These beloved cult movies capture teenage life on the cusp of the digital age
With school dramas, break-ups, bitchiness, and pimples, directors around the world have been waxing lyrical about melodramatic school years on film for decades. The 90s was a decade when technology boomed and shifted the world’s attention towards the internet; the advancements in cinematography made it possible to show dinosaurs roaming the earth, or Leonardo DiCaprio sinking into the ocean (despite the fact there was room for him on that door – but that’s an issue for another time). But high school stories reigned supreme.
With Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s out now – a period piece following high school skaters in 90s California – we’re feeling nostalgic. Here’s ten must-see coming-of-age films from the archives.
WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE (1993)
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape will set off the water works. It stars the young Leonardo DiCaprio, who earned his first Oscar nomination playing the autistic teen Arnie Grape. After his father hangs himself, Gilbert Grape, played by Johnny Depp, struggles to care for his morbidly obese mother and younger brother (DiCaprio). Growing up in Iowa, the brothers have a relationship with one another so close it’ll touch any viewer; when Gilbert falls in love with Becky (Juliette Lewis), they embark on a romance that changes their lives forever.
BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991)
Looking at real questions of racial discrimination, violence and social oppression, Boys n the Hood follows a tale of three friends growing up together in Los Angeles. Ricky, the athlete, wants to leave the “hood” behind him and works hard in the hopes of obtaining a football scholarship to University of Southern California. “Dough” Ricky’s half-brother, gets embroiled in violence, alcohol and crime. Their friend Tre stays close to his father “Furious” Styles, who teaches him the life lessons of morality and honour. The movie focuses on relationships, failures, success and the lives of the youth in a place like the Crenshaw ghetto in South California.
NOW AND THEN (1995)
Four 12-year-old girls – Roberta, Teeny, Samantha and Chrissy – have the best summer of their lives in Shelby, Indiana. Years later, when they reunite as grown women in their hometown, the character Samantha Albertson (Demi Moore) starts the narration of their childhood story. Although only 12, they act mature for their age. Looking at Cosmopolitan horoscopes, the diva of the group, Roberta (Thora Birch) reads, “Roberta, you’re a women on the verge, although your sensuality is yet to be tapped, it’s like a volcano, ready to erupt.”
HARD BOILED EGG/OVOSODO (1997)
This Italian commedia dell’arte gem discusses a part of life that many men fear: the steps to fatherhood. This is the story of Piero, a shy boy who grows up in Livorno, Tuscany. His nickname is “Ovosodo”, which translates as “hard boiled egg.” The film takes the audience all the way from Piero’s childhood, to his marriage and coming of age. It shows us the difficulties of finding a purpose in life, and the obstacles that get in the way.
Trevor tells the story of 13-year-old boy who faces prejudice for his sexuality. “Dear diary, I’m now like, totally convinced that Mom and Dad couldn’t care less if I lived or died,” he narrates. “Last night I walked into the living room while they were watching TV and fell dead to the floor. No response from them. I think that television reruns have replaced their natural spontaneity.” We see his growing love of ballet, theatre and Diana Ross, and his growing realisation that he has a crush on his schoolmate Pinky Faraday.
Peggy Rajski, the director of this Academy award-winning film, brought producers Randy Stone and James Lecesne together to create a real life helpline to help those in similar positions as the character. What became known as “The Trevor Project” is a crisis and suicide prevention line (and non-profit organisation) for LGBTQ youth.
A list of 90s coming-of-age films wouldn’t be complete without Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s story of the teenagers growing up amid the Aids epidemic in 90s NYC. This was a film debut for stars including Chloë Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, Leo Fitzpatrick, and Justin Pierce. The actors address the issues and consequences of unsafe sex, STDs and drug use in a quasi-documentary style movie.
DRIVE ME CRAZY (1999)
Just before the turn of the century, Hollywood gave us this Melissa Joan Hart-starring, Britney Spears-soundtracked guilty pleasure of a teen rom-com. Nicole and Chase belong to different social worlds, but they find common ground in love. They join forces as a ploy to lure their own separate romantic interests and capture the “ones that got away” – and naturally, this being a rom-com, they find love closer than they anticipated.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999)
Sofia Coppola’s classic directorial debut tells the story of five sisters who are sheltered by their strictly Catholic and overprotective parents in the upscale suburbs – and drama spirals after a group of neighbourhood boys discover them. Two incidents turn this film into an unmissable depiction of American adolescence. The first story belongs to 13-year-old Cecilia, who is so overwhelmed by her emotions, she takes her life into her own hands. The second revolves around the rebellious teen Lux, who defies the house rules and grows close to the handsome boy Trip Fontaine.
STEALING BEAUTY (1996)
This 1996 drama film is about 19-year-old American Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler), who travels to see family friends in Tuscany following the death of her mother. She finds herself living in a luxurious villa near Siena and encounters her first kiss, Niccoló. It’s a laid-back holiday, smoking marijuana, swimming, bicycle rides, talking about virginity and falling in love. Stealing Beauty premiered in Italy 1996, and was selected for the Cannes Film Festival that year.
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)
A landmark cult classic of the New Queer Cinema movement is Gus Van Sant’s exhilarating drama My Own Private Idaho, which was inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts I and II. It tells the story of narcoleptic street hustler Mike Waters (River Phoenix) and his hustler best friend Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) who denies his heritage and rebels against his wealthy family. Together, they embark on an adventure from the streets of Portland to Idaho to Rome, eventually discovering themselves and their feelings for one another.
Mid90s is out in US cinemas now