Back to IndieWire

15 Classic Teen Rebellion Movies

15 Classic Teen Rebellion Movies

This week sees two very different, and very worthwhile, films hit theaters, each dealing with youthful rebellion as their central characters. The first, Sally Potter‘s “Ginger & Rosa,” follows two young teen girls (Elle Fanning and Alice Englert) in 1960s England as they play hooky from school, discover politics, and have their first sexual experiences. The second is a little less wistful: Harmony Korine‘s “Spring Breakers,” starring Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez and Rachel Korine as four co-eds who head to Florida on spring break, fall in with a drug dealer (James Franco) and leave their old lives behind.

The two couldn’t be further apart in content or execution, but they’re both very much worth checking out (have a look at our reviews of “Ginger & Rosa,” and “Spring Breakers”), and both show the continuing popularity of teenage rebellion as a cinematic subject matter. Because ever since people worked out that teenagers, you know, existed, sometime in the 1950s, angsty, anti-conformist adolescents have been easy to find in your theaters. So to mark the release of this week’s double-header, we’ve picked out some of our favorites from over the years. Check them out below, and let us know your favorites in the comments section.

“The Breakfast Club” (1985)
Earnest and irresistible, like the best John Hughes films, “The Breakfast Club” shows you a world you want to believe in, in spite of yourself. One Saturday morning detention brings together five high-school archetypes: a Jock, a Nerd, a Princess, a Rebel and a Freak. The five gradually begin to share parts of their ordinarily segregated lives, and realise that they are not so different after all. A potential horrorshow of cliché is averted by sensitive and memorable performances from the young leads — Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy — who were collectively launched to stardom on the back of it. Its influence cannot be overstated, both on the lives of real teenagers and on a generation of filmmakers. Kevin Smith called them “the best friends that most of us never had” and Judd Apatow said, “Everything I do is based on ‘The Breakfast Club.’” The rebellion on show may be a bit soft-core compared to  some of the other movies we’ll discuss, but few films have ever been as perspicuous about adolescents. Lines like:  “My God are we gonna be like our parents?” and “When you grow up your heart dies” echo the eternal concerns of teenagers in everywhere and, for all their innocence, the scenes where the gang come to terms with the harsh realities of adult life still pack an emotional punch. “The Breakfast Club” may to the ’80s what “The Great Gatsby” is to the ’20s: if you were there, you know that it’s not how it really was, but it’s how people will choose to remember it anyway.

“A Clockwork Orange” (1971)
Few films could be less like “The Breakfast Club” if they tried. In fact, for the whole of the ’80s, it was legally impossible to see the film in parts of the world, most notably the UK, after the stylized violence it portrayed allegedly inspired copycat incidents, and director Stanley Kubrick withdrew the film from circulation shortly after its release. What a crime it would have been if this film had disappeared from view. Based on the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess, “A Clockwork Orange” is a towering work of philosophical cinema; a social treatise which only grows more prescient with every passing decade. Kubrick came to the film after a long-gestating project on the life of Napoleon project fell through (Steven Spielberg is now developing a Napoleon miniseries based on the Kubrick script), and the notoriously perfectionist director made “A Clockwork Orange” on a small budget in a matter of months. Malcolm McDowell, at his goggle-eyed, manic best, portrays Alex, the disaffected gang-leader with a penchant for ultra-violence who undergoes a brutal course of paternalistic correctional treatment. McDowell endured a particularly arduous shoot, damaging a cornea, breaking ribs and bearing the brunt of Kubrick’s demanding directorial style. The science-fiction stylings, the futuristic costume and Russian-influenced patois that Alex’s gang of “droogs” use, have aged remarkably well, and as a portrayal of destructive youth, it is peerless. The movie also stands as a rare act of bravery from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which rewarded a shocking and controversial work with nominations for Best Picture and Best Director (though it ultimately lost out to “The French Connection“). If “The Breakfast Club” is a toasty comfort blanket of teen cinema, then  “A Clockwork Orange” is a cold, hard dagger to the heart.

“Cry-Baby” (1990)
Rebel Without a Cause” crossed with an Elvis movie, all from the warped mind of the “Pope of Trash,” John Waters. “Cry-Baby” stars Johnny Depp as the dreamy and troubled Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, teen gang leader of the “Drapes”. Able to only cry a single tear, Cry-Baby makes all the girls go wild though the only one he wants is “square” Allison Vernon-Williams (Amy Locane). Unfortunately, Cry-Baby ends up in jail after being falsely accused of starting a riot by Allison’s boyfriend. With all of the odds against them (including her grandmother, his stalker, and the police), Allison rallies for his release and the two teens in love are reunited, after Cry-Baby wins a chicken race against her beau, in true 1950s rebel fashion. By the end, Cry-Baby has finally resolved his issues with the past and is able to cry from both eyes, rather than leaking a solitary tear. With song titles like “Doin’ Time for Bein’ Young” and “High School Hellcats,” and a cast including Waters-ian oddballs Traci Lords and Patty Hearst, “Cry-Baby” is a masterful, tongue-in-cheek homage to the 1950s teen rebel as only John Waters could make it. Depp took the role of Cry-Baby to rebel against the Hollywood machine and being pigeonholed as a mainstream teen heartthrob. Waters said that while they were discussing the movie, Depp told him that, “he hated being a teen idol. I said, ‘Stick with us, we’ll kill that. Don’t worry.'” Depp credited Waters as turning his career around, saying “John saved me, he really did, because I was desperate to get out of that mold, y’know, and desperate to not be a product anymore.” For the record, Depp will star in “Pirates of the Caribbean 5” in the summer of 2015.

“An Education” (2009)
Movies aimed at, or about teenagers, seek to illustrate the teenage “experience” and how said experiences shape their future. Director Lone Scherfig adapted writer Lynn Barber’s book of the same name into a film exploring how one teenager comes to find and learn from her experiences. The film follows 1960s London teen Jenny (Carey Mulligan), an idealistic 16-year-old who dreams of becoming a French existentialist. Her wiser-than-her-age sensibility finds a match in the thirtysomething David (Peter Sarsgaard), who wows her with trips to concerts and conversation with his sophisticated friends. The two find something in each other, but is it more than Jenny can handle? Throughout the movie Jenny is forced to question the life of young women in 1960s London, many of whom end up becoming secretaries and wives. Jenny’s need to rebel stems from a desire to see the world and live, and she believes that she‘s found a man who sees her as a woman, and not a child. By the end, Jenny’s fantasy is shattered and she’s confronted with questioning whether she ever knew what she wanted to begin with. Is the simple experience of being with David, enough to please her for the moment? Jenny may be accomplished for sixteen, but she learns the harsh truth that she may not know as much as she believes, and that’s always a hard truth to discover.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986)
Sometimes a film is such a cultural touchpoint that it’s hard to see it’s actually pretty atypical of the kind of movie it has come to represent. And so it is with John Hughes’ 1986 sine qua non of the high school film, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Without a doubt deserving its spot in the pantheon, one of the things that makes ‘Ferris’ so enduringly popular, and endlessly referenced is that, in one of the most formulaic of genres, the particular trick it pulls off has never really been repeated. Other movies on this list deal with the pain of being an outsider, the longing for acceptance, and the cruel alienations and humiliations that seem world-ending when viewed through the magnifying prism of hormonal teenagerdom. But Ferris? Nope. Ferris is popular. Crazy popular, no less, with a pretty girlfriend (Mia Sara), a doggedly loyal best friend (Alan Ruck) and a school seemingly stuffed to the brim not just with admirers, but with fans; if his bitchy sister (Jennifer Grey) and arch adversary principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) don’t buy into the hype, they are the only two. Ferris is beloved by all, manipulative to the point of smug, extroverted, self-confident and ridiculously lucky. It’s this self-assuredness that lets him rebel by cutting school, rather than angst or feeling like he doesn’t fit in. By all rights we should hate the hell out of him. But we don’t, because Matthew Broderick is so guilelessly adorable in the role, and because Ferris, winking and wisecracking to camera, wins us over too, damn him. Long before he leaps in agonizing slow-mo over that backyard fence to the strains of Yello, long before Cameron has wrecked his Dad’s Ferrari (but is gonna be OK), long before sister Jeanie has had the bitch snogged out of her by a winning (sorry) Charlie Sheen, we are totally with Ferris. Still simply one of the most exuberant and strangely innocent celebrations of how fucking great it can be to be young and cool.

“Ghost World” (2001)
The movie that launched a million fangirl and fanboy fantasies, “Ghost World” tells the story of Enid (Thora Birch) and Becky (Scarlett Johansson) as they try to navigate their lives after high school graduation. Directed by “Crumb” helmer Terry Zwigoff, and written by Daniel Clowes, the author of the comic book of the same name, the film was adored by critics and has gained a cult following since its limited release. Enid and Becky are outsiders from the very beginning, voicing every teenager’s monotone angst as they try to figure out who they are. Stumbling through the adult world, they decide to answer a personal ad and play a prank on Seymour (Steve Buscemi), the middle-aged man who placed it. Feeling guilty after, Enid follows Seymour to his garage sale and buys one of his Blues records, sparking an unconventional friendship of sorts. As Enid and Seymour become closer, Becky gets a real job and drifts away from Enid. Things go downhill from there and Enid ends up running away from home. Enid and Becky rebel against the conformity of a set life plan and the social expectations of young women, even if it appears Becky has succumbed to them by the end. This sardonic duo taught us that even with a few stumbles and falls we always have the option to run away from it all.

“Heathers” (1989)
Coming in two years after the sappily titled “Pretty in Pink,” “Heathers” is a darkly comic satire on the brutality of high school cliques. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder, in one of her first roles), a relatively normal middle-class girl with an above average IQ, has been adopted by the popular girls, all called Heather, but isn’t sure she can hack the moral ambiguity and all-around vapid bitchiness that comes with the crown. Everything changes when she meets the new kid J.D. (Christian Slater, aping Jack Nicholson), whose disdain for the high school hierarchy, and readiness with a weapon, provides her with a way out: offing the popular kids. J.D. deceives Veronica and funnels her adolescent fury into violent action. Painting their murders as suicides, Veronica and J.D. get revenge and attempt to upend the social order, however little changes at the high school, as suicide becomes a trend (with number one single “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)” by Big Fun, playing in the background), while the Queen Bees at Westerburg High (named for the frontman of The Replacements) are quickly replaced. Veronica manages to foil J.D.’s dramatic plans to blow up the school, create “a Woodstock for the 80s,” and simultaneously usurp and break free of the Heathers, taking up instead with the school dork Martha Dunnstock, and striking a blow for teenage misfits everywhere. The script is a sarcastic gold mine for made-up teen quotables, from “What’s your damage?” to “How very” and the cynically romantic “Our love is God, let’s go get a slushie.” The out-of-touch teachers and parents all make hilarious straight men, whether they are ignoring the events or going into overzealous touchy-feely smother-mode, as one hippie teacher earnestly informs the kids, “Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.” Its hard to believe that Winona Ryder was just 17 when she made “Heathers” — the world weary one-liners and simultaneous eye-roll seem like second nature, and the combo-release of “Beetlejuice” that same year made her the object of outsider adoration the world over. “Heathers,” though a box office dud, became a cult classic and source material for a spate of black high school comedies in the future.

“Heavenly Creatures” (1994)
This early Peter Jackson gem signalled the end of the “splatter” period which brought films like “Bad Taste” and “Braindead” to the living rooms of teenagers and gore-fiends everywhere. If you’ve seen those films was you would hardly believe “Heavenly Creatures” was from the same director. Featuring the film debuts of future awards-hoarder Kate Winslet (who has scarcely bettered this terrific performance) and Playlist favorite Melanie Lynskey, the film tells the story of the true life Parker-Hulme murder case  from 1954. The tale of two girls who form an obsessive friendship and then plot to murder the mother of one of them made headlines around the world and prompted a rash of insalubrious and sensationalist coverage, accusing the girls of everything from being lesbian Satanists to symbols of the moral decline of civilization. Jackson said that his intention was to focus on the friendship between the girls rather than the crime, and it is in this respect that it truly shines. The fantasy world the girls create, from their hysterical love of opera singer and movie star Mario Lanza, to creating and populating their own imaginary land and nurturing secret hatreds, perfectly captures the otherworldliness that makes teenage friendships so memorable and so dangerous. The fizzing chemistry between Winslet and Lynskey drives a pitch-perfect script (which richly deserved its Oscar nod) and makes it all-too believable when the friendship becomes unhinged, and spills over into the territory of tragedy.

“If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” opens Rudyard Kipling‘s poem “If…” from which the title of Lindsay Anderson‘s film is taken, before closing “You’ll be a Man, my son!” But it’s probably safe to say that “The Jungle Book” author would not consider Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), or any of the others characters in Anderson’s controversial, Palme D’Or winning film, “men,” at least by the criteria he sets out in his famous poem. Set at a nightmarish boarding school somewhere in Britain, it focuses on Mick, who is relentlessly bullied by the Whips, senior boys in self-appointed positions of authority. The whole institution is deeply rotten: the teachers are either ineffectual or perverted (the house master’s wife is fond of roaming the halls naked), the boys either bully each other or engage in sado-masochistic, auto-asphyxiating rituals. But Mick and his friends (Richard Warwick and David Wood) kick against the system, culminating, after a brutal corporal punishment scene, in the boys finding automatic weapons and firing on the other pupils, staff and their parents — a scene that was shocking then, and has lost none of its power over the years thanks to the tragic events at Columbine and elsewhere. Influenced by Jean Vigo‘s “Zero de conduite,” the film sees Anderson taking a very British take on teen rebellion — McDowell’s character might ride a motorbike and sleep with local girls, but he’s hardly James Dean. But in its state-of-the-nation satire, and its surreal, almost Bunuelian tone, the film lasts far beyond the wave of counter-culture it rode originally, and remains a real landmark of British cinema.

“Kids” (1995)
Spring Breakers” marks something of complete circle for Harmony Korine — he’s returned to the theme of out-of-control youth, which formed the subject of his first screenplay, “Kids,” written in three weeks when he was barely into his twenties. Directed by photographer Larry Clark, the story centers on Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), Casper (the late Justin Pierce), Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) and Ruby (Rosario Dawson), four under-aged New York teenagers, who spend their time partaking in drugs, unprotected sex, and violence (attacking a random man in a skate park). An undoubted cinematic lightning rod at the time, it’s unsparing in its provocations, and impressively even-handed in its refusal to judge the behavior of its characters, even while they’re handing out beatings, rape and HIV between themselves. But for all its punk rock energy, the film dated quickly, and albeit partly because of his subsequent work — it’s hard to get past Clark’s leery eye for teenage flesh, and the film feels doubly grimy as a result. The performances from Sevigny (then 20) and Dawson (then only 16) are undoubtedly impressive — it’s no surprise they blew up as a result — but nearly twenty years on, the film mostly feels like an After School Special directed by your creepy uncle.

“The Outsiders” & “Rumble Fish”  (1983)
Coming off perhaps his most hubristic period (“Apocalypse Now” had almost killed him, and 1982’s “One From The Heart” was an unqualified critical and commercial disaster), Francis Ford Coppola seemed to be downscaling with a pair of 1983 films, each based on novels by E.S. Hinton. But despite its modest origins (Coppola had been asked to make it by the librarian and pupils of a Fresno Elementary School), the first of these, “The Outsiders,” still showed that Coppola’s ambition was undiluted — he aimed to make nothing less than “Gone With The Wind” for teenagers. Certainly cast-wise, Coppola delivered. The film’s made up of a group of future 1980s icons including C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise and Diane Lane. The frighteningly young and attractive cast play the Greasers, a gang of poor teens in 1960s Tulsa, whose rivalry with the wealthier Socs becomes a war after Johnny (Macchio) kills their leader Bob (Leif Garrett). Coppola’s idea of a teen epic is clear in the way he shoots the film, all Cinemascope and soaring score, but it might have been the wrong source material — it’s a little too naive and simplistic to be the definitive teen flick, but it’s still a gorgeous-looking and somewhat undervalued film, even if companion piece “Rumble Fish” is probably the more worthwhile of the two. Written while in production on “The Outsiders,” and reusing much of the same cast and crew, the tale of the relationship between Rusty (Dillon again) and his super-cool brother Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke, in a breakthrough turn), is, if anything, an argument against teen rebellion. Rourke’s character meets a tragic end, serving as something of a cautionary tale. But its gorgeous black-and-white lensing, boundary-pushing Stewart Copeland score, greater focus, and the depth of feeling in the central performances all undeniably make it the superior picture.

“Pump Up The Volume” (1990)
Though justifiably overshadowed by the earlier and more acerbic “Heathers,” the other teen flick featuring Christian Slater as a Jack Nicholson-tinged rebel, “Pump Up The Volume,” still has a few pleasures to be found. Slater plays Mark Hunter, a lonely high-school student who, unbeknownst to his classmates, is the host of a local pirate radio station playing alt-rock like Pixies, Bad Brains and Sonic Youth, while broadcasting his views on what’s wrong with society, his elders and his peers. But his little hobby gathers steam after a classmate commits suicide, kicking off a minor revolution among his classmates, bringing in the attentions of beguiling student Nora (Samantha Mathis), the FCC and his corrupt principal (Annie Ross). Written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Allan Moyle,  (who’d go on to make another music-tinged teen cult classic, the much less interesting “Empire Records“), the film is unexpectedly sincere and straight-faced, which works both to its advantage (there’s a simple anger that runs through that’s reminiscent of “Rebel Without A Cause” as much as anything else), and occasionally hobbles it — it tips into melodrama a touch too often, and Mark is a little too self-righteous to truly become an icon. But there’s a propulsive energy to the whole thing (thanks in part to that killer soundtrack, which also includes Ice-T, Leonard Cohen and Soundgarden), and perhaps even more so than “Heathers,” it’s probably the definitive performance from Slater.

“Rebel Without A Cause” (1955)
Where would any piece on cinematic teen rebellion be without the film that, along with the same year’s “Blackboard Jungle,” pretty much started the whole thing? “Rebel Without A Cause” (based on psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner‘s 1944 book “Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath“) was the original, and still the most iconic, screen take on adolescent angst and fury, and thanks to the world-class filmmaking of director Nicholas Ray, remains one of the most effective. James Dean, who tragically passed away a few weeks before the film’s release (his rise to stardom had caused Warner Bros to order Ray to reshoot the film in color), stars as Jim Stark, a young man, newly arrived at an L.A. high school and already in trouble with the authorities, who falls in with classmates Plato (Sal Mineo) and Judy (Natalie Wood), who recognize him after being brought into the police station on the same night. The trio are furious at their peers, at the complacency (or absence) of their uncomprehending parents and at the world around them, in an infinitely more empathetic and realistic manner than the near-hysterical “Blackboard Jungle.” The screenplay is probably the weakest link: the lines can clunk, pushing the theme into text rather than subtext, although there is also a rich undercurrent of sexual longing and inevitable, fatal madness. Plus the sheer fury it feels — thanks in particular to the superb performances by Wood, Mineo and especially Dean (who would all meet tragic fates themselves after filming wrapped) — still feels like a firecracker today.

“Thirteen” (2003)
There’s no greater shark tank than high school, and no movie portrays the trials of peer pressure in such a brutal, and blistering way than director Catherine Hardwicke (pre-pre-”Twilight”) and her 2003 film, “Thirteen.” The story boils down the teenage experience, particularly for young girls, into a world of appearances, sexuality, and the obsessive desire to keep yourself above everyone else. Wannabe Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) will do anything to become popular in her freshman year, and she soon finds it in her best friend – and popular It girl – Evie (Nikki Reed). The two develop a close bond, right down to Evie living in Tracy’s house, but as Tracy’s mother Mel (Holly Hunter) discovers, the two friends are slowly destroying each other.  here’s a poignant moment near the end, where Tracy and Evie are sitting in the backseat of a car, looking hollow and drained. It’s a stereotypical image – the hard years of being a teen have caused them to waste away – but it presents a frightening, and all too realistic, depiction of what passes for beauty to young girls today. Rebellion is commonly told from a female perspective, but “Thirteen” shows female angst with no filter. The only fantasy Tracy has is a drive to be popular, but today’s popularity involves compromising every value instilled by parents. When Mel says “I didn’t think it’d gone this far” it makes the audience ask, “Where was the line to begin with?”

“West Side Story” (1961)
Teenage rebellion never looked so polite, or well choreographed! “West Side Story” recycles the tale of Romeo and Juliet, but moves the action from Renaissance Italy to modern-day New York, and turns the action of the plot from warring families to warring gangs. The Sharks and the Jets have hated each other for years, but it’s not until the leader of the Sharks’ sister Maria (Natalie Wood), falls for Jet member Tony (Richard Beymer), that trouble comes to a head. Their romance is just as romantic and heartfelt as what Shakespeare wrote down, but with an added dash of A-list class and social commentary. Here, the forbidden romance between our two teens isn’t just about forbidden love, but America’s fears of miscegenation and the belief that the rise of new immigrants will ruin the country. Oh, how times haven’t changed. On top of that, the rise of gangs, like the Jets, establishes a growing problem in America at the time: the collapse of the nuclear family. Jet leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) finds that a gang is more of a family than the one he was born into. The Jerome Robbins dancing keeps the bloodshed to a minimum – there’s never a problem that a dance sequence can’t solve – but Robbins and Robert Wise‘s film took Shakespeare’s stodgy tragedy and turned it into a modern day comment on racism and immigration, with a bopping jazz score and a lot of grown-men pirouetting through the air.

Honorable Mentions: There are plenty of otheres we didn’t quite have the time, space or inclination to include. Among them: George Roy Hill‘s “The World Of Henry Orient“; the aformentioned “Blackboard Jungle“; Rian Johnson‘s “Brick“; Kristen Stewart vehicle “The Runaways“; Douglas Sirk‘s “Imitation Of Life” (and its 1934 predecessor); Lukas Moodysson‘s “Show Me Love“; Edward Yang‘s “A Brighter Summer Day“; Otto Preminger‘s “Bonjour Tristesse“; John Waters‘ “Hairspray“; Sam Mendes‘ “American Beauty“; musical classics “Grease” and “Footloose“; Francois Ozon‘s “Swimming Pool“; Reese Witherspoon breakthrough “Freeway“; Elia Kazan‘s “Splendor In The Grass;” controversial Leonardo DiCaprio starrer “The Basketball Diaries” and John Singleton‘s “Boyz N The Hood.” Any others you think deserve a mention? Fight their corner in the comments below.

– Oliver Lyttelton, Diana Drumm, Kieran McMahon, Kristen Lopez

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox