Before the 1950s, filmmakers didn’t think about teenagers as anything other than adults-in-waiting—accessories to the adult characters in films. That changed circa the release of Nicholas Ray’s 1955 James Dean star vehicle Rebel Without a Cause, the success of which made studios realize that teens were driving around in their own cars and occasionally spending their disposable income on movies.
After that, we started to see movies that depicted the (melo)dramatic inner lives of teens alongside comedies specifically geared to hit with younger audience. By the 1970s, the genre was even established enough to generate a wave of movies that were nostalgic for those earlier teen flicks themselves. By the ‘80s, many of the biggest box office hits were directed almost solely at teens.
The genre has seen a decline in recent years, mostly because studios are more interested in four-quadrant movies that will sell to every demographic at once, but we’ll never go back to a time when teens weren’t a major movie market. Here are 30 classics to watch for evidence of why we shouldn’t want to.
Back to the Future (1985)
For all of it’s epic sci-fi trappings (including a score that goes much harder than that of a typical teen comedy), there’s a simple concept at play here: What if a modern teen (well, circa 1985) were able to meet and interact with his parents when they were the same age. Would they be friends? Would his handsy mom make a move? These are big, existential questions in a movie set in high schools in two different decades.
It’s perhaps not the most subtle metaphor for puberty, nor the most elegant, but Carrie’s famous ending, in which a girl’s moment of humiliation leads to blood-soaked revenge against her tormentors, ranks as one of the most famous depictions of adolescent emotional upheaval and high school trauma, and for a reason. Sissy Spacek stars with the late, great Piper Laurie, and I can’t pick which one gives a more iconic performance.
Love, Simon (2018)
Nick Robinson is closeted high schooler Simon, who takes inspiration from the anonymous confession of a similarly closeted student in his school to come out. Without knowing the true identity of “Blue,” Simon strikes up an online friendship that turns into something more. Think The Shop Around the Corner, or You’ve Got Mail, but with modern queer high schoolers and a queer twist.
Cooley High (1974)
Among all of the films of the 1970s set in high schools of bygone eras (this one takes place in 1964), Cooley High is the best. Cochise (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs), a basketball star, and Preach (Glynn Turman), an aspiring playwright, plot to play hooky during their final weeks of senior year. Their plan leads to a series of adventures and misadventures that look very much like the stuff of a more typical teen comedy, before the comedy slowly gives way to more serious introspection. This movie had a profound influence on filmmakers from John Singleton to Spike Lee.
Mean Girls (2004)
When Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) gets accepted into the cool clique at her public school, she quickly realizes that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and plots to take down the “Plastics” from the inside. Tina Fey wrote the endlessly quotable script, which you probably know by heart whether you want to or not (thanks, internet).
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Jennifer’s Body dropped with a thud in 2009, and took a long time to become the cult classic it was always destined to be. Popular teenager Jennifer (Megan Fox) is turned into a succubus by abusive men, gleefully killing boys around school to the general horror of her friend, Needy (Amanda Seyfried). Scripted by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody!
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Some of the most iconic faces of the ‘80s (aka the “Brat Pack”) wile away a largely unsupervised Saturday detention together. Each is there for a different reason, and each represents a different clique. It’s all a little on-the-nose, but John Hughes’ signature (if not best) film does lean toward a kind of emotional honesty that’s rare in teen movies, and it’s hard not to be drawn into their insular world.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
There are several contenders for the title of the ultimate Gen X movie, but probably none more worthy than Amy Heckerling’s debut—a teen sex comedy that’s smarter, funnier, and much more raw than others that came before and after. It’s a coming-of-age story above all else, and introduced the world to a number of young actors who would go on to become stars—as well as to writer Cameron Crowe, who’d go on to an impressive directing career of his own.
Having already made one of the definitive teen comedies of the 1980s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High director Amy Heckerling pulled a similar trick with this funny, snarky coming-of-age comedy, based on Jane Austen’s Emma, set among the popular kids in Beverly Hills.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
This modern classic, but very ‘90s, rom-com retells The Taming of the Shrew in an American high school. (And minus some of the ugly misogyny.) The concluding exchange of a guitar for the title poem is delightfully memorable—and there’s a reason the movie made stars of Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger.
The Hate U Give (2018)
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) straddles the worlds of her poor, predominantly Black neighborhood and the largely white prep school she attends. Witness to a murderous act of police brutality, she finds herself at odds with just about everyone as she becomes increasingly determined to say what needs to be said. Stanberg is phenomenal in this adaptation of Angie Thomas’s blockbuster YA novel.
Lady Bird (2017)
In Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, prom is a moment of realization for Saoirse Ronan’s title character, pursuing popularity with her Catholic’s school’s rich-kid clique despite her own family’s financial struggles. The big night sees her at the crest of that wave and about to crash, the moment on the precipice giving her a chance to reconsider all that she’s abandoned, including her childhood best friend (Beanie Feldstein).
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Everyone has their own favorite John Hughes movie (well, everyone old enough to know who John Hughes is), but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is mine. Like a lot of people, I’m drawn to the title character even though I know he’s an asshole (and I’m a Cameron). It’s a glorious tribute to the power of doing anything but what you’re supposed to be doing.
Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is one of the geeks at his high school, with hopes of getting out off his high-crime neighborhood and into Harvard. A steep, but not impossible, climb…at least until a drug dealer stashes a bunch of ecstasy in his bag and he’s got to spend a night dodging the people who want it back. A smart, impressive thriller, with a great performance from Moore.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Another great high school movie starring Shameik Moore, here voicing the one and only Spider-Man. It’s a stunning visual achievement with an enormous heart, introducing Miles Morales, a nerdy, awkward high school kid going to a private school for kids into science whose family life and schoolwork get way more complicated when he’s bitten by a weird-ass spider.
A look back to high school life in the 1950s, as filtered through the rose-colored glasses of filmmakers in the 1970s. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are the all-singing, all-dancing power couple at horny, hot rod-obsessed Rydell High.
The Last Picture Show (1971)
A classic about the bored kids in a dying Texas town that no longer has any reason to exist, this Peter Bogdanovich/Polly Platt film is all mood. The killer great cast includes Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman, Cybil Shepard, and Ellen Burstyn before they’d been lauded with Academy Awards.
American Graffiti (1973)
Yet another 1970s movie that looks to the past, and another classic in its own right. George Lucas’ American Graffiti takes us back to the last day of high school for a bunch of teenagers in the 1960s, as the director makes clear that some aspects of growing up are fairly universal (and that he has something to say about something other than galactic space battles).
Plenty of slasher movies have teens (or, at least, actors acting like teens) leading the cast, but Halloween stands out not only for being one of the first to do it, but for the pervasive humanity and reality of its teen girl characters. That comes thanks in large part to co-writer and producer Debra Hill, who gave her characters bags of weed and sex lives not out of a need to punish sin, but because that’s the kind of thing that teens get up to.
A black-as-night teen comedy satire about a pair of murderous high school students (Christian Slater and Winona Ryder) seeking revenge against a same-named clique of awful rich girls? This devilish romp from Daniel Waters (whose brother Mark would find success with the similarly sharp but more broadly appealing Mean Girls) remains a cult classic.
House Party (1990)
The great Reginald Hudlin wrote and directed this classic with a beautifully simple premise: Play’s parents are out of town, and he’s planning to host the party of the year…but his best friend Kid has been grounded and is thus forced to sneak out of the house. The sequels and the remake are mostly meh, but the original is smart in its silliness, with a joyful energy and a stellar soundtrack.
American Pie (1999)
Like an awful lot of teen sex comedies of days gone by, there’s stuff here that doesn’t hold up terribly well, but there’s so much goofy charm on offer, alongside a surprising sweetness, that it’s easy to understand how the movie kicked off a generally not-terrible franchise. The movie also gave Jennifer Coolidge a breakout role, and deserves some love for that alone.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)
Vince Lombardi High School can’t hold on to its assistant principals—the kids are just too damned into rock ‘n’ roll. P. J. Soles is in the lead here as Riff Randell, the leader of the school’s punks; she’s determined to get to see the Ramones, her favorite band, and will literally burn down the school to make it happen. The Roger Corman-produced film is cheap and entirely anarchic, with no lesson other than “don’t stand between punks and their music.”
To Sir, with Love (1967)
Sidney Poitier was riding a wave that would see him star in three of the biggest films of 1967: In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and this one, in which he plays Mark Thackeray, an engineer and immigrant to Britain forced to take a job teaching naughty teens at a school in the tough East End of London. It’s the defining classic of the “new teacher/tough kids” genre, and the one with the best title track.
I wasn’t a student at a performing arts high school in Manhattan in the ‘80s, so I wouldn’t really know, but director Alan parker captures a vibe that feels genuine, with location filming involving a real school and using tons of real students as background performers. Dealing with surprisingly heavy topics for a musical, the kids’ stories sometimes verge on melodrama, but it works beautifully.
The Outsiders (1983)
Francis Ford Coppola directed the adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s enduring novel, about Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell), his troublemaking Greasers gang, and the deadly ramifications of a fight with their rivals. With C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, and Diane Lane, the movie’s casting gave birth to the ‘80s Brat Pack. It’s still gold.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
A documentary that’s as much about the promise and peril of the American dream for young Black men as it is about basketball, Steve James’ harrowing slice-of-life feature follows two promising students recruited to play basketball at a predominantly white high school in Chicago, and what happens to them as they chase their NBA dreams.
The ultimate beach party movie of the era, starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson, and James Darren, Gidget kicked off a genre, as well as a franchise (including a number of films as well as a couple of TV shows).
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Before Rebel, movies had largely treated teenagers as either nonentities, comic relief, or threats. Nicholas Ray and James Dean changed all that. Juvenile delinquent Jim Stark (Dean) is fully fleshed-out and, if he’s occasionally a bit overdramatic, well, that’s just being a teenager.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Possibly the ultimate teen summer stoner hangout film, Dazed and Confused follows Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) and his friends on the last day of school. The concept is simple: They get high and discuss conspiracy theories and drive around town, looking to get into trouble. It’s a look at suburban life in Texas, where there’s nothing else to do but party in the middle of nowhere. Witness a young Matthew McConaughey and Milla Jovovich, high and hilarious. If you miss summer days getting lit with friends this is the perfect nostalgic trip.