Adolescence is one of the most commonly tackled themes in cinema. From the beach party films of the 60s, to their renaissance in 1980s, and their explosion in the 2000s, the formative years of young adults have always been under a microscope.
Unlike action and fantasy adventures stories that create hyperboles on life, films about youth look at an aspect life everyone must go through. “Growing up” is at the very core of the essence of adulthood. Although many “teen movies” can fall into a romanticized vision. Creating stories of love and acceptance for popcorn audiences and “feel good” romps for the very teens and tweens the films define.
This genre has always been finically viable and culturally significant, but not all filmmakers have gone down paths of completely happiness and fantasy. For just as long as there have been positive looks at growing up, there have been brutal looks. Examining the alienation, danger, confusion, and hardship that can come with development into adulthood. The internal struggle of being forced into the next stage of life and the circumstances that surround you can drastically alter the human experience.
15. Girls Town (Jim McKay, 1996)
A nearly forgotten film from the mid-1990s, Girls Town is dark look at young females, when their lives are affected by sexual assault. Patti, Emma, Angela, and Nicki are four friends in their senior of high school, when one suddenly commits suicide. Devastated and heartbroken, the friends try to understand why she would suddenly take her own life.
As the film progress, they find that she was a victim of rape, only one night prior to her suicide. The girls are horrified and begin discuss the destructive nature the men in their lives have had. Another one of the girls reveals she was a victim of rape and a third explains her abusive ex that left her with a son. The girls decide to fight back at their attackers and stand up for themselves. The subject matter is rough and honest with the girls fighting to keep their heads above water.
The film’s tagline was “this ain’t no 90201”, which takes a stab at the conventional “soap operas” of teenage storytelling. The film is honest and confrontational. As of 2015, the film is only available on rare VHS tapes and it is extremely deserving of a resurgence.
14. The Basketball Diaries (Scott Kalvert, 1995)
Based on the memoirs of American Poet Jim Carroll and his long battle with heroin addiction, the film deals with the cost of potential versus drugs. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jim Carroll, a promising young basketball player on a highly successful high school team. The style on the court is contrasted with Carroll’s appetite for drugs and sex. His friends on the team are just as reckless and uncaring, that Carroll only spirals further and further into addiction.
The film illustrates how drugs can completely destroy promise in a person’s life when it consumes them. Carroll’s environment is no helpful force of its own. Not only pressure from his friends, but a pedophiliac coach. Carroll path to destruction goes to the darkest depths of addiction. The film has a somewhat mixed reaction from critics, but the film is definitely an unapologetic examination of drugs, teens, and basketball glory.
13. Thirteen (Catherine Hardwick, 2003)
Highly controversy upon its release and resonating in its wake, Thirteen is unrestrained in its portrayal of female adolescence. Written by co-star Nikki Reed and based on her real-life experiences at the age of 13, the film caused a splash after its Sundance debut in 2003. The film tackles a wide variety of issues that are all filter through two newly teenage girls as they go on a quest of rebellion.
The main character Tracy is a sweet honor’s student as the film opens, which contrasts with her recovering alcoholic mother, who struggles to support her. Tracy secretly battles depression and even practices self-harm, until she meets the wild and popular Evie. The teens dabble in drugs, drinking and make sexual advances to almost everyone they see. The Tracy character goes through a fast and hard transition of rebellion that causes her mother to fight to protect her from Evie’s influence.
The film is not simply black and white on the influence and Tracey’s change. Evie is not painted as being the whole cause of Tracy’s rebellion and she is not painted for blame. Thirteen presents a radical shift into adulthood that is extremely believe in today world’s. The introduction of female sexuality is handled as exciting and rule-breaking to teen leads, presenting an unbiased look at how fast a child can become an adult.
12. La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)
A french piece of violence and hatred told through characters experiencing living through the turmoil, La Haine follows three young men over one day in a French housing project. The film is precede by a riot that resulted in civil unrest. The three friends are from immigrant families and show the different feelings on the state of France’s racist crime. Vinz is jewish and violently anger, Hubert is afro-french and reflectively saddened on the racism, and Saïd is Arab Maghrebis with a middle ground stance.
The three venture around town while being hassled from every direction. The friends are harassed by not just other french citizens, but by the vary police that are suppose to protect them. Vinz’s anger grows and he fantasizes about committing his own act of brutal violence as retaliation. Hubert tries to suppress the aggressive, despite the violence being inflicted upon him and Saïd.
The film’s violence only grows as it continues with Hubert stating “La haine attire la haine !” or “hatred breeds hatred.” La Haine has a frightening and aggressive tone that is shot with stark black-and-white cinematography, presenting its themes bluntly and unclouded. These young men are growing up in a world that suppresses them, causing deep rooted anger to blossom into full-blow hatred. When a young mind is developing and changing, violence and racism can only stall their adulthood.
11. Less Than Zero (Marek Kanievska, 1987)
Loosely based on notorious author Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, this film details extreme excesses among wealthy Los Angeles young people in the 1980s.
Andrew McCarthy’s leads as college freshman Clay, who returns to LA after his first year of school to find his ex-girlfriend, Blair and best friend, Julian are heading down dark paths. Julian, played by Robert Downey Jr. is particular troubling as an erratic drug addict, who is in debt to a dangerous dealer. Blair is blind to the decadence and has a party attitude to the LA life style.
The film is a unapologetic look at the ugliness of drug addiction and how it can be amplified when surrounded by wealth. The characters are well off and completely uncaring of their life direction. The aimlessness of youth is compiled with addiction and neglect to illustrate pure recklessness.
10. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009)
An Australian film and self-described “survival love story” from 2009, that is criminally overlooked. The film tells the story of two 14 year-old indigenous Australians living in an aboriginal community, who eventually escape in a stolen car to live alone together.
The titular characters, Samson and Delilah, are at difficult places in life. Samson spends his days sniffing patrol to get high and being annoyed with his musician brother and their rundown home. Delilah’s life consists of taking care of her ailing grandmother. The way their budding love affair begins is when Samson follows Delilah for a day. He eventually throws a rock at her in a juvenile flirtatious manner, which cause Delilah’s initial uninterested.
The two then go through violent experiences within the community after Delilah’s grandmother’s death. Samson decides to steal the village’s car to escape to the Alice springs taking Delilah with him. They attempt to make a life together out in the desert, even an encountering a helpful homeless man. Although, the main characters find that escape their problems will never solve them.
This is age old tale, but done so perfectly and in such a unique setting that is defines the theme. The actors that play Samson and Delilah are both first time performers and they have an incredibly endearing in their roles. The film shows how young people simply running from their problems can never solve them, even if it seems that way in the short term.
9. Straight Out of Brooklyn (Matty Rich, 1991)
Street and gang violence dramas have carved out their own sub-genre in cinema, but this debut film from Matty Rich transcends convention to tell its tale.
The films centers around a character named Dennis living in the Red Hook Housing projects in Brooklyn New York with his aggressively abusive father and subservient mother. Dennis wants nothing more than to get out of the projects and live a better life, so he and two friends hatch plan to rob a drug dealer for a large sum of money. Problems ensue as the stolen money is much more than they expected, leaving the two friends and Dennis to become targets for the gangs.
The film is amazing at showing the violence that surrounds Dennis being an equivalent of the abuse within his own home. His father is so awful to him and his mother, that Dennis feels safe nowhere in life. As the violence of the film crescendos, it is shown as reciprocal and a trap for those living in the environment. This film was a very independent effort and is overshadowed by Boyz N the Hood from the same year, but is absolutely deserving of newfound recognition.