Teenagers rebel. It is in their nature. This has been the basis for many great films about teenage life from Coppola’s The Outsiders to Corman’s Rock n Roll High School to Lehmann’s Heathers.
Apparently it is a fact of life; teens rebel, it is in their nature. We should all know of course – we were teenagers once. Those who have enjoyed parenthood will no doubt have gone through it all again – this time on the receiving end.
Looking back, for me, teenager rebellion was about finding an identity that was removed from the idealised vision of my parents – my father, in particular. My mum would encourage individualism and creativity in her daydreaming son who wanted to be a writer. My dad, on the other hand, was disinterested in my artistic endeavours believing the only true measure of success was in academic achievement; ultimately, what kind of lawyer or doctor I ended up becoming. In most respects, I wish I had achieved more academically but I was never going to become a doctor. So my rebellion started there – watch as many films as I could possibly see and make sure my dad knew about it. What a disappointment I must have been!
But my teenage rebellion wasn’t quite as extreme as the upheaval seen in the films that have portrayed this coming of age. While it took cinema a long time to properly portray teenage life (it wasn’t until the 1950s that it gave teenagers the respect they deserved), in the decades that followed, teenagers have gone on some life changing journeys in their quest to find their identity.
The following ten films are some of the best teenage rebellion movies ever made. You might also be interested in our Top 10 American Coming-of-Age films of the 1980s.
10. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (Allan Arkush, USA, 1979)
This Roger Corman-produced film celebrated the arrival of punk and its affect on the youth of late 1970s America. In the great tradition of Corman’s trashy quickly-produced films, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School looks every bit as cheap as its $300,000 budget but Scream Queen P.J. Soles keeps it all together with a sassy performance. The film is also notable for the appearance of The Ramones who get the opportunity to play a couple of songs and also become honorary students when the high school is overrun by the teenagers after some parents try to burn their rock n roll records.
9. If…. (Lindsay Anderson, UK, 1968)
If…. marks the first screen role for Malcolm McDowell. His counter-culture, non-conformist character brought him to the attention of Stanley Kubrick who cast him in A Clockwork Orange. Lindsay Anderson, the harbinger of Free Cinema, the British creative movement of the 1960s, makes this biting, surreal satire of public school life. The director’s damning adjudication of the British public school system and its clampdown on individualism is the film’s most appealing conceit before a devastating conclusion that shows the student’s revolting in the most destructive way.
8. Pump Up The Volume (Allan Moyle, USA, 1990)
Christian Slater is the James Dean of Pump Up The Volume. He’s a reclusive kid who keeps his nose out of other people’s business at school before going home and secretly broadcasting a pirate radio station under the persona Hard Harry. Hard Harry becomes the voice of a generation in a sleepy suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, as his broadcasts grow increasingly popular. When a teen commits suicide, Hard Harry confronts the tragedy directly, encouraging his fellow teens to rise up against what they perceive as their obstacles. This culminates in a battle with the school, the police and the Federal Communications Commission who desperately want to find this rogue radio broadcaster and shut him down.
7. The Outsiders (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1983)
Francis Ford Coppola’s film is an intelligent, thoughtful and measured look at 1960s youth culture in the face of class division. Our protagonists are made up of “Greasers”, a group of kids from lower working class neighbourhoods who endure daily turf-war battles with the middle class kids known as “Socs”. The film is notable for how it was conceived (Jo Ellen Misakian, a librarian at Lone Star Elementary School in Fresno, California, and her students, who were fans of S.E. Hinton’s novel, pressured Coppola into making the film) and for the array of actors who would become big stars in Hollywood including Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, and Diane Lane.
6. Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1955)
Perhaps most famous for being released only weeks after James Dean’s death, Rebel Without A Cause sees a rebellious teenager arrive at a new high school where he finds a little romance while ensuring he does everything his parents tell him not to. The film was groundbreaking in many ways, not least in its portrayal of the moral decay of youth where the American Dream is a distant, almost phantom, ideal.
5. Foxes (Adrian Lyne, USA, 1980)
Before Fatal Attraction, 9 ½ Weeks and Flashdance, Adrian Lyne made Foxes with a young Jodie Foster. This coming of age tale focuses on the lives of four teenage girls at the end of the 1970s. They suffer from the usual problems – relationships, sex, drugs, breaking away from the family nest, school – but the beauty of the film lies in its authentic portrayal of these characters. Foxes is a great time capsule of that period where the decadent seventies met head on with materialistic eighties.
4. Heathers (Michael Lehmann, USA, 1989)
In Michael Lehmann’s pitch black comedy, Christian Slater leads Winona Ryder away from the popular clique known by their mutual name Heather. As the twosome rise up against the popular kids, their pranks to get even result in deadly consequences. Heathers is a wonderfully dark look at high school politics, oppression and the battle for acceptance and popularity.
3. Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, USA, 1984)
There’s a cinema verite aesthetic in this Roger Corman-produced film about kids who run away from home and live life squatting in abandoned tract housing developments. The film is notable for being shot on location around Downey and Norwalk in California which were notorious for gangs and drugs. There’s a raw intensity about Spheeris’ Suburbia that captures the energy of teenage rebellion at its most ferocious.
2. Over The Edge (Jonathan Kaplan, USA, 1979)
Over The Edge needs no other introduction than me saying it inspired Nirvana’s seminal classic Smells Like Teen Spirit. It tells the story of the young people of New Granada, a planned community in Denver, Colorado which has failed to cater for its young population. This has led to teenagers finding their own amusement taking drugs, drinking alcohol, and listening to rock music. It’s saddening to think young minds must contemplate drug and alcohol treatment programs over college majors. When the only place to unwind in town is threatened with closure, the kids rise up against the adults who fail to understand them. A great film about the generation gap, and a devastating “warts and all” depiction of teenage rebellion.
1. The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, USA, 1985)
In the most wholesome of ways, John Hughes presents teenage rebellion in the only way he knows how – with genuine affection for teenage life. In the classic 1980s film, five kids who fit various high school stereotypes find themselves in detention together. Their rebellion is drawn from a desire to break away from the pigeonholed personas they are miserably trying to conform to. In the ultimate act of rebellion they decide not to write the essay presented to them as punishment for earlier transgressions. Instead, Anthony Michael Hall speaks for the group when he writes a protest letter to their teacher which reads: “Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was that we did wrong…and what we did was wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write this essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us…in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.”
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.
Your turn – What are your favourite teenage rebellion films?
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