I have a confession. My nostalgic appetite regularly craves iconic teen narratives. Save The Last Dance is probably the most grown-up 'teen' film that I watched when I was younger, and one of my favourites to return to in adulthood. It taught me more than I was prepared to learn about the whole 'love' thing, let alone the retrospectively zeitgeisty tensions of interracial couples. Also, I'm a sucker for a good dance rehearsal montage.
Decades after their release, movies like Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls and Bring It On all sit firmly on my list of go-to films. They felt so beyond my own adolescent years at first watch, and yet continue to frame so much of our millennial cultural identity now. I didn’t grow out of them and I don’t think any of us do. But looking around at the new roster of films we’ve been excited about recently (add Booksmart, Eighth Grade, The Sun Is Also a Star, See You Yesterday and The Perfect Date to your watchlist immediately, please), it seems notable – if not a little strange – that as a grown-up, I still have the same hankering for these new coming-of-age movies that are targeted at the generations below me.
I’m not alone in my commitment to the school narrative. Heads nodded in solidarity as I spoke my nostalgic truth to the R29 team, and you'd struggle not to find an adolescent rom-com playing if you were to drop in on my housemates on a hungover Sunday. Out of nowhere, Netflix series Sex Education blew the world away with its sincere approach to definitively teenage relationships and months before it, To All The Boys I Loved Before cut through the dense catalogue of blockbuster releases last summer and sparked an unprecedented social media investment in the world of teen romance. But why are we still so obsessed with it?
Nine times out of ten the plot in these films is wildly predictable – the 'smart girl falls for popular boy' storyline has been done to death and the failed makeover trope still prevails. Just as frequently we’re sucked into the American high school or college experience which, though it obviously has age-related similarities, doesn’t always run parallel to our lives here. And even then, many of us were thrilled to leave that chapter of life behind the moment we hit our 20s. We slammed the door on our own experiences and are only forced to look back when Facebook throws an 'On This Day' photo our way. Does it even make sense that we’re still so obsessed with reliving that time of life on screen?
TV psychologist Honey Langcaster-James would say so. "One of the things that we do with entertainment is we gain mastery over potentially difficult emotions," she tells me. "Some people wonder why anybody would ever want to watch a horror movie or a thriller. Why would you want to sit and be scared? But there is an element of reassurance in being able to experience those emotions from a removed perspective and I wonder if the same can be said for teen fiction. Through the processes of empathy with the character, you're experiencing those emotions that were challenging. But now, from this more mature perspective, you're gaining an opportunity to master those emotions that you once felt so consumed by and now can have a more detached and bemused look upon that time in your life."
It’s a prospect that hits close to home and almost makes too much sense. We unknowingly learn so much about the world, our culture and other people while sat in front of a screen. It’s not hard to consider that maybe, deep down, we’re reliving or even rectifying our own experiences every time we watch a film about cafeteria bullying, exam stress and after-school romance. God knows the early response to Olivia Wilde's directorial debut, Booksmart, speaks to a breed of smart young women who have otherwise been eliminated from the traditional teen girl stories.
In some cases it might not be that deep, though. At least, not on an emotional level. Psychologist Dr Joan Harvey at Newcastle University agrees that the nostalgia factor allows you to "relive a little bit of your past" – and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Our adult fascination with teen films might just have something to do with the direction of popular culture at the moment. "We are more likely to admit to enjoying those things than we were a few years ago," she explains. "It has become more fashionable to like [teen entertainment] and to say you enjoy them. It’s perfectly fashionable, as an adult, to be re-reading Harry Potter. Ten years ago, you probably wouldn’t, although you would have watched the films … there are a lot of secret watchers."
Now that the entertainment world is so saturated, with a large majority of new releases homing in on life among Gen Z, it's no wonder that so many of us who are older are landing on the young adult genre as we scroll through Amazon books or Netflix releases. There's just a lot more there. "[With so much on offer] you don't necessarily want to be pushed down the route of being told what you're going to like," Dr Harvey adds. "Especially when the content can seem a bit high and mighty. So there's nostalgia in teen entertainment [but it's also] the simple messages about things you can already relate to."
Relating to teen films and enjoying them more than what I guess we'd otherwise define as 'grown-up films' makes sense on the familiarity scale. We know what to expect because we've lived through that formative period and, despite our devoted moaning about how shit everything was, we lived to tell the tale. Maybe as we get older and have no choice but to navigate increasingly unpredictable scenarios as adults, watching a couple of just-18-year-olds fall in love, graduate high school and go through the all-consuming turmoil of teendom gives us an opportunity to sit back and enjoy without having to think too much. We can sit back and watch in the comfort that now, we're the ones who know better.