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What Exactly Is a “Teen Movie”?

Teen movies aren’t dubbed as such just because they star adolescents or deal in high school drama. The genre goes much deeper than that—and delves into experiences that are both universal and personal.

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Tied to the 20th anniversary of Bring It On, we hereby dub the next five days Teen Movie Week. Dig up your varsity jacket, pull up to your cafeteria table, and relive your adolescence as we celebrate the best coming-of-age movies ever made.

The residents of a remote Texas town, split along race and class lines, unite behind an underdog football team that struggles with the burden of overwhelming expectations. A quiet loner navigates a treacherous web of liars and villains in a vain attempt to solve his girlfriend’s disappearance. Eight young freedom fighters, trapped behind enemy lines when their country is invaded, stymie an opposing force using nothing but their wits, expert outdoorsmanship, and some stolen small arms.

Friday Night Lights, Brick, and Red Dawn are all genre films: sports, detective noir, and war, respectively. But an in-depth interrogation and ranking of teen movies, such as The Ringer’s undertaking this week, demands a more rigorous teleological examination of these films and others. What difference is there between teen movies and movies about teenagers? And what exactly constitutes a “teen movie” to begin with?

The central canon of teen movies provides a useful philosophical foundation. These films—from the works of John Hughes in the 1980s to the American Pie–adjacent films around the turn of the century to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and its streaming rom-com siblings—are movies about being a teenager. Whatever topics they address, from love to competition to discovering one’s identity, are explored within the specific constraints of adolescence. To blossom into a self-determining individual for the first time, all while enduring the awkwardness of operating an increasingly adult body with a child’s mind, is as close to a universal experience as humans get. Small wonder it’s such well-trodden ground for filmmakers.

Teenagers feel provocative life experiences—love and heartbreak, success or failure—more keenly than adults, and frequently express those emotions more openly and unapologetically. After all, they haven’t had a lifetime to leaven the immediate emotional impact. A football game that will be forgotten in a year turns into a life-or-death struggle. A relationship that probably won’t last more than a few months turns into “happily ever after.”

So what happens if you take another film-worthy topic and drop it into the ferocious emotional torrent of adolescence? The possibilities are endless. High school Shakespeare is its own subgenre—10 Things I Hate About You, O, She’s the Man­­­, and so on. But considering the contributions of Clueless, Easy A, and She’s All That to the canon, Shakespeare is by no means the only classic author to have his or her work so honored.

Sure, there’s something of a cynical motive to this subgenre, arising as it did at the end of the last century, when teens became an important commercial force. But where else in modern American society could we pull off a Victorian comedy of manners or a Shakespearean farce without appearing affected or melodramatic? Certainly no other slice of our culture is built so firmly on a foundation of affectation and melodrama as a suburban high school.

That foundation is so well established that there’s a collection of teen movies that either parody (Not Another Teen Movie) or subvert (Brick) the conventions of the genre, with its bright colors, comforting tropes, and broad writing and acting. In a way, the high school adaptation has become a literary convention all its own.

Other teen films aren’t about growing up so much as they’re about what happens when teenagers have adult responsibilities thrust on them. Friday Night Lights highlights the incongruity between its stars’ youth and the heavy responsibility they’re burdened with before they’ve finished growing up. A town with little going for it apart from high school football saddles its adolescents with the weight of past failings and the limited reality of their futures; the players not only intuit that they’ll peak before they turn 18, but that realization saddens them to the point that they can’t fully enjoy what should be some of the best years of their lives. The actors cast as the Permian Panthers go through the film with expressions of either world-weariness or, in the case of Garrett Hedlund’s Don Billingsley, a striking mix of an imposing physical presence and a facial expression that bounces from resignation to fear to a very childlike loneliness.

The teens of Friday Night Lights are as emotionally intuitive as they are expressive, painting the film with a palpable coating of sadness and loss. It’s far from the only film to explore the tragedy of the child forced to grow up too quickly, a story that predates the teen movie as a recognizable genre and influences this group just as much as Shakespeare or Jane Austen. Lord of the Flies, though it was about much younger children, led to Red Dawn, which—in addition to being an anticommunist polemic from the frequently unsound mind of John Milius—explores the impact of war on teenagers not much younger than those sent to Vietnam, and later Iraq and Afghanistan. Fast-paced, unsparingly violent, and studiously devoid of comic relief, Red Dawn exacts an emotional toll on viewers by showing them recognizable high school students turned by circumstance into cold-blooded killers.

There are films, like Red Dawn or Juno (perhaps the only time those two movies have been mentioned that close together), that illustrate the emotional stresses of a situation familiar to adults by putting a teenager through that experience in front of an adult audience. Others, like October Sky, Remember the Titans, Election, or even Blockers, put that adult audience right in the film. These movies aren’t so much about kids growing up or overcoming obstacles as they are about adults watching those kids grow up and overcome obstacles, and how witnessing that transformative process can be transformative on its own.

The common thread that ties all of these movies together, however, is the emotional expressiveness of teenagers in film. Teen movies need not be made for teenagers, nor must they be specifically about the teenage experience. Red Dawn and the Harry Potter series have about as much in common with the standard American high school experience as Star Wars, for instance. But a teen movie must foreground a distinctly teenaged perspective, with all the callowness and open-mindedness that entails.

Teen movies can vary in tone from saccharine to melancholy, in stakes from trivial to world-ending, and touch any genre in fiction. What makes them stand out is not only the age of their protagonists, but their perspective. Which—as every angry high schooler in history has shouted at their parents at some time or other—no adult character can truly understand or appreciate.