Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
“As if!” is what you probably just shouted at your screen while simultaneously throwing up a big “W.” Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film, a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma set in Beverly Hills, is undeniably a seminal classic that had a major influence on our teen (and, if we’re being totally honest, adult) years.
Think about the factors that made it such a memorable formative experience, though: the instantly quotable catchphrases, unforgettable characters, style for days, and a soundtrack we played on repeat. It’s these tropes and traits that give films like Clueless their staying power.
“I always feel like teen movies, whether they know it or not, are kind of guiding the viewer as to how they should be living out their adolescence,” says Charlie Lyne, whose new documentary Beyond Clueless delves into the universal appeal of teen movies. “They might seem formulaic and straightforward, but that traditional backbone gives them a license to tackle something incredibly difficult.”
With that in mind, we asked Lyne to weigh in on 10 iconic teen films that hold a special place in the coming-of-age canon. “Do you know the wounds of adolescence can take years to heal?” Cher asks in Clueless. Consider these flicks the visual Midol for your teen angst. It’s better than a body count.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
The 411: The beloved Ferris (Matthew Broderick) has a magical day in Chicago when he plays hooky with his girlfriend, Sloane, (Mia Sara) and best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck).
The lingo: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it." — Ferris
The trends: Sloane’s fringy white jacket and white boots coordinated perfectly with Ferris’ leopard-print vest and white oxfords. Cameron’s Detroit Red Wings jersey matched the red Ferrari Ferris he "borrows" from Mr. Frye.
Signature jams: “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles and the recurring motif of "Danke Schoen" by Wayne Newton.
Why it sticks: On at least some level, who doesn’t aspire to live like Ferris Bueller? He’s charismatic and clever beyond his years and uses it to have one last hurrah before high school ends. He leads a friggin’ parade and starts a flash mob (before flash mobs were even a thing). He also bests all of the adults in his life, from the villainous Principal Rooney to his parents.
"I actually didn’t include any John Hughes movies in Beyond Clueless; they’re just permanently ingrained masterpieces," Lyne says. "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was one of those titans of '80s teen films that dominated the field to such an extent that it ruled out the possibility of any other teen movies that weren’t made by John Hughes having a chance." Chick...chicka chicka. Oh yeah.
The 411: Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) secretly loathes her in-crowd friends, the Heathers. When she meets new kid J.D., a rebellious loner (Christian Slater), they decide to start killing the popular kids at school.
The lingo: "Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw. Do I look like Mother Teresa?" — Heather Chandler
The trends: Croquet casual, a.k.a. blazers, pleated skirts, and knee socks.
Signature jam: The so-out-of-place-it-works "Que Sera Sera."
Why it sticks: Heathers is '80s dark comedy at its peak. It plays out the sadistic fantasy of actually offing one’s high school bullies, but errs on the side of "This is not real life; do not repeat at home." "It’s the perfect concluding note to that era of teen movies that had started to eat itself," Charlie Lyne says. "Its impact was felt massively at the time. It’s a coda to those John Hughes and Brat Pack movies."
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
The 411: Adapted from Cameron Crowe’s book of the same name, Fast Times chronicles a year in the life of teens at Ridgemont High and the local mall in 1980s SoCal. Notable standouts include stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn)’s face-off with Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), and Damone (Robert Romanus) not showing up to take Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to her abortion. Oh, and Linda (Phoebe Cates) fueling a thousand masturbatory fantasies in the famous red-bikini scene.
The lingo: "Aloha, Mr. Hand!" — Spicoli
The trends: This was '80s SoCal at its finest, right down to Spicoli’s serape-inspired hoodie.
Signature jam: “Somebody’s Baby” by Jackson Browne.
Why it sticks: "I think everyone can kind of pinpoint the film during which they had that sort of 'fall of man' moment that awakened them to an adult world they previously hadn’t been aware of. That Phoebe Cates pool scene was a formative moment for teens in the '80s," Lyne says.
The 411: Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) moves from Chicago to the tiny town of Beaumont, where dancing and rock music have been outlawed. It’s up to him to show the uptight adults the error of their morality-clause ways.
The lingo: "Hey, hey! What's this I see? I thought this was a party. LET'S DANCE!" — Ren McCormack
The trends: White tank top, blue jeans. That is all.
Signature jams: "Footloose" by Kenny Loggins and "Let's Hear It for the Boy," sung by Deniece Williams.
Why it sticks: Teen rebellion has never felt more justified. Outlawing dancing and rock music? Preposterous. You may as well outlaw happiness. Adults are so silly sometimes.
Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
The 411: It's the last big party on graduation night, and everyone in the senior class of Huntington Hills High has an agenda. Preston (Ethan Embry) wants to tell Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt) that he’s in love with her. Kenny (Seth Green) wants to lose his virginity. William (Charlie Korsmo) has a plan to get revenge on his tormentor, Mike Dexter (Peter Facinelli). And, Melissa Joan Hart, whose character doesn’t even get a name, just wants everyone to sign her yearbook.
The lingo: "He only sat, like, right next to you in freshman English. But, I guess you wouldn't remember that. I mean, why would Amanda Beckett pay any attention to a unique spirit like Preston, or even a unique spirit like me? Maybe it's because she's a little busy ordering around her little conformist flock of sheep. SHEEP! You are all sheep. Baah!" — Earth Girl
The trends: The late-'90s glory of built-in bra tank tops and Fiorucci cherub shirts.
Signature jam: “Graduate” by Third Eye Blind.
Why it sticks: Can't Hardly Wait combines the magic of an “it happened one night” movie with the nostalgia we all have for that last-ditch effort to fulfill our high school destiny before heading off into the great unknown of adulthood.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
The 411: Richard Linklater’s ode to his own teenage experience captures an unforgettable cast of characters on the last day of school in 1976. The plot is loose and rambling, but the tight soundtrack and memorable characters (including Matthew McConaughey as David “Alright, alright, alright” Wooderson and Jason London as Randall “Pink” Floyd) keep this ode to coming of age in the '70s going strong.
The lingo: "Now fry like bacon, you little freshman piggies. Fry!" — Simone
"That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age." — Wooderson
"All I'm saying is that if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life — remind me to kill myself." — Pink
The trends: High-waisted bellbottoms, shirts that say “Seniors,” and paddles.
Signature jams: "Sweet Emotion" by Aerosmith and "Slow Ride" by Foghat.
Why it sticks: "Dazed and Confused came out during that time in the early '90s when teen movies were in a bit of a slump, so people started making period pieces. It's one of those teen movies that’s made to be nostalgic to people who grew up 20 to 30 years ago and remember that time and feeling,” Lyne says.
The 411: The three most popular girls at Reagan High (played by Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart, and Julie Benz) accidentally kill their best friend in what’s intended as a harmless birthday prank involving a jawbreaker. When outcast Fern Mayo (Judy Greer) discovers what happened, the guilty parties transform her into a beautiful exchange student named Vylette to buy her silence.
The lingo: "I killed Liz. I killed the teen dream. Deal with it." — Courtney
The trends: That omnipresent "Foxy" necklace and so many cropped, fitted cardigans.
Signature jam: "Rock You Like a Hurricane" by the Scorpions.
Why it sticks: Although it was a critical and commercial failure, Jawbreaker has developed a cult following similar to that of its dark inspiration, Heathers. Plus, it’s got the killer symbolism of the deadly but sweet titular candy. The oral-fixation motif in this movie is off the charts.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
The 411: Five high school archetypes/stereotypes — a brain (Anthony Michael Hall), an athlete (Emilio Estevez), a basket case (Ally Sheedy), a princess (Molly Ringwald), and a criminal (Judd Nelson) — are sentenced to Saturday detention. They start the day as mortal enemies and leave having discovered that they have a lot more in common with one another than it would appear.
The lingo: "Don't mess with the bull, young man. You'll get the horns!" — Richard Vernon
Signature jam: "Don’t You (Forget About Me)" by Simple Minds.
Why it sticks: Although it’s held up as a bastion of acceptance, Lyne makes a really interesting point about the John Hughes classic. "People constantly have this idea of how amazingly democratic The Breakfast Club is — no matter who you are, you can find someone with whom to identify. That only works if whoever you are is one of these five very specific, white, straight archetypes. It doesn’t really have any characters who fall outside the straightforward social script."
On a broader scale, however, all John Hughes movies were about giving teenagers more credit and agency than adults often do. We also hope the takeaway most viewers get from the film is that if these five different teens can find common ground with one another, other seemingly disparate people can forge a bond as well. Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.
Cruel Intentions (1999)
The 411: Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) bets her stepbrother Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) that he can’t de-virginize Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), who’s saving herself for marriage.
The lingo: "I'm the Marcia-fucking-Brady of the Upper East Side, and sometimes I want to kill myself." — Kathryn
The trends: Kathryn basically dresses like an elderly madame who runs an upscale escort service. Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair) is the epitome of '90s prep.
Signature jams: Pretty much every teen in 1999 wanted to lose it in a sun-drenched room with "Colorblind" by Counting Crows playing. See also: Drive off into the sunset to The Verve’s "Bittersweet Symphony."
Why it sticks: "Cruel Intentions was kind of an awakening for me," Lyne says. "I first saw it when I was 13, and it felt like an incredibly transgressive thing to be watching. A lot of movies from that time feel hopelessly tame now, but it still feels edgy and daring. Almost the entire film is dedicated to Sebastian’s quest to have anal sex with his stepsister! A lot of teen movies based on classic literary works tone down the rich source material, but this is a lovely example of one that wasn’t diluted."
Also, never forget that Amy Adams starred in Cruel Intentions 2, a prequel in which Kathryn and Sebastian meet for the first time.
La Boum (1980)
The 411: Sure, Cher and her friends are cool, but they're so Beverly Hills Valley Girl. When it comes to being effortlessly chic, no one comes close to French teens. In La Boum, Vic (Sophie Marceau) is the new girl at the lycée, which means she’s got all of the boys’ attention and party invites galore. Too bad her parents won't let her go to any of them.
The lingo: "Going out means kissing them on the mouth." — Vic explains to her great-grandmother Poupette
"In the dark, you can pass for trendy, but you’re just an old sex maniac!" — Mathieu
The trends: Vic’s grown-out Nadia Comaneci bob, paired with chambray button-downs — plus an '80s dressing-room montage.
Signature jam: "Dreams Are My Reality" by Richard Sanderson, which plays so many times during the movie that members of my high school French class can probably still sing it if asked.
Why it sticks: My French class spent senior year watching La Boum on repeat. We did not pass the AP exam, but we did all cultivate a secret desire to be French teens in the early '80s. Just watch La Boum, and you’ll get it.