‘Being a teenager sucks! But that’s the point, surviving it is the whole point. Quitting is not going to make you stronger, living will,’ stated Hard Harry during the final moments of Pump Up the Volume. The movie, released in 1990, told of a shy and awkward teenager who moonlights each night as a rebellious pirate DJ from the basement of his family’s home. Being the new kid in town and unable to relate to both his fellow students and well-meaning parents, Mark Hunter – portrayed by then-rising star Christian Slater – communicates with other disillusioned and confused teenagers through the anonymity of his radio station, using the alias of Harry to express his youthful frustrations and mistrust of authority.
Rebellion is a natural process during puberty and plays a significant role in the transition from adolescence to adulthood, thus teenage angst has been a recurring theme for storytellers since the publication of The Catcher in the Rye almost seventy years ago. Holden Caulfield has since become the archetypal teenage rebel. The protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s classic novel was intelligent but lacked ambition or direction, a common criticism levelled at many of today’s youth. ‘Teenagers are associated with the worst of human behaviours – sloth, rudeness and excessive risk-taking’, claimed an article published by the Independent.
In today’s modern world Caulfield would most likely be diagnosed as suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) and prescribed medication in an attempt to control his depression. As Hard Harry explained, being a teenager is an unpleasant period in anyone’s life as they are exposed to new emotions and expectations that they are not always prepared for. ‘Adolescents have an immense amount of energy and creativity they need to express. It is a part of evolution for teenagers to push the edges,’ explained Time. ‘That is where innovation and new ideas emerge. When youth are given healthy channels and support, amazing things happen. When they are left out of healthy opportunities that energy can get lost in sad, often tragic directions.’
Regardless of the upbringing, the difficulties that teenagers face as they develop into adults is something that everyone experiences and, with changes in society as one decade leads to the next, filmmakers have attempted to move with the times with their portrayal of teenage life. The coming-of-age pictures of the eighties often focused on social status and popularity, while those of the twenty-first century would explore the darker side of adolescence, such as a desire to self-harm or even take one’s own life. The harsh reality of the modern world is reflected in the films that attempt to portray the youth of today.
On 20 April 1999 two students in a small Colorado town walked into their high school, armed with an assortment of shotguns, rifles and handguns and proceeded to shoot twelve of their fellow students and one teacher, before turning the guns on themselves. The massacre at Columbine High School served as a wake-up call to America, bringing to light the harsh realities of the modern world; how two seemingly normal kids can commit mass murder and suicide. The press and authorities began searching for answers, with the first scapegoat being violent computer games and movies, as well as controversial music artists like Marilyn Manson.
Yet the truth was far more shocking – there was no explanation. And over the last two decades since the tragic event there have been hundreds of similar incidents in the United States, with the BBC highlighting that in 2018 alone one hundred and thirteen people had either been murdered or injured as a result of high school shootings. The modern world is a difficult environment to grow up into, with the pressures of social networks, the horror of terrorism and an over-reliance on technology leaving children feeling isolated and confused.
In 1994 Elizabeth Wurtzel published her autobiography Prozac Nation and no title has ever encapsulated a generation as aptly. The issues that John Hughes explored in his Bratpack flicks of the eighties now seem somewhat outdated; having a crush on a popular boy at school or being jealous of the cool kids seems irrelevant when compared to a world where students are forced to walk through metal detectors and suffer body searches before being allowed into their own school. A film such as Class of 1984, an independent thriller released in the early eighties that predicted the high schools of the future as a war zone, may have been intended as mere fantasy but over the last twenty years the world has turned into a dangerous and unpredictable place.
The siblings feel trapped in their existence
A year after the incident in Colorado, Sophia Coppola’s directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, was released. Based on the novel of the same name by Jeffrey Eugenides, the movie was told from the point-of-view of a group of teenage boys who become fixated with five sisters. Raised by strict parents, the siblings feel trapped in their existence and their only outlet are the young kids that flirt with them. But, as the title suggests, the story culminates in a suicide pact among the sisters and how the community struggles to comprehend what has happened. Despite being set in the mid-seventies The Virgin Suicides seemed to resonate with the actions of the two teenagers in Columbine and served as a reminder that children were capable of unspeakable acts.
This was not the first teen movie to explore dark subject matters, however, as Michael Lehmann’s 1988 black comedy Heathers had previously indulged in murder and suicide. Tired of watching her so-called best friends exploiting their fellow students, Veronica Sawyer joins forces with class rebel J.D. to rid her school of those they feel are disruptive and unworthy. Framing the murders to appear as if the victims had killed themselves, the school soon becomes fixated with how each student’s social status has increased following their supposed suicide. As Veronica states when trying to warn her friend of how meaningless status is once you are dead, ‘You’re throwing your life away to become a statistic on US-fucking-A Today.’
In many ways Heathers could be considered a reaction to the relatively safe teen flicks of John Hughes, who had begun to dominate the American box office during the mid-eighties with a string of cult classics like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. Despite attempting to portray an authentic look at teenage life, Hughes’ films were often sugarcoated with sentimentality and avoided the more serious issues that plague adolescence. For example, those movies that featured high school bullies were often all talk and rarely resulted in violence; The Breakfast Club‘s John Bender intimidates the geek during detention but makes no real effort to hurt him, instead merely passing the time by humiliating him in an effort to entertain the other students, while the thug in Some Kind of Wonderful even comes to the rescue of the hero when confronted by his love rival.
Produced around the same time but often overlooked, Charles Braverman’s Brotherhood of Justice featured a pre-fame Keanu Reeves as a spoilt rich kid who heads a group of vigilantes in an effort clean up his school, but soon discovers that they have become a bigger menace than those they were attempting to oppose. Although at first waging war against drug dealers and thieves, the gang soon target those they feel are beneath them, including a young waiter who they suspect is making a move on his girlfriend. Despite being the hero, Reeves’ character has no understanding of how some families have to struggle to pay their way and thus looks down on those with less than him. As his girlfriend comments, ‘You’ve had your whole life handed to you on a silver platter, everything comes easy for you.’
In the eighties the primary cause for alienation in teen movies was often class divide, with either the rich kids looking down on their poorer classmates or the latter resenting their more fortunate fellow students. In Pretty in Pink the working class protagonist is mocked by the friends of the boy she has a crush on. At one point he states arrogantly, ‘Money really means nothing to me. Do you think I’d treat my parents’ house this way if it did?’ In the world of Hughes, the poor teenagers are often the smart and caring ones who ultimately triumph in the end, while the rich abusers are eventually humiliated. This kind of conflict, with the working class hero defeating their yuppie adversaries, was a common theme throughout the eighties, with both Trading Places and Wall Street portraying naïve young men who become seduced and ultimately consumed by money and power.
Other filmmakers of the era chose to look at puberty as some kind of monstrous transformation, using monsters such as werewolves as a metaphor for the changes that a teenager endures as they pass into adulthood. While the heroine of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves had not quite reached her teens the protagonist of the hit comedy Teen Wolf discovers that he is undergoing physical changes, while also developing a taste for partying and sex. This was explored far more explicitly many years later with Ginger Snaps, in which a quiet young girl is bitten by a werewolf on the day of her first period, causing her to change both physically and emotionally; alienating her sister, flirting and developing dark mood swings.
The one teen movie from the nineties that stood out from the pack was Kids, Larry Clark’s notorious independent drama that depicted a group of youths in New York having unprotected sex, without knowing that one of their friends has been diagnosed as HIV-positive. The characters in the movie were mostly obnoxious, self-obsessed and unsympathetic, while the film had a bleak tone that refused to give way to a happy ending. Kids was far removed from the more playful tone of Clueless and Empire Records, both of which were released the same year. Despite one of the characters in Empire Records having slit her wrists prior to the start of the movie, director Allan Moyle – who had also been responsible for Pump Up the Volume – avoided indulging too much in the misery and instead attempted to inject optimism into the movie.
Although not the catalyst, The Virgin Suicides would mark a transition in teen films, shifting the focus from sexual frustration and peer pressure to more serious issues such as depression and abuse. Although set in the eighties, the titular character from Richard Kelly’s surreal drama Donnie Darko shares similarities with modern teens; regularly seeing a psychiatrist and feeling alienated from everyone around him. Gun San Sant’s Elephant, a fictional fly-on-the-wall study of two teenagers who embark on a Columbine-style high school shooting, attempted to explore how such a tragedy could take place and what kind of events would lead to the young boys taking such drastic action. The movie was released the same year as Zero Day, another low budget drama inspired by the same incident that also featured a cast of unknowns, while almost a decade later high school shootings were still a cause for concern as depicted in the award-winning drama We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Despite being shot in Europe, Dear Wendy was set in a quiet mining town in the United States and told of a group of outcasts and misfits who form a club that they refer to as the Dandies, role-playing at outlaws with their pistols, only to eventually attract the unwanted attention of the authorities. ‘I come from this radical family where weapons were the most forbidden thing,’ explained writer Lars von Trier in an interview with the BBC during its promotion. More artistic than authentic, the movie played out like a stylised western and made little effort to comment on the current state of gun-related deaths in America.
One in four youths have used a gun or knife
High school violence, teenage drug abuse and suicide rates have been at an all-time high in recent years, particularly in the United States, where children have easier access to guns and substances. In an article published by CBS News in 2009 entitled Diagnosing Teen Violence the author revealed, ‘One in four youths have used a gun or knife or have been in a situation where someone was injured by a weapon in the past year, according to a large national study of adolescents.’ One in four is a frightening statistic, highlighting how children in the modern world are so easily exposed to real-life violence, despite the main concern being how it is portrayed in the media.
In recent years, those teenagers who have struggled to focus and lacked motivation have been diagnosed with such disorders as ADHD and prescribed medication like Ritalin, while depression has long been treated with Fluoxetine, the most common brand of which is Prozac. Unfortunately, however, these often come with their own side-effects. USA Today reported in a 2004 piece that, ‘A large new study added to previous research on Prozac shows that kids taking the drug have about a fifty per cent risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than those getting placebos.’
According to an article published by the Guardian in 2007 the statistics for teenage girls falling pregnant had risen in the United States for the first time in fifteen years. These results coincided with the revelation that the Bush Administration had diverted funding away from sex education in schools, the article reported. The same year a low budget drama called Juno was released, which chronicled the unplanned pregnancy of a young girl and how she considers having an abortion, before eventually deciding to give the child up for adoption. A piece published by the Huffington Post the following October pointed out that, according to records by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the United States has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies among fully-developed countries, commenting that, ‘This renewed focus on teen pregnancy is an opportunity for us all to commit to giving young people our support rather than stigmatising and judging them.’
One of the most important changes that teenagers have faced over the last two decades is the internet. As message boards led to forums and with both blogs and social networks playing such a prominent role in society, youngsters are faced with both new benefits and dangers. While children were always warned not to talk to strangers, now sexual predators can reach out to them in the privacy of their own bedrooms. There have been numerous reports over recent years of child pornography and paedophiles searching online for vulnerable children and so it was only a matter of time before this fear leaked into cinema.
Prior to her success with Juno, Ellen Page had been cast as a young girl who attracts the attention of an older man via the internet in the gruelling drama Hard Candy. Eventually deciding to meet up with the man, she agrees to go back to his home but then discretely spikes his drink, causing him to lose consciousness. He finally awakes to discover that he is tied to a chair and the once-sweet young girl is accusing him of being responsible for the recent disappearance of a teenager. Although Page portrayed the character as independent and strong, successfully manipulating the thirty-something man, the media regularly warns children of the real threat of communicating with strangers online.
This has become such a concern that in the United States Dateline NBC launched a show entitled To Catch a Predator, in which those who have contacted children online to arrange a meeting are captured via a sting operation with the aid of law enforcement officers. In a 2004 piece posted by MSNBC the writer stated, ‘A recent study found that one in five children online is approached by a sexual predator, a predator who may try to set up a face-to-face meeting.’ In Hard Candy, the potential victims turns the tables on her predator but in real life how in danger are children from online paedophiles? The FBI published guidelines on their official website to help youngsters avoid the unwanted attention of predators in an article entitled A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety, in which the Bureau warn, ‘Children, especially adolescents, are sometimes interested in and curious about sexuality and sexually explicit material. They may be moving away from the total control of parents and seeking to establish new relationships outside their family. Because they may be curious, children/adolescents sometimes use their online access to actively seek out such material and individuals. Sex offenders targeting children will use and exploit these characteristics and needs.’
While the teenagers of eighties movies were often obsessing over fellow students or trying to improve their social status, many of the youths in modern cinema struggle to find their own identity. One such movie was Thumbsucker, an adaptation of a 1999 novel by Walter Kirn, which follows the journey of seventeen-year-old Justin Cobb, a socially-awkward teenager who still sucks his thumb and attempts to overcome this through hypnosis. The same year saw the release of The Crumbscrubber, another analysis of teenage angst, this time with Dear Wendy‘s Jamie Bell as a youth struggling with the suicide of his best friend.
They are the post-9/11 generation
Along with the hidden dangers of social networks, there is another factor teenagers of the modern world are forced to face that previous generations were not subjected to. The terrorist attacks that took place on 11 September 2001 would transform the world overnight and those that are referred to as Millennials are the children who were raised in the aftermath of this tragedy. ‘They are the post-9/11 generation, raised in an era of economic and national insecurity,’ explained Time, while USA News added, ‘Today’s youth have grown up in the grim shadows of post-9/11. Unfortunately, this generation knows all too well the fear of terrorism. Whether it be a lone shooter or mass terrorist attack, our nation’s youth have come to know and live with violence in their lives. From concerts to malls and restaurants to schools, today’s youth understand the stark reality that they live in a time where their sense of security can instantly be stripped away by heinous and cowardly attacks of others.’
With modern cinema portraying adolescence as something to be feared, is this a true reflection of the life that teenagers face in the twenty-first century? Many of us look back on this period as the best years of our lives but at the time we are forced to struggle with an abundance of emotions, urges and confusions. It is a time when the pressures of adulthood have yet to take hold and the world seems full of possibilities. Sex is exciting, responsibilities are minimal and your friends are the best you will ever have. Yet it is not until many years later that we look back and finally appreciate how exciting it was to be a teenager. Is this how the youths of today will feel when they look back on their teens in twenty years or will they only remember the terrorist attacks and high school shootings?
It is somewhat ironic that the more social networks bring us together they also push us apart, highlighting the insignificant differences between one another and giving strangers an open window into our lives that previously would only have been seen by our families and friends. This kind of vulnerability could add further pressure on young people as they attempt to forge relationships and truly understand the person they really are. But in reality every teenager is facing their own personal struggle and while it may not seem it at the time, most of the other teenagers around them are feeling the same way. As one character said in The Breakfast Club, ‘We’re all pretty bizarre, some of us are just better at hiding it.’