15 Classic Teen Rebellion Movies

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by The Playlist Staff
March 12, 2013 2:37 PM
22 Comments
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"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..."(1968)

"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.
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22 Comments

  • Pink | April 13, 2014 12:07 AMReply

    Dazed and Confused???

  • Alboone | March 17, 2013 5:56 PMReply

    Uhm...Over the Edge...seriously this is a gross oversight. This list needs a redo.

  • Chris Polito | March 16, 2013 5:52 PMReply

    Donnie Darko
    Daydream Nation
    The Virgin Suicides

  • tyler | March 15, 2013 12:15 PMReply

    Donnie Darko?

  • tyler | March 15, 2013 12:15 PMReply

    Donnie Darko?

  • IJP | March 14, 2013 8:54 AMReply

    How about Slacker?

  • Akasha | March 14, 2013 3:13 AMReply

    I'm surprised that none of Gregg Araki's films got mentioned, "The Doom Generation", "Nowhere", or I suppose even "Mysterious Skin" could go there. "The Doom Generation" was one of the biggest films for me in terms of rebellion, crazed, and out there.

  • jononfire | March 13, 2013 5:16 PMReply

    Oops...you missed two others of Reese Witherspoon that I admire more than "Freeway": "Man in the Moon", and "Fear" (pairing her with Mark Wahlberg). Also, how about "Cruel Intentions", and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Mysterious Skin" (a real classic)?

  • KeL | March 13, 2013 12:50 PMReply

    Over the Edge! It needs to get added to the list.

  • joel | March 12, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    the only movie that should be on this list is over the edge. where is over the edge?

  • martin | March 12, 2013 7:04 PM

    agreed

  • martin | March 12, 2013 7:04 PM

    agreed

  • martin | March 12, 2013 7:04 PM

    agreed

  • NewYorker | March 12, 2013 4:18 PMReply

    defently my top 10 favorite rebellion teen movies are
    1-The Breakfest Club
    2-Havoc
    3-Kids
    4-Thirteen(i do like twilight, but my fav catherine hardwicke movie ever is actulley thirteen)
    5-West Side Story
    6-Grease
    7-Ferris Bueller's Day Off
    8-American Beauty
    9-Welcome to The Dollhouse
    10-Carrie

  • the dude | March 12, 2013 3:59 PMReply

    ZERO FOR CONDUCT.

  • Joe | March 12, 2013 3:28 PMReply

    I scrolled through 3 pages looking for Over The Edge. Nope.

  • Brimpstein | March 12, 2013 3:19 PMReply

    Why didn't you guys mention Over the Edge!?!

  • Bob Roberts | March 12, 2013 3:02 PMReply

    Agreed Dan. Right when I saw the headline I thought "Over the Edge"

  • MAL | March 12, 2013 3:01 PMReply

    Glad you have "Thirteen" on your list. I found it practically unwatchable but not because I didn't think it was excellent -- I have a daughter and I found this movie extremely disturbing as I thought of her growing up!

    I'm surprised you didn't mention The River's Edge.

  • Chris | March 12, 2013 2:52 PMReply

    Over the Edge (1979)

    Pixote (1981)

    Out of the Blue (1980)

  • Dan | March 12, 2013 2:50 PMReply

    I can't believe you didn't list "Over the Edge."

  • Dan | March 12, 2013 2:49 PMReply

    I can't believe you didn't list "Over the Edge."

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