23. The Lost Boys (1987)
One of the most purely fun and hippest horror comedies of the eighties is also a great cautionary tale about teenage peer pressure (it was the eighties, after all) in disguise.
The new teenager in town (Jason Patric) tries desperately to fit in with the cool kids (a motorcycle gang lead by Kiefer Sutherland) to impress the exotic pretty girl (Jami Gertz). He gets into a motorcycle race to prove himself, follows the gang to dangerous underground catacombs, then eventually succumbs and takes a swig of wine after they surround him while chanting his name.
The consequences become fantastical, of course, when we soon realize the cool kids are actually vampires and the wine the new kid chugged wasn’t exactly wine. The Lost Boys carries on the great tradition of turning teenage morality lessons into horror films, but does so with style, humor, and genuine thrills thanks to the expert direction of (often forgotten great) Joel Schumacher.
22. The Ice Storm (1997)
The teenagers and adolescents that haunt the frames of Ang Lee’s observational 1970’s-set period film are the victims of disinterest and passive parenting. The adults in the film (Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Jamey Sheridan) are all overgrown children themselves, so obsessed with their own needs and lack of identities that they allow their children to run free in their lives without guidance or protection.
Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, and Christina Ricci are all outstanding as the lost youths silently suffering from the indifference of their home lives.
21. Donnie Darko (2001)
The teenage years seen through the eyes of a schizophrenic, time-travelling superhero named Donnie Darko. Writer/director Richard Kelly’s brilliant debut is a trippy, multi-toned science project that is vague and abstract in all the right ways.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Darko is classic teen angst. He is alienated, misunderstood, sensitive at heart, and ultimately a true reluctant hero by the film’s end. Seen through Kelly’s eyes, the teenage years have never before been so confusing, scary, or eerily pretty.
20. Cape Fear (1991)
Martin Scorsese’s remake of the Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum-starring classic is, first and foremost, a first rate and relentlessly intense psycho-thriller.
If you view the film through the eyes of a seemingly supporting character whose narration bookends the film, however, it is a haunting coming of age story about a fifteen year old girl (effortlessly portrayed by Juliette Lewis in her breakout performance) who cannot escape the demons of her family’s past… All of which have manifested themselves into the form of a very fascinating, very charming, and very violent Southern perv portrayed by Robert DeNiro and his thumb.
19. (Tie) God Bless America (2011) and World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
Writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait is basically the unsung current cinematic hero for dark comedy these days. His satirical anger, absurdity, and completely and utterly DARK sense of humor are creeping up on us and slowly marking their territory in the constantly fluctuating independent/niche film market.
Neither of these films are necessarily “teenage” films, but they both feature several teenage characters that propel or instigate the story into motion with their sociopathic or psychotic (take your pick!) behaviors. Goldthwait’s view of today’s youth is terrifying, but partially because it is so dead-on accurate.
In World’s Greatest Dad, Robin Williams is a struggling writer and high school poetry teacher. His teenage son, a student at his school, is an unlikable creep who accidentally dies in the midst of an autoerotic asphyxiation accident. Williams, sparing himself embarrassment, pens a fake suicide note and makes the scene look as such. The suicide note, when made public, becomes the obsession and admiration of the whole school, and Williams begins to enjoy newfound appreciation for his writing.
God Bless America has Joel Murray playing a miserable middle-aged man who has recently been given a terminal diagnosis by his doctor. His response is a healthy one: he’ll just gun down everyone who represents something terrible to him about America (his first victim is naturally a spoiled teenage reality t.v. star). And, of course, a psychotic teenager quickly finds herself at his side as his sidekick and accomplice.
Goldwaith, with both these brilliant films, seemed to take a cue from Daniel Waters’ biting work on the classic screenplay for Heathers, then moved it up (or down, depending on your point of view) another notch or two. He’s not afraid of saturating his films in the (very) ugly side to his humor. Goldwaith’s work is not safe, it’s not nice, and it’s certainly not going to make you hug your children when you’re done watching it.
The youths and teens in his films are pure filth, products of a material-obsessed culture that have chosen flash over depth, excess over morality. They’re brain-dead monsters that have no empathy, no purpose, and no soul. They’re great comic fodder for a mind like Goldwaith’s, but part of what makes them (and his films) stand out so much is how hilariously they are able to carry out the bleakest of messages.
18. It Follows (2015)
Amazingly enough, It Follows is the first film to so successfully tap into perhaps the greatest horror hovering over young people’s heads today: sexually transmitted diseases. The story is a million dollar concept: a girl catches an STD in the form of a very slow moving being that takes multiple human forms. If she doesn’t sleep with someone else (and pass on the “STD”) before it reaches her, the being will mangle and maim her body until she’s dead, then move back to its previous host.
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell executes his ingenius concept with precision and maturity. He allows tension to build classically, relies on long takes and choreography rather than edits, and quite intelligently exhibits just enough restraint on the gory details so that the terror is fully built up in his audience’s minds. The most recently released film on this list, It Follows is an instant classic that will undoubtedly carry on and terrify future generations of teenagers for many years to come.
17. Precious (2009)
Lee Daniels’ film about an African American teenage girl suffering from just about every trauma one could think of (pregnancy, poverty, obesity, abuse in every form, illiteracy) almost sounds like it’s a film that is far too much for anyone to take.
Miraculously, no matter how dark the subject matter gets, Daniels’ handling of it is always watchable and always mature enough to never shove the viewers’ face in it. As a director, he has the intelligence to understand that the acts and results are horrific enough and refuses to allow himself, or his audience, to wallow so long in them that they become sensationalized or, at the opposite end, depressing.
Make no mistake, Precious is as dark and disturbing as they come. The lead character is put through every humiliation we could imagine (and then some), but still manages to maintain a sense of morality and decency within herself, much like the film itself. Precious, no matter how low it goes, still manages to rise to the top by the end (in a surprisingly non-contrived manner) and shed some light on the dark, unlucky life of tis protagonist.
The film’s emotional core is optimistic, and the results are all the more believable through Daniels’ ability to show us the darker moments with integrity and restraint.