Although the teen comedy has evolved over the years, from the mindless beach party movies of the 60s to the oddly sentimental debauchery featured in the modern era, at their core, the best of the genre have always shared a humorous, yet totally realistic view of how hard it is to transition into adulthood.
These movies are as much about growing pains as they are the sheer joy of being a young, dumb, hormonal human being whose only responsibility is getting good grades.
The teen comedy is unlikely to ever go away completely. They’ll simply evolve to reflect the changing environments of the modern teenager and, hopefully, continue the legacy of providing super entertaining movies that adults will never fully understand.
Just when you thought the laugh-a-minute teen movie had been all but phased out of existence, here comes Tina Fey to the rescue. Mean Girls is a painfully accurate view of high school hierarchy that masks the sting with riotously funny and occasionally nonsensical one-liners.
Mean Girls is equal parts savage and smart, and rarely feels like the scenes weren’t pulled directly from the diary of a younger version of Fey.
Rachel McAdams portrays the meanest girl with a gleefully exaggerated menace that has since been zapped out of her by the Hollywood rom-com factory, and that alone makes it a worthwhile viewing experience.
When it first hit theaters, critics were quick to dismiss it as a toothless Heathers clone, but they were mostly overlooking the point. Mean Girls isn’t meant to be all bile and grotesquery, it’s meant to remind us that underneath all the bitchiness, bravado, and self-centeredness, high school girls are still human beings. They aren’t expressly evil people. They’re just your average dickheads like the rest of us.
Brutal, unsexy honesty. That’s what separated Fast Times at Ridgemont High from the gaggle of raunchy teen comedies popping up around it during the early part of the 80s.
While a movie like Porky’s or Revenge of the Nerds would have presented the scene of Phoebe Cates walking out of the pool and unhooking her swimsuit top as a blissful moment of sexual awakening for the movie’s “heroes,” Fast Times chooses to pull the ol’ bait-and-switch, pulling the rug out from underneath the fantasy and completely betraying Judge Reinhold’s moment of gratification.
Amy Heckerling, who would go onto direct another biting classic in the genre, directed Cameron Crowe’s screenplay with a heavy hand and an unflinching voyeurism. She’s willing to expound on the virtues of sex, drugs, and rock and roll that remain the quintessential trifecta of teen life, but she’s unafraid to present them in a less than glamorous light.
It’s a smart, balanced look at what it means to come-of-age. And that requires a frank touch, a few tender moments, and yes, a whole lot of immature humor.
Oh…and SPICOLI, you guys!
While Fast Times told us how it was, Empire Records told us how it wanted it to be.
Perhaps no other example on this list better exemplifies the disparity of the teen movie as its own, disconnected sub-genre. Like musicals and horror movies, teen comedies aren’t supposed to play to audiences of all ages. And all you have to do is compare its critical score on Rotten Tomatoes (a paltry 24%) to its audience score (an adoring 84%) to understand that some of the best movies of the genre end up as cult classics.
There are certainly elements of the John Hughes dynamics present in the coming-of-age mini-stories that form the true heart and soul of Empire Records – the brutally honest romantic tries to woo the naive good girl with a taste for bad boys, the sexually adventurous popular girl is at odds with the repressed outsider who shaves her head, the stoner doofus and the overly philosophical sage are just kinda…there.
But those touchstones don’t overshadow the singular, misshapen, haphazard documentation of teen strife from inside the walls of an independent record store.
Empire Records didn’t have a unique premise or a particularly distinctive view on the growing pains of adolescence. It also didn’t have the most prestigious cast or a big, idiosyncratic climax. All it had was a simple story, solid chemistry between the actors, and endlessly quotable dialogue. As it turns out, that’s really all you need.
Sure, it’s easy to watch Clueless and pick on all of the oh-so 90s elements that date the film and occasionally keep it from retaining the status as a “timeless classic.” But underneath the baggy pants, Coolio songs, and frequent “whatevers,” there is a sharp wit and endearing lack of self-seriousness that never gets old.
Also, it presented Paul Rudd to the world. So it will always have that going for it.
Clueless is the brainchild of Amy Heckerling, who you might remember as the name behind the aforementioned Fast Times At Ridgemont High. You’d be hard-pressed to find many similarities between the two films, but there is a certain intangible that transforms what might be considered trite material into something really special.
Each character is a bit of a hypocritical dichotomy: Cher fancies herself a do-gooder who shows extreme flashes of selfishness, Dionne is a loyal friend right up until a new, more exciting comes along, and Tai is so naive it hurts, but still wields the ability to slice her friends up with razor-sharp dickishness.
That doesn’t make these characters two-faced, by the way, it just makes them normal, evolving teenagers. Such is the beauty and authenticity of Clueless.
Lloyd Dobler. Don’t we all know a Lloyd Dobler in our lives? Haven’t we all been a Lloyd Dobler at some point in our own lives? That’s certainly the thesis statement Cameron Crowe presents with John Cusack’s character in Say Anything, hoping that everyone can find enough to relate to in the eccentric, angst-ridden, hopeless romantic.
Unlike the work of John Hughes, which would eventually define an entire generation of teen movies due to its daring insights and uncompromising lens, Say Anything dives into romantic entanglements with a little bit of a safety net in tow.
Say Anything certainly has its fair share of cringe-worthy moments (Lloyd getting kicked in the face during kickboxing practice) and jilted dialogue (the ensuing conversation between Lloyd and Diane, where Ione Skye repeatedly intones the words “I need you” with all the passion of an empty suitcase), but it makes up for all of that with a genuine, heartfelt perspective.
It’s a rollercoaster of emotions, for both Dobler and the audience, but just remember that after all of the uncomfortable jolts, there’s going to be a trench-coated John Cusack waiting at the platform with a boombox heaved over his head, blasting “In Your Eyes” at full volume.
The thing about Superbad is that it understands the little moments of sweetness between all the perverse desires and raunchy humor. Naturally, with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg at the helm, there’s going to be an abundance of dick jokes (there’s an extended flashback about obsessively drawing penises in various settings), but what surprised most people is just how adept this screenwriting team was at delving into the softer side of teenage friendships.
It’s the little, seemingly unimportant things that really form the majority of our high school memories. Superbad captures those quiet moments perfectly: for instance, when you realize that your best friend is going off to a different college and rooming with your other friend, and you might soon be the outsider in your own friendship.
Of course, it’s immediately blown up into a ridiculous shenanigan and capped off with an immature one-liner, but that may be the most perfect representation of actual adolescent interactions. We dwell on the sadness, but we act out with aggression and quips about genitalia.
Superbad expertly blends the sexual desperation of American Pie, the college-bound anxiety of Orange County, and the naive desire to stay friends forever that made Stand By Me such a classic, and in doing so, becomes one itself.
The John Belushi-led Animal House is certainly far from the most nuanced movie on the list, but sometimes teen comedies need to forgo the attempts at intellectualism and just aim for the gut.
It’s non-stop raunch and vulgarity, tenuously held together at the seams by a thin plot – the Deltas, a reckless and hard-partying fraternity, are expelled and exact their slapstick brand of revenge on the university’s dean – and a barrage of juvenile jokes. So, basically, it’s exactly like most people’s first year of college.
Really though, the through-line of the movie is secondary to the countless number of iconic Belushi sight gags, from his “zit popping” moment, to the ensuing food fight, to his ladder-tipping erection.
There are no life-altering, morally-conscionable lessons to be learned here. Not unless you count “reefer will give you the uncontrollable giggles” as an important life lesson. It’s just a bunch of mostly harmless fun. And there’s something to be said for a teen comedy that goes all-in with that hand.
Most teen comedies find themselves balancing on the tightrope between reality and fantasy, often giving into a more pragmatic resolution out of a sense of moral duty, feeling a responsibility to warn their young audience that it’s not all parties and platitudes. But not Ferris Bueller. No sir.
From start to finish, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off soaks in the fantastical, letting Bueller galavant around town in every teenager’s idyllic version of a sick day. Does it matter that it’s logistically impossible for the high school senior to do everything we saw him do throughout the day? Not a bit. This is fantasy. There’s no place for that kind of rational thinking here.
Of course, the film utilizes Bueller’s best friend, Cameron, as the movie’s logical compass, tempering all of the grandiose ambitions with his Debbie Downer routine.
But even by the film’s end, when Cameron literally kicks his father’s expensive car right out of a window and sends it crashing dozens of feet to the ground, that doesn’t break the fantasy. It heightens it. Because dammit, this is a day free of worry. A day to commandeer parades and eat at an impossibly expensive restaurant and accomplish more in a single day than most kids do over the course of four years.
Most importantly it’s a day to stop and look around for a while. Because life moves pretty fast. And if you don’t, you might miss it.
Although John Hughes has basked in the angsty glow of high school politics more than any other thirty-something writer/director, it’s tough to blame him for returning to the well when the results most of those ventures yield are as seminal as this.
Every teen comedy worth its salt explored the strict dividing lines between lunch room cliques, but Breakfast Club did it best. Because Hughes gave each clique a sterling representative, and gave each representative a compelling backstory that went beyond outward appearances and provided legitimate reasons for why the jock became a jock and the dork became a dork.
But let’s not kid ourselves, The Breakfast Club isn’t endlessly re-watchable because of its attention to emotional histories. It’s the dancing montage. It’s the exaggerated chase through the halls. It’s the satisfaction in watching the diverse cast of students form a bond and then using that bond to give their principal hell and make the most of a Saturday in detention.
Still, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, and the criminal are more than the usual caricatures.
One night. That’s all Richard Linklater needs to convince you that high school can be a magical, stressful, illuminating, insignificant, life-defining, dope, bummer of a time. Sometimes all at once.
As with the other movies on this list, you’ll notice Dazed shares an appreciation of and dedication to the seemingly inconsequential parts of the high school experience: getting high, drinking beer, pulling pranks, driving around aimlessly, scamming on chicks, getting into fights, and listening to sweet tunes.
The cast is untouchable, the dialogue is natural (a rare feat in this genre), and each scene plays out with a casual assurance that really makes it feel like someone just followed a bunch of bored teens around with a camera all night.
Plus, its philosophy about high school is spot on. And the entire teenage adventure boils down to that conversation between the jocks on the football field:
Pink: All I’m saying is that if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.That’s the dichotomy of “surviving” high school in a nutshell.
Dawson: Well, all I’m saying is that I want to look back and say that I did the best I could while I was stuck in this place. Had as much fun as I could while I was stuck in this place. Played as hard as I could while I was stuck in this place…Dogged as many girls as I could while I was stuck in this place.