The 1980s saw a huge rise in movies aimed at teenagers and young adults, a rise that may have been aided by the popularity of films like Star Wars proofing the market potential of a young audience who were increasingly going to the cinema. These films were often about rites-of-passage and first loves. Their treatment was a strange mix of more serious dramas exploring the feelings and frustrations of disaffected youth. For example, Pretty in Pink, which treated working-class problems and relationships in a realistic way, or the relatively new teen comedies, like Revenge of the Nerds and Porky’s (which were more about the nudity and the gross-out value). It’s the high school plots like that of The Breakfast Club that set many of the character and clique roles we see in films today – the jock, the nerd, the cheerleader, the freak.
Films like those of director John Hughes – where characters worry about how vapid their lives are and what kind of people they actually are – seem to be a counterpoint to popular attitudes at the time in 1980s America, which saw the rise of ‘yuppies’ (stereotypical young urban professionals, obsessed with their goods and social status, out of touch with real world problems), as well as the terms of Ronald Reagan, marked by conservative social policy and a strong focus on making money and free trade. These films are often a mixture of funny and serious in their message, propagating the idea that the problems of the young are just as real as the problems of those grown too old to remember. And if for nothing else, you should watch 80s films for the cheesy soundtracks, the eye-assaulting clothes, and the hairstyles.
Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1989):
This dark comedy is a proto-Mean Girls taken to the level of homicide. The film follows Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), member of a clique who are all called Heather, and her desperate attempts to escape from the caged, superficial life she feels she leads. There’s a very believable chemistry between Veronica and her new love interest J. D. (Christian Slater) in a destructive, moth-to-a-flame way that worryingly doesn’t abate even when Christian Slater starts to kill people and make it look like suicide and the film leaves you uncertain of what J.D. really felt (as he tells her ‘Sure, I was coming up here to kill you… First I was gonna try and get you back’). Everything is surreal, and Veronica inhabits a farcical world where all adults are idiots who don’t understand what their children are like, quickly taking up each ‘suicide’ as proof of the troubles of society and youth. The final message, suitable for a comedy, appears to be ‘anti-angst’, with a rejection of all the teenage complaints and problems and the movie itself is surprisingly good for some light-hearted watching.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986):
Ferris Bueller is a strange character. He breaks the fourth wall, addressing us as the audience and guiding us through his world. He is undoubtedly charming; at one point he ends up impromptu singing on a float in a parade while everyone joins in. He convinces his best friend Cameron to live his own life, not just the one expected of him. But he’s as destructive as an atomic bomb; throughout the film he compulsively lies, emotionally manipulates, falsifies records and does just about everything he can to get what he wants – the perfect day off school. The focus is on teenagers; the adults are either the villains or highly incompetent (there are numerous points where Ferris’ parents almost catch him, but aren’t paying enough attention). Yet, while you feel bad for his sister who keeps trying to explain his true nature to their parents, you’re drawn in to the same kind of indulgence everyone else affords Ferris. This is one of Hughes’ less serious works, the message to enjoy life is almost selfish; there are no problems that cannot be overcome through the right methods and people like Ferris don’t ever have to face their comeuppance. It still oozes cool though, and one can rewatch it later and melt your brain by applying the fan theory that the whole plot only occurred in Cameron’s head as a way of dealing with his life.
Better Off Dead (Savage Steve Holland, 1985):
This film comes recommended in part for its sheer WTF factor, as far as teen films go. Oh, it has all the basic elements right – girl dumps boy for sports captain, boy faces this captain in sports competition, boy finds new girl who he falls in love with. They took this and added characters like drag racing Koreans, a violently obsessed paperboy and a mad scientist younger brother. The jokes are quickfire and random; they don’t really seem to be aiming to complement the plot so much as go for the maximum number of laughs. In fact, the main character (played by John Cusack) appears to be the only person who appears to realise how ridiculous the plot is. Which is worrying, as the director later admitted in interview that the plot was semi-autobiographical…