5* of the best ’80s teen movies

*Six. I was planning on doing a series of posts titled ‘5 of the best…’, but as my first topic is the ’80s, my favourite decade for Hollywood movies, I just couldn’t narrow it down any further.

Footloose (1984)                                           Herbert Ross

As well as starring Kevin Bacon in his prime, Footloose has some great set pieces. These include an edge-of-the-seat game of chicken conducted on tractors, and protagonist Ren’s incredible gymnastic/dance display in an abandoned warehouse.

The Bomont teens cut loose.

The Bomont teens cut loose.

As is common to many films of the era, Footloose combines well-developed characters with popular music (I’m not sure it counts as a ‘rockin’ soundtrack’, but it was probably considered to be back in ’84). However, Footloose stands out among more superficial ’80s pictures for its serious consideration of the social history of Southern America.

The film strikes a healthy balance between the heavier drama surrounding the legality of dancing in small-town Bomont, whilst still documenting the juxtaposing kind of fun which the young characters are fighting for. There’s also a sizeable dose of juvenile humour from Ren (Bacon) and his friend Willard (Christopher Penn), proving that although the law may have changed, teenage boys haven’t.

I’m yet to see the 2011 remake, but I may check it out to justify moaning about how it’s worse. Watch this space.

Back to the Future (1985)                          Robert Zemeckis

With Back to the Future, Zemeckis not only created one of the coolest teen characters of all time in Marty McFly (played by the pint-sized Michael J. Fox), but he also made good sequels! Perhaps the best feature of the trilogy as a whole is the interlinking of the timeline across each of the movies. The use of the sports almanac is a simple, yet elegant, device which ties the occurrences of each film together, whilst simultaneously creating time-travel motives for both Marty and Biff.

However, I continue to find the first episode the most enjoyable, especially Marty’s much-revered performance at the school dance, despite critics’ perceptive (but perhaps overstated) observation of racist undertones, and the parking lot chase scenes.

From Garry Mulholland’s Stranded at the Drive-In: The 100 Best Teen Movies.

Although plenty of time-travel films have been made since, I think Zemeckis’ still remains top of the game. It definitely boasts the most-quoted famous line, ‘Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads’.

The Breakfast Club (1985)                          John Hughes

John Hughes is probably the director whose films I admire most, and The Breakfast Club is my favourite of his films. This picture practically defines the phrase character-driven. The film is much more dialogue-heavy than the others on this list, and perhaps visually less exciting. However, I find it just as engaging, despite having watched it several times.

The film’s small cast of realistic characters allows for both empathy and relation; although the five students serving Saturday detention realise they are viewed by teachers according to stereotypes, Hughes’ screenplay refuses to simplify them in such a way.

Molly Ringwald as Clare Standish.

Along with other ’80s hits (Pretty In Pink, Sixteen Candles), The Breakfast Club is responsible for a generation of young girls wishing to emulate Molly Ringwald, seen here at her snarky, sparky best. I also see it as the ultimate Brat-Pack movie, featuring brilliant performances from Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall and Ally Sheedy, as well as Ringwald.

Although Hughes was already 35 when The Breakfast Club was released, it is very much a young person’s film. This is evident in the treatment of Mr Vernon (Paul Gleason), the bumbling teacher who detains the film’s young heroes and heroines, and who is not unlike the head teacher in Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (see below).

St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)                                   Joel Schumacher

IMDb’s description of Phantom of the Opera director Schumacher’s lesser-known cult hit reads ‘A group of friends, just out of college, struggle with adulthood. Their main problem is that they’re all self-centered and obnoxious’. I agree with the first sentence, but not the second.

I think of this film as the unofficial sequel to The Breakfast Club. St. Elmo’s Fire ably probes the personalities of its young adult characters in much the same way as Hughes’ film had a few months previously. This time around however, the characters wrestle with adulthood, rather than high school and adolescence.

Schumacher’s movie also casts many of the Brat-Pack who had appeared in The Breakfast Club, as well as Rob Lowe, Demi Moore and Andrew McCarthy.

Again, each character is well-rounded and likely to earn the empathy of most viewers (well, almost all of the characters). Their stories are endowed with even more angst than in Hughes’ film discussed above; and none is more exaggerated than that of Kirby (Emilio Estevez), whose agonizing pursuit of an older, uninterested woman (Andie MacDowell) is both heart-wrenching and humourous.

In my opinion, however, the greatest performance is given by Andrew McCarthy. McCarthy’s character, Kevin, is secretly in love with his best friend’s girl. Although this is far from being an original scenario, McCarthy’s silent moping, hang-dog expression and mournful looks aptly convey an experience many can probably relate to.

Stand By Me (1986)                                      Rob Reiner

The stories of Stephen King’s non-horror anthology Different Seasons have made for brilliant big-screen adaptations. Stand By Me is based on King’s short story ‘The Body’, and the story upon which major award-winner The Shawshank Redemption was based also appears in the same book.

Stand By Me manages to tell a brilliant story and display unforgettable performances from talented child actors, such as River Phoenix and especially Whil Weaton, as lead character Gordie LaChance. Gordie’s narration is a sophisticated touch which somehow seamlessly blends with the child-like exuberance of the film’s main plot, the journey made by four friends to find the body of another boy, killed by a train.

Despite being woven from many tragic core back stories, there are still many laughs to be had from both verbal and physical comedy.

The dynamic between the four boys has influenced many ‘buddy movies’ since, most notably 1996’s Now and Then (essentially the same coming-of-age story re-cast with female leads), as well as J.J. Abrams most recent project, Super 8.



Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)                     John Hughes

If there were any teenage boys by the end of the ’80s who didn’t want to be Marty McFly, it’s probably because they wanted to be Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick).

In 1986 Hughes returned to tell another great story, and successfully demonstrated another ground-breaking technique. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is famous for Broderick’s direct address to the audience,  known as ‘breaking the fourth wall’.

Ferris is just as charming as Marty McFly, and probably a much better boyfriend – unlike Marty, he doesn’t leave his girlfriend asleep in exposed places for hours at a time. But she also doesn’t get to time-travel. However, she does get a pretty awesome day away from school, along with Ferris and his pal Cameron (Alan Ruck).

Despite the similarities between the charismatic leading men, Back to the Future and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are dramatically different films in most other aspects.

However, they do share another stand out feature; gadgets. Where Doc Brown has the Delorean, Ferris has a number of brilliant machines rigged up to aid his school-skipping trickery.

Ferris’ ride is definitely one you shouldn’t miss.

If, like me, you’re a fan of ’80s films and/or John Hughes in particular, you should check out Will Gluck’s smart comedy Easy A. It’s a top-notch high school movie in all respects (largely due to Emma Stone’s leading performance), but it’s also fun to spot the various ’80s movie references.

Click here for more on the wonders of ‘8os cinema, and especially Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.


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