Laughs, Shocks, and Needle-Drops: Teen Movies Through the Decades

Jules Caldeira
January 17, 2024

For seventy years, the teen movie has been a staple of film. From the counterculture films of the 50s and John Hughes films of the 80s all the way to the Dawson’s Creeks and Riverdales of today, their rise in popularity and public interest has never waned. For proof, look no further than Paramount’s latest release, Mean Girls, based on the musical adapted from the original 2004 film. In honor of the modern teen classic, in all its forms, we’re taking a look at teen films across the decades in the hopes of finding trends from generation to generation. Who knows; maybe our film tastes are just like our parents, after all.

The films used for this analysis include: Rock Around the Clock (1956), Beach Party (1963), American Graffiti (1973), The Breakfast Club (1985), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Mean Girls (2004), and Booksmart (2019).

Teen movies are meant to be products of their time, showing a slice of culture as it’s perceived at that moment. As such, all of these titles are set in their contemporary settings, rather than being a period piece about teenage culture in the past or future. Most are also set in the middle-class suburbs, save for Rock Around the Clock which traveled around and Beach Party, which was set on…well, a beach. While the first few films primarily followed male leads with women being secondary, from The Breakfast Club onward the stories became more female-driven, with Booksmart being the only title with an LGBTQ+ lead. Nearly all also featured lovable and courageous characters, with almost half including detestable, sympathetic, or brilliant leads as well. With the exception of The Breakfast Club and Booksmart, each film highlighted the story of a heterosexual couple as an A- or B-plot.

The plots of these films follow their protagonists through a significant period of their lives, usually through a coming-of-age story with the exception of Rock Around the Clock, which focuses on a band and their manager. Though all titles revolve around teenagers, only 10 Things I Hate About You and Mean Girls also tackle the relationships of said teenagers with their families, for better or for worse. While about a quarter have a couple falling in love, nearly half also have encounters within a love triangle, such as in Beach Party, 10 Things, and Mean Girls. Less than half also tackle teenage friendships, even if it’s an unlikely alliance, as is the case in Breakfast Club and Mean Girls. All titles utilized situational humor, though Rock Around the Clock and Beach Party lead with more clean or cute humor while Mean Girls and Booksmart opted for sexual humor with raw and gritty scripts.

No matter the story, and regardless of the decade, all of these films have a happy ending, most of which also have tidy, well-synthesized scripts. They all incorporate impactful soundtracks of rock or pop music, sometimes both, with Beach Party being the only musical while Rock Around the Clock does employ diegetic performances, but is a music-themed feature rather than a musical. With the exception of Breakfast Club, these teen movies are fueled by a bright and uplifting mood; most also embody a joyful spirit. Every title except for Rock Around the Clock is character-driven, but all are musical statements, with its score or soundtrack being dominant, memorable factors in each. Teen movies tend to err on the side of comedy, half of these being romantic comedies specifically, in contrast to television series which are more dramatic, with American Graffiti, Breakfast Club, and 10 Things better classified as dramedies. Though Breakfast Club and Booksmart use graphic language, all films exhibit only mild or limited violence while also being accessible for mainstream audiences.

No matter what generation it was made for, it’s interesting to see how teen movies in each decade highlight themes relevant to all teenagers: Friends, romance, family, and school. There’s also the typical struggles, whether that be at school, within their social lives, or demons of their own. Teen movies are typically upbeat, filled with humor and supported by a kick-ass soundtrack. Though this isn’t indicative of all titles, as there are plenty of teen dramas as well, though those likely also cover similar story elements. So what can we do with this information? Well, given its similarity to these films (and that it’s based on one of them), it can be inferred that the new Mean Girls will be just as successful as its predecessors, if not more so. In being products of their time, we also see how casting has gotten more diverse over the years, a trend which will quite likely continue into future generations. By following this course, it’s possible to see what future teen films will likely be successful as well, and in looking toward future projects we can get an idea of what lies in store with the help of trusty Katch Data. Don’t you forget about us. *Freeze frame, roll credits*

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