The Top Ten Angsty Movie Teenagers
Who's saying what
The best thing that ever happened to Hollywood was J.D. Salinger's refusal to turn The Catcher in the Rye into a movie. If he’d simply said “yeah, sure, where do I sign, Daddy needs a new tank full of bannafish” Hollywood would have made it, it would have stunk, Hollywood would have thought “this whole troubled teen thing is just a fad like those Eragon books and Howard the Duck” and angst-ridden teenagers would be as common on the big screen today as female action heroes or Bill Cosby. Instead Salinger kept his book and moved into a shack, Hollywood said “eh, let’s just rip off the basic idea” and today sulky teenagers with heavy issues are as common on the big screen as they are in shopping centre food courts. This week, The Perks of Being a Wallflower hit cinemas, and, based on Stephen Chbosky's novel that chronicles "an introvert freshman taken under the wings of two seniors who welcome him to the real world" we look back at our top 10 apprehensive on-screen adolescents.
10. Rebel Without a Cause
Presumably it would've been at least possible for teen angst to have become a thing in movies without it being permanently linked to some pretty heavy over-acting. But in our universe, James Dean’s startlingly scenery-crushing method acting - symbolising the way today’s yoof (okay, 1955's youth) were completely alien to their stuffy elders - would be forever linked to the way troubled teens are shown on the big screen. Can you blame him when said elders were The Chief in Get Smart and Thurston Howell the Third from Gilligan’s Island, though? Dean also inspired Fry’s outfit on Futurama, which, let’s be honest, more of us have seen than this film.
9. Say Anything
When people say that John Cusack embodies a certain kind of teenage experience, this is the film they’re thinking of. He’s not even that angsty here – yeah, he’s got to work to get the girl, but he gets the girl pretty early on so all he’s got to do after that is keep her, which isn’t all that easy between her dodgy dad and Europe calling – but as teen romance movies go this is pure uncut awesome. So really, when it comes to teen angst, the teenager being angsty is the one watching the movie (that’s you) when you burst into tears during the boombox scene. Did I mention this film is awesome?
8. Girl, Interrupted
If Heathers made Winona Ryder the pin-up girl for a generation too cool to have pin-ups (SPOILER: and it did, which it why you’ll find it further down this list), Girl, Interrupted drop-kicked her into a career coffin and nailed the lid down hard. On the surface, playing a mentally troubled young lady shipped off to a not-that-helpful institution should have merely re-enforced her cred as the girl who felt our pain. Unfortunately for Team Winona, Angelina Jolie wasn’t playing second fiddle to any angsty icon: she grabbed the film in both hands, wrenched not only her scenes but the whole thing away from Winona, gave her career a massive boost and sent Winona into a downward spiral so deep that playing the Worst Woman Alive in a Kevin James comedy movie a decade later would be considered a “comeback” even when the role consisted entirely of pulling a face that would scare Satan himself.
7. The Year My Voice Broke
In contrast to pretty much every other Australian angsty teen movie ever, The Year My Voice Broke a) doesn’t involve drugs or incest or the horrors of living in a suburb generally described as “Western” and b) is actually pretty good. It’s difficult to get your head around it now though, because not only does it feature both Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn, they’re not even playing clones of each other. Taylor is playing the nice guy teen and Mendelsohn is playing the car thief / armed robber one. Not that he can’t play a decent criminal when he has to, but c’mon: if you need someone to play a criminal and you’ve got Noah Taylor handy, why settle for second best?
6. Igby Goes Down
Now this is more like it. Kieran “still the lesser known Culkin back in 2002” Culkin plays a rich New York teen half-heartedly rebelling against his wealth and privilege because: Teen Pain. Well, that and his dad has been put into an institution, his mother doesn’t care about him, and, after flunking out of a bunch of fancy schools on purpose, he’s sent to a military academy where everyone else beats him up. Yeah, perhaps he really does have problems beyond being a Catcher in the Rye knockoff. But he does get to make out with Claire Danes, so maybe he should just shut up and stop complaining.
5. Sixteen Candles
This wouldn’t be a real teen angst list without at least one John Hughes movie, but even though The Breakfast Club is the one that gets all the attention, Sixteen Candles is the one they kept on showing us back in high school. Seriously, I must have seen it three times in the one year, what the hell were they thinking? Didn’t they realise anything teachers think you should pay attention to automatically becomes the worst thing ever? Fortunately this movie was the best thing ever so the two sort of cancelled each other out and these days all the real angst comes from watching Gedde Watanabe as dubious racial stereotype Long Duk Dong.
While Wes Anderson had previously directed Bottle Rocket, the adventures of overactive underachiever Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman) and his best buddy, the three-times-his-age Herman Blume (Bill Murray) established the style that he has been working with various degrees of success to this day. What’s become increasingly clear over the years is that Anderson’s approach to story-telling – repressed characters, rigid camerawork, extreme levels of production design, a heightened storybook reality – works better with kids and teenage characters at the heart than it does with adults. It’s surprising then that this is his only movie with a “teen” protagonist (well, Moonrise Kingdom had kids on the cusp of being teens, but not the surly high schoolers we think of as movie teens); then again, after getting pretty much everything perfect here, why go back?
3. Donnie Darko
This would seem to be the textbook definition of teen angst: a socially stunted lead constantly freaking out and committing crimes on the orders of a giant rabbit, creepy visions of the end of the world, a weird book about time travel, the line “I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” and being set during the 1980s, the best decade ever to be a angst-filled teen. Unfortunately the directors cut explains everything way too much while messing with a perfectly fine '80s soundtrack, turning what was a moody classic into a bad episode of The Twilight Zone with a soundtrack by INXS.
This is almost the best teen angst movie of all time – not only did it make Winona Ryder a star, it made Christian Slater seem cool – thanks to one excellent twist: the teens in it have nothing to be angsty about. Which in no way detracts from the general hilarity and insightfulness and great performances and Big Fun’s rendition of “Teenage Suicide: Don’t Do It” and things do get heavier as the story progresses. But still: Ryder’s big problem is that she’s in the in-crowd and doesn’t like it and also is hooking up with the coolest kid in school. Ow, the pain. When you watch it as a teen, it captures the angst of high school pretty effectively; when you watch it later on, it captures the self-absorption of teen years just as well. Boom! Double score! Top that, any pretentious arthouse movie director you care to name.
1. Better Off Dead
When people say that John Cusack embodies a certain kind of teenage experience, this is the film they should be thinking of. He’s nothing but angst here as loser Lane Myer, and rightly so: his girlfriend just dumped him for the ski team captain Roy Stalin, his mum’s indescribable cooking crawls off the plate by itself, his little brother is getting more girls than he is (thanks largely to a book titled “How to Pick Up Trashy Women’ – clearly “The Game” of 1985), and he’s being harassed by a pair of Asians who only speak in car-race cliches and keep taunting him into drag-races he can’t win. No wonder he’s constantly trying to kill himself. Also, if you say the line “I want my two dollars” and anyone within earshot recognises it from this film, you instantly become BFFs.