If you’re a teenager in need of tips on love, sex and death (or a parent who wants to know their teen), just go to the cinema this summer
Teen movies. They’re not just films, they’re manuals. Seriously. With The Inbetweeners 2 (the most anticipated teen comedy of the summer?) arriving next week, a teen movie retrospective filling up the BFI this month, and the latest instalment of the teen action franchise The Hunger Games dominating the autumn line-up, it’s time to acknowledge that teen movies aren’t just for teens. They’re for everyone. More importantly, for the children about to watch them, and the parents about to choose them, what do they tell us about how to live the teenage years. How do they actually see adolescence? What, in short, are teen movies really saying?
1. Sex is hilarious
Yes, from that first tentative impulse of desire, the entire span of your teenage years will be defined by an all-consuming and innately hilarious need for, in the words of Inbetweeners hero Jay (James Buckley), “Sex, booze, sex, minge, sex, fanny, tits, and booze, and sex.” The Inbetweenersmovies fit nicely into a long and noble history of teen comedies, from Porky’s to Superbad, Revenge of the Nerds to the American Pie franchise. In each case the thundering sexual urge forces our hapless protagonists into some pretty wacky and rib-tickling situations (see Jason Biggs and the infamous baked goods episode in American Pie). There’s just one catch. You have to be a guy. If you’re a girl, alternatively, you can look forward to . . .
2. Pregnancy hell
While the boys get to goof around in babe-filled nightclubs (“I think this one might be a two-man job!” says The Inbetweeners’ Neil, after pulling a “fat bird”), the girls in teen movies are often faced with a hard-hitting baby-making message. In The Delinquents poor Kylie Minogue, as the spirited Lola, has barely got her post-coital groove on before being pronounced pregnant and marched to the abortion clinic by her evil mother. In Juno Ellen Page must handle teen pregnancy with remarkable stoicism and Oscar-winning bon mots (“I’m forshizz up the spout!”). While in Twilight: Breaking Dawn — Part 1, winsome Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) has sex just once and is instantly impregnated with a rapidly growing mutant vampire monster death baby (if that doesn’t scare them into abstinence, nothing will). It could be worse, however. You could be in . . .
3. Actual teen hell
Apparently, if not craving constant sex, or dealing with untimely motherhood, the average teen is probably trying to contain a cauldron of conflicting emotions (“You’re tearing me apart!” screams James Dean, famously, in Rebel Without a Cause) and amoral rage that will eventually erupt into terrifying psychopathic violence. From Malcolm McDowell spraying the courtyard of an Eton-esque public school with automatic rifle fire in If . . . to the Columbine-style massacre in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, to the brutal atavistic murders of Mean Creek and Bully, the average teen movie, directed and produced, remember, by adults, is often wildly suspicious of its own adolescent protagonists, and of the potential depths of their depravity. Lord of the Flies? The Hunger Games? Battle Royale? Teens? Killers? What’s the difference? On the positive side, there’s always . . .
4. Romantic fairytales
For the anxious parent, and sex-averse family in general, the teen movie also offers an entirely grit-free genre of romantic fairytales that peddle familiar and comforting myths of ugly teen ducklings becoming beautiful swans while snagging handsome princes. Hilary Duff’s mind-bogglingly successful A Cinderella Story (plus two sequels) is the pack leader here (Him, cooing, “Do you believe in love at first sight?” Her, swooning, “I’ll let you know!”). Although Mean Girls, Pretty in Pink, The Princess Diaries and Save the Last Danceall tread that fine and ever more anachronistic line between “Stories about girls, for girls” and “Seriously?!” For the gender-conscious parent, luckily, there is . . .
5. ‘Lean in’ action heroines
The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Mortal Instruments. The quintessential teenage movie genre today is one that inverts a century of cinematic stereotyping and describes a high-kicking, back-flipping, ass-kicking adolescent girl who is the last and only messianic hope for all humanity but is nonetheless desired by not one but two swarthy if slightly dim male suitors with fabulous abs and noble intentions. “No one else can do this but her,” announces the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the new trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. He is describing Jennifer Lawrence’s franchise heroine Katniss Everdeen. “She is the face of this rebellion, and the people will follow her,” he says. Plus, she looks awesome in distressed jungle leathers. Equally, taking girl power to its logical conclusion, the teen movie offers an apposite chance to introduce around the dinner table the subject of . . .
6. Sapphic romance
This sub-genre of provocative movies includes Show Me Love, My Summer of Love, The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love and Heavenly Creatures, and it deftly examines the subject of same-sex infatuation. Here, in a world where adolescent boys are kind of dorky and annoying and would rather bang baked goods, the girls are forced to turn inwards (with murderous results in Heavenly Creatures) and find in each other the answer to their nascent desires and impulses. There is, typically, a catch. They have to be shockingly beautiful, and look great in close-up, and spend a lot of time faffing about in their underwear while listening to classic French torch songs in scenes that are absolutely essential to the story. Which is strange, but not as strange as . . .
7. Topsy-turvy land
Perhaps the oddest of all teen sub-genres, the topsy-turvy movie sees teen years in entirely metaphorical terms as a place of near incomprehensible chaos. Donnie Darko. Carrie. The Wizard of Oz. These are all movies that are so terrified by the approach of adolescence that they retreat into the wildest of fantasy worlds. Here Oz’s Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion are the archetypal male lovers (respectively stupid, cloying, and effete) for the teenage Dorothy. The excess blood in the original Carrie is a blatant menstrual metaphor “And the Lord visited Eve with the curse,” reminds Carrie’s nutso mother Margaret (Piper Laurie). “And the curse was the curse of blood!” While Donnie Darko simply looks at the tense, traumatic and tranquilliser-filled adolescence of Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and flees into fantasies of time travel, plane crashes and quantum physics. Ultimately, though, if all else fails, be reassured, and reassure your child, that the teen years, as seen in movies, can offer genuinely . . .
8. True Love
Yep. When all the angst is packed away. And the sex, the grit and the feminism is put to one side, there is nothing more authentic and moving than the arrival of that first ineffable burst of real teenage love. Genuine love. There is, unfortunately, as you might’ve guessed by now, a catch. Someone has to die. The Fault in Our Stars. Titanic(Kate Winslet’s character is, allegedly, 17 years old in the movie). Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet or West Side Story. If you want true love in a teen movie, one of the lovers has to bite the big one. Or, as Shailene Woodley’s Hazel says to her dead boyfriend in Fault in Our Stars, “I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity . . . You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.” Can’t wait for the sequel. “Oh, you’re back?”