fast Times At Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982), Save The Last Dance (Thomas Carter, 2001) and Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007).

The 1980s was a seminal decade for teen movies. Writer/director John Hughes was responsible for many such films including Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986) and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1985) and many stars appeared in different teen films during this era, such as Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore and Rob Lowe.

Like Rebel, The Breakfast Club is a classic teen film that still resonates with contemporary audiences. Hughes often used the idea of parents not understanding their children in his films, particularly fathers. Here we have five typical teen movie characters: Claire (the princess), Andrew (the athlete), Allison (the basket case), John (the criminal) and Brian (the brain). In the essay Brian writes on behalf of the group for Mr Vernon, he says: “you see us how you want to see us. In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions”. He confesses that that was how they saw each other at the start of the day but they came to realise that they are actually very similar. They are in fact much deeper and more similar than their stereotypes suggest. The essay challenged Mr Vernon and his judgements of the students – their judgements of each other are also challenged and change during their time in detention. We have a need to lump people together and try to define ourselves and those around us.

Films react to social change and can provide audiences with a way of dealing with such changes. There was a spate of teen suicides in America in 1986 and 1987 – Heathers was a product of that. Released in 1989, the film was a dark comedy about murder and suicide in a high school and included one disturbed teenager blowing himself up at the end of the film. It was a whole new kind of teen movie, full of the typical cliques and clichés but with a different view. Instead of focusing on a teen who wanted to become part of a clique, here was one who was part of one but desperately wanted to get out. This was clearly a pre-1990s movie.

The 1990s was a notable decade not just for teen movies but for teenagers themselves. This was the decade that Kurt Cobain committed suicide (1994) and the Columbine shootings took place (1999). As a result, filmmakers had to be careful about the way they represented high school as teenagers are considered to be highly influential, especially where the media is concerned.

People reject the unfamiliar, which is why older generations tend to have problems with teen films. They think they will try to imitate the content. Despite the fact that they were once teenagers themselves, they reject these films because they can't relate to the current situations, even though the genre itself is familiar. They disapprove of the subject matter and think it is sending out wrong messages to young people, particularly regarding such issues as sex, drugs and the age old issue of respecting your elders. They often experience culture shock when watching a teen film because the dialogue, music, fashions and values are difficult for them to understand.

Teen films declined in the late 1980s and were re-invented in the mid-1990s. The producers of American Pie (Chris and Paul Weitz, 1999) wanted to make a film that was a true representation of the teens of the time and so made a teen sex comedy with a R-rating. Like The Breakfast Club, here characters often make assumptions about each other. Oz, the typical jock, is told he needs to be more sensitive. He assumes that if he tries to be more sensitive he can pull a choir girl. Stifler says to him: “you're expecting to score with some goody-goody choir girl priss?” This judgement is later challenged with the choir girl tells Oz that the choir isn't all she is and she is a lot more like him than he thinks.

A lot of older teen films influence the contemporaries, such as Porky's and American Pie and Rebel and Grease. As in Heathers, Mean Girls is about high school cliques and uses the female rivalry in such groups for comedic value. The clique here is The Plastic and the clue here is in the name. Everything about this group is fake, from their hair colour to their noses. They determine what is hot and what is not at the school – they are the leaders in every sense.

Cliques have always existed in school and will continue to do so. This is an aspect of teen film that will always apply because it always be relevant, as will the problem of parents not understanding their children, the idea of the future and not knowing what to do with your life. Nobody know what to do with the rest of their life when they are 15. Kids today are still struggling to find their way and fit in. Films like this let teenagers know that they are not alone in how they are feeling and they shouldn't feel the need to conform and make difficult decisions about their life when they are not ready.

Genres are constantly evolving and the various movies mean different things to different people. Teen films of each generation serve the interests of the teenage subculture and always manage to incorporate new ideas for the next generation, keeping bums on seats and giving teenagers a point of identification.

A lot of the pre-1990s teen movies seem dated now – the issues of social prejudice and working class vs middle class values in To Sir, With Love (James Clavell, 1967) are less relevant today as teenagers today don't necessarily leave school and get married and have children straight away - many go to university rather than straight to work. Teenagers have more options today than they did fifty years ago. The fashions and music in The Breakfast Club are also seriously outdated to the point where it borders on embarrassment for anyone who remembers the film from the first time around. None of these issues matter, however, as the underlying themes are still the same, the character types still exist and teenagers face many of the same issues as they did fifty years ago; the primary issues haven't changed.  

On The Breakfast Club DVD features, Diablo Cody, screenwriter of Juno, pointed out that any kind of film can be a teen film. It is just a story told from a teenager's point of view. Their feelings are just as valid as any adult's. There will be always be an audience for this kind of film. There will always be teenagers and they as long as there is film, there will be something for them to turn to. High school experiences are similar all over the world and the character types still exist today. There are still basket cases, criminals, athletes, brains and princesses. The only difference is now there are different paths young people can take. They can be whatever they want to be. But as the world changed teenagers are faced with more problems and different decisions. The issues teenagers faced in the 1950s, such as peer pressure and relationships are the same issues that they face today, only now there is that extra layer or pressure that comes with living in a more complex world. Now teenagers are forced to grow up quicker and make adult decisions at a much younger age.

Teen films change because the world changes in terms of attitudes, fashion, music, values, etc. The world is constantly changing and so film audiences are always changing. Teen films will always be popular as there will always be an audience for them. The trick is to be able to find a way to relate to the audience – either appeal to the older generation through nostalgia or use current issues to reach the contemporaries.

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