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.
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.
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.
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?”
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