8. River’s Edge (1987)
Tim Hunter’s hidden eighties classic is a very unique, unsettling, and often-bizarre film. Based on a true story, a group of (in varying degrees) apathetic teenagers are brought to the murder site of one of their friends by her boyfriend, who also happens to be her murderer.
How they react with question, indifference, and hesitation is the truly dark piece of human behavior this film revolves around. The girl’s body lays there for countless hours, eyes wide open and lifeless, before only one of the half dozen or so teenagers actually displays a conscience and makes the much-needed phone call to the police.
As River’s Edge unravels, we see an almost absurd web of darkness weave itself around the characters’ lives and the small town in which it’s set. Sociopathic adolescents casually brandishing guns, Dennis Hopper carrying around a sex doll like it’s his girlfriend, and Keanu Reeves having sex with Ione Sky in a sleeping bag while the killer explains in voice over how powerful he felt while strangling his girlfriend…
River’s Edge is a sprawling epic of amorality and indifference amongst lost and misguided youths. By the time it reaches it’s (kind of…?) hopeful conclusion, you’re about as spent, shocked, and numb as any film can make a human being.
7. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
John Singleton’s directorial debut will always be one of the first and, not to mention, best portrayals of inner city ghetto life for young African American men put on film. Made and set in the 1990s, the film came at a time (slightly before the L.A. riots) when awareness to the facts of the lifestyle was just spreading across the country. There was anger and violence waiting to erupt, and people were understandably scared of the subject matter.
Boyz n the Hood doesn’t capitalize on that fear or exploit it. It instead wisely finds heart, integrity, and an alternative to hopelessness for the central characters (and who they represent in reality) of his story. Singleton, first and foremost, humanized a character that was quickly becoming racist cliché in American popular culture at the time: the ghetto thug.
Portrayed by Ice Cube, his iconic character of Doughboy is a prime example of how someone with intelligence and integrity can so easily become a product of their environment. At the film’s end, we don’t condemn him, nor do we fear him. We simply understand.
Part of what makes Boyz N the Hood so special to this day (topped with the shocking remembrance that Singleton was merely twenty-three years old at the time of it’s release) is that it doesn’t preach any forced understanding to the events or characters within it. The film’s message is clear, but what to do with that message is, like most great artistic accomplishments, best left up for it’s viewers to decide.
6. Kids (1995)
It doesn’t get much darker than Kids. That’s both a compliment and… Not. Kids isn’t just dark, it gets under your skin in the same way a traumatic life experience does. You’re shocked, speechless and dumbfounded for hours, if not years, afterwards.
Larry Clark’s film gave the world Harmony Korine, who penned the film’s thoroughly disgusting screenplay about a teenage boy with HIV that carelessly sleeps with every virgin he can find. Future signs of the genius that gave us Spring Breakers years later are quite evident here. As revolting as the story is, there is a twisted genius and unparalleled quirk to the film’s execution that still make the film feel like no other (again, that’s both good and… not).
Kids is undeniably a brilliant film because it knows exactly what it is and how it wants to make us feel… And it makes sure to get it’s point across the first time around because it’s also well aware of the fact that we’ll probably never want to feel that way again.
5. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
If there ever was a beautiful and damaged teenage girl who needed rescuing, it was Laura Palmer. This tragically iconic portrayal of the final days of the most damaged fallen angel in popular culture since Marilyn Monroe is actually a terrifying expressionistic film about incest in disguise. Such a creation and experience is something only a mind like David Lynch’s could conjure and execute with such brilliant results.
Laura (Sheryl Lee, in a wholly underrated performance) is living the truest of teenaged hells: she has been sexually abused most of her adolescent life by a beastly demon named Bob, who comes in through her window at night. Late in her teenage years, long after the damage has set in, she discovers that Bob was only a disguise (possibly created by her own mind, or possibly created by strange beings from another dimension, you never with David Lynch…) masking the acts of her own father.
What makes Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me a classic today (surviving it’s initial release and reputation as a financial and critical bomb), is its sad and beautiful ability to capture the equally horrific and innocent feelings that plague a lost soul like Laura’s every day.
Lynch’s extreme gift for empathy fuels Fire Walk With Me into being a genuine and thoughtful masterpiece about the fractured state of mind and existence that sexual abuse causes in a young woman’s reality. Much more than a simple prequel to a hit television series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a rare and painful movie experience that reminds us of all the possible hidden secrets behind every young and perfect teenager’s smile.
4. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Alex and his droogs are every parent’s, teacher’s, or authority figure’s worst nightmare. They’re so evil, in fact, that it’s easy to forget they’re supposed to be juvenile delinquents (that and the fact that they all pretty much look like they’re in their mid-late twenties much like the actors who play them). “Ultraviolence” being their primary concern in life, these are some nasty little boys who do some nasty little things.
Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction satire still holds up as one of the most daring and disturbing entries on this list, even though it appears on many other (more luxurious) lists than silly “teenage” ones like this all the time. The expressionistic glee the film exhibits over the course of its first act as young Alex commits his crimes is as rambunctious and deprived (though as sickly thrilling) today as it was in 1971.
A Clockwork Orange is a dangerous film that captures a mad energy (much like Natural Born Killers did over twenty years later) that can only be associated with the angriest, most dissatisfied, and most depraved teenage feelings we can imagine.
3. Over The Edge (1979)
We have the recently released Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck, to thank for the resurgence of interest in (or, for many, awareness to the existence of) this strange, almost surreal tale based on true events.
A group of neglected suburban hoodlums from an experimental housing project reach their breaking point and react by locking all their parents and authority figures in their school gymnasium during a town meeting. They then proceed to thrash and vandalize everything in sight, only to go on a violent and cathartic rampage throughout their (now-unsupervised) town.
Anarchic at heart, Over The Edge is more of an explosion of emotion than it is a thoughtful meditation on the subject of anger and neglect in children. It was directed by Jonathan Kaplan and written by Charlie Haas and River’s Edge director Tim Hunter. It’s a strange film that is simultaneously dangerous and alluring.
2. Heathers (1989)
If Rebel Without a Cause is the granddaddy of all dark teenage films, Heathers is the abused alcoholic first son who went on to father (and pass on his even more severe issues to) his many other Kids. It’s at the near-top of this list because it’s still, over twenty-five years after it’s release, one of the rudest, crudest, most shocking, daring, and brilliant films (not just limited to the teenage genre) of all time.
Christian Slater and Winona Ryder portray the ultimate dark teenage couple as the youths who decide to go on a killing spree, targeting the popular kids in their class and making their deaths look like suicides. The school quickly bonds (through the aid of their hippie-ish guidance counselor) and bands together against the horrific act of self-extermination (while unwittingly glamourizing it in the process).
The great Daniel Waters had to write some of the meanest, dirtiest satire ever to be put on film in order for director Michael Lehmann to expertly and fully expose the dark absurdity felt at the heart of many teenage experiences the way he did with Heathers.
1. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
The saddest, loneliest, and most romantic feelings associated with being a teenager are explored, heightened, and brought to brilliant fable life in Edward Scissorhands.
Easily Tim Burton’s defining masterpiece, the film tops this list because it is the most relatable to just about anyone who ever felt different for any reason: race, sex, economic status, popularity, physicality, personality, and all the other things that young people start becoming fully aware of at the most emotionally effected time of their lives.
The character of Edward (Johnny Depp’s first of many great performances) is one of the best and most tragic teenage characters of all time. Doomed to forever view the world from afar and closed off from the everyday experiences the accepted take for granted, Edward is a lost innocent, a being (not exactly human) that loves unconditionally with a need to be loved back. One glance at his eternally sunken eyes, however, tells you he will always carry the burden of knowing that he never fully will.
The darkness that ends the film, when Edward finally retaliates against the cruelest high school bully in the story (strangely but effectively played by former John Hughes geek Anthony Michael Hall), still holds up as daring and bold, and it’s certainly part of what makes this film the classic it is.
Screenwriter Caroline Thompson’s brilliantly simple but deeply effective storytelling abilities make us instantly understand that the act is not a victory or a crime. The sad reality Edward has to face at the film’s end is that he has to become the monster everyone thinks he is in order to live in peace.
The whimsical sadness of Edward Scissorhands is the whimsical sadness that overwhelms the senses of every dark teenage experience. It’s the most beautifully externalized reality of a teenager’s inner turnmoil ever put on film, and it achieves the most realism by working within the realms of the fantastical.
All the pain and sensitivity that comes with the paranoia of being looked at, talked about, judged, and viewed as a thing that will never belong… It’s all encapsulated and made into a reality by Edward Scissorhands, a film that is forever timeless and perfect for its simplicity, beauty, and universality.
Author Bio: Matt Hendricks is an independent filmmaker with several projects currently in development.