Grab a red cup and drink up: from girl gangs to orgasms and actual murders, here’s everything you need to know about the coming-of-age genre
The complexity of the teen experience has never been easy to sum up in a simple, neatly packaged, 90-minute story – but that’s not to say the teen movie genre doesn’t try. Taking the hellish high-school narrative and depicting adolescent highs and lows on the silver screen, teen movies have never been prized for their complex female narratives, diverse casts or true-to-life depiction of the adolescent experience.
However, the appeal of the teen movie endures. From red cups to killing off the high-school bitch and cruising around town with your best of frenemies, we love to hate coming-of-age tales almost as much as we love to hate our teenhood itself. Seduced by nostalgia, the post-internet age has managed to breathe new life into the once-tired genre, allowing streaming services to transform box-office flops into cult classics and reminding us that the best coming-of-age films come undeterred by cliches and with lashings of unironic, pre-adulthood apathy and angst. Never short of a cutting one-liner, #relatable moment or outfit goal, here’s our 26-letter guide to the world of high school on screen.
A IS FOR: ALCOHOL
Grab a red cup and drink up: it’s not a coming-of-age experience if there isn’t a suburban mansion-based house party with a stolen keg and a round of Seven Minutes in Heaven waiting in the wings. Providing the backdrop for some of the genre’s most iconic moments (think Clueless’s Rolling with The Homies scene and the entire duration of Superbad), on-screen high-school house parties have been leaving us with unrealistic expectations of what to expect from adolescence for eons.
B IS FOR: THE BREAKFAST CLUB
Forcing the athlete, the brain, the basketcase, the princess and the criminal to spend over eight hours in each other’s company, John Hughes’ 1985 high-school film gave birth to many of the Brat Pack’s careers, cementing high-school cliques as archetypal character tropes forevermore.
C IS FOR: CLUELESS
With “you’re a virgin who can’t drive” still up there as one of the most iconic clap-backs of all time, Clueless and its tongue-in-cheek depiction of Beverly Hills brats possibly eclipses Mean Girls for the title of most over-quoted teen movie and most iconic costume design.
D IS FOR: DRIVING
If “get in loser, we’re going shopping” isn’t your most used sentence while driving, are you even driving at all? In teen world, a car will totally push you up the food chain. And don’t piss off your designated driver because you’ll be “walking home, bitches”, or held at gunpoint in an abandoned car park in LA.
E IS FOR: EMPIRE RECORDS
Empire Records features Liv Tyler and Renee Zellweger, pushing against the gentrification of their independent record-store workplace, kitted out in the 90s wardrobe of our dreams. Initially a bomb at the box office and amongst critics, the fetishisation of 90s teen culture for the Tumblr generation has deemed Empire Records a cult classic, even inspiring a modern-day celebration of #RexManningDay each year on April 8.
F IS FOR: FRENEMIES
High-school friendship isn’t all confessional conversations and slumber parties. Long before Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna even had due opportunity to hate each other in Girls, Ghost World’s Enid and Rebecca were navigating a forced friendship in a dead-end town, brought together solely by the fact that they detested everyone around them more than they resented one another.
G IS FOR: GIRL GANG
From accidentally killing your leader with a jawbreaker to creating a no-holds-barred burn book about everyone not in your clique, or being actual legit witches hexing those who cross your path; girl gangs in the teen-movie scene kind of have a bad rep. Whether you love each other or love to hate each other, at least there’s solidarity on screen in trying to cover up your crimes together.
H IS FOR: HEATHERS
Who didn’t dream of cutting off the queen bee during their formative teen years? Taking down the high-school hierarchy one bitch at a time, Winona Ryder finds herself in the midst of a teen-apathy induced killing spree. Enlisting rebel without a cause Christian Slater to concoct a mass teen suicide cover-up, Heathers still has some of the most quotable, relatable lines in teen-movie history.
I IS FOR: THE INTERNET
Way back before social media stalks and swipe-rights were the norm, teen movie protagonists had to get more creative with their use of the URL world. While there’s no condoning many characters’ totally creepy use of the early internet – see Weird Science’s attempt to construct the perfect woman using computer software, or Blaine from Pretty in Pink’s stalker-esque screen-swap attempts at seducing Andie – we’re still totally buggin’ for Cher’s itemised, digitised Clueless wardrobe.
J IS FOR: JOHN HUGHES
The writer and director largely credited with cementing coming-of-age storytelling as more credible during the 80s. The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles – with an IMDb page reading like a rollcall for all the must-see teen movies, Hughes is still the undisputed godfather of the genre.
K IS FOR: KILLING
High-school on screen is a hazardous place, and while many of us may have wished for death in place of the adolescent experience, the act of killing is unrealistically rife in the world of teen movies. Whether it’s Carrie turning her prom-queen status into full on telekinetic meltdown, or Veronica and JD convincing their worst frenemie Heather to down a bottle of anti-freeze in the name of a hangover cure, hell hath no fury like a teen girl scorned.
L IS FOR: LOCKER ROOM
The epitome of masculinity: sweaty, gross and where every teen girl tried to break into. But beware of bad experiences, from Carrie’s tampon attack to Andrew (The Breakfast Club) trying to become the perfect athlete his dad always wished for, the locker room isn’t where you want to be.
M IS FOR: MAKEOVER
There’s only one way to truly fit in with the popular clique or bag the man of your dreams: completely change every facet of your existence and appearance. With films such as The Breakfast Club, Clueless and She’s All That teaching us that being yourself will never quite be enough, it’s not a teen movie if it’s not demonstrating that a 360-degree image overhaul is the only way to remain on the right side of the high-school hierarchy.
N IS FOR: NERDS
Spotty and socially awkward, nerds find themselves at the bottom of the teen-movie food chain. Unloved, unwanted, often underestimated and trapped within the confines of the lovable nice-guy stereotype; the nerds are guaranteed to be undercut by their jock and criminal counterparts, remaining trapped forever in the purgatory of the friendzone.
O IS FOR: ORGASM
The ultimate goal for all teens (outside of popularity, duh). Find boys fumbling with bra straps and wanking under bedsheets, while girls get gifted lube from their ‘so cool’ mothers. But remember, as Mean Girls taught us: it only counts if you saw nipple.
P IS FOR: PROM
The highlight of the school year, but the fight for the prom king and queen crowns start way earlier than the night itself. Used in teen films for a big reveal, prom rarely goes as smoothly as it should. While Rose McGowan’s Courtney confessing to killing the “teen dream” in Jawbreaker may show the more sinister side of the ball, not all prom queens have a dark side... Other iconic scenes – such as breaking your crown into a million tiny pieces and dispersing them among your peers in the name of solidarity (Mean Girls), or making your big entrance in a vintage nightmare two-dress hybrid to show your ex exactly what he’s missing (Pretty in Pink) – prove that prom is when people’s true colours really come to the fore, for better or for worse.
Q IS FOR: QUEER EXPERIMENTATION
While queer experimentation in the world of teen movies usually only extends to a quick kiss over spin the bottle, there are some well-rounded representations of LGBT love on the silver screen. Set in a pastel perfect dream-world that may as well have been based on your old Polly Pockets, But I’m a Cheerleader features a pre-Orange Is the New Black Natasha Lyonne trapped in a correctional camp that only convinces her further of her lust for ladies. Laced with satire and a desire to expose our socially constructed notions of gender, the film also features the expertly cast RuPaul as an ‘ex-gay’ correctional camp officer.
R IS FOR: MOLLY RINGWALD
John Hughes’ main muse and Brat Pack member, Molly Ringwald is the ultimate 80s adolescent sweetheart. Tackling every type of teen from the record-loving nerd in Pretty in Pink to daddy’s poor little rich girl in The Breakfast Club and angst-ridden Samantha in Sixteen Candles, Ringwald became so synonymous with the genre that she reprised her role as queen of the teen scene for a cameo in Not Another Teen Movie.
S IS FOR: STONER
No teen movie is complete without a stoner. Or in the case of Dazed and Confused, an entire cast of them. But remember Cher’s advice from Clueless, “no respectable girl” dates a pot head.
T IS FOR: TOKEN MINORITY
Bar last year’s Girlhood, the teen genre and racial diversity have never been the easiest of bedfellows. Enter the token minority: usually one non-white, secondary cast member (usually found at the house party) present largely as a fig-leaf for the sea of white faces elsewhere. Or, as in Sixteen Candles, as the source of vaguely xenophobic ‘comic relief’.
U IS FOR: UNWANTED PREGNANCY
Downing Sunny D and pissing on pee-sticks, Juno entered into largely uncharted territory with its exploration of the taboo that is teen pregnancy on screen. Catapulting the teen genre into the indie film landscape of the mid-00s and cementing Michael Cera in running shorts as an awkward icon, Juno can be credited for providing a multifaceted, feminist portrayal of the teen girl experience – something rarely found otherwise in the world of teen movies.
V IS FOR: THE VIRGIN SUICIDES
Providing an antidote to the all-American teen dream, Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides removed the teen genre from its testosterone-fuelled focus, exploring sisterhood, mental health and unreciprocated lust under the female gaze. Remembered for its iconic soundtrack, A* costume design and haz, dreamlike aesthetic, the 1999 film has gone on to provide endless visual inspo for girl-power photographers such as Dazed 100 star Petra Collins.
W IS FOR: WHO AM I?
The crux of all coming-of-age films. Whether you find love on the wrong side of the tracks a la Pretty in Pink or Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, use a fresh start to go all-out clean break-cum-psychopath like JD in Heathers, or become exposed as the mega-bitch you truly always were, teen movie characters are just like the rest of us: making it up as we go along.
X IS FOR: X-RATED
Things get truly terrifying when taken out of the classroom. Learn dutifully from Friday the 13th, Cabin Fever and I Know What You Did Last Summer that a camping trip is never a good idea – if you’re not a hot girl, you’re not gonna survive.
Y IS FOR: YEARBOOK
The ultimate enforcer of high-school hierarchy – choose the wrong quote – or be voted winner of an embarrassing category – and you’ll be eternally remembered for it by your peers. With more importance placed on shooting a stellar yearbook photo than passing high school in the first place, you better make sure your braces are off before the camera bulb flashes.
Z IS FOR: ZERO TO HERO
Everyone loves an underdog, and those who navigate their way up the high-school food chain from loser to kingpin cement their status in (teen) Hollywood history. However, don’t leave your morals behind on the way to the top like Cady in Mean Girls – otherwise, you might find yourself friendless, boyfriendless, and with a smashed African tribal vase on your conscience.