Being a teenager is hard. Ask any teenager. High school forces many young adults to confront uncomfortable social situations, schoolwork and a seemingly endless list of responsibilities and outside pressures from their family and friends. To come of age in that environment is to try and figure out who you are, and for many, it’s a terrifying process.
Perhaps that’s why filmmakers like John Hughes, known for their sympathetic portraits of teenagers in high school and beyond, are so beloved. Hughes was a master at taking the problems many young people faced, seemingly insignificant to adults, and making them funny, watchable and always relatable.
Films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off took a story of a kid skipping class and turned it into a madcap comedy that managed to be both hilarious and meaningful. Pretty in Pink offered a peek into a teenage girl’s clique-infested universe. These were films that never lost sight of the truth behind their humor.
It’s The Breakfast Club that remains Hughes’ most introspective work. Centered on a group of students forced to attend Saturday school for an entire day, Hughes actively tackled the subject of stereotypes by putting five stereotype-defining characters into a room and making them talk to one another. Much of the film’s 97 minutes is filled with dialogue, and the audience gets to actively watch a group of young people move past what others have come to expect from them, and instead come to understand each other.
Its ability to treat young adults respectfully and without judgment is its greatest strength.
Fast forward ten years and director Cameron Crowe would follow in Hughes’ empathetic footsteps with the romantic family drama Say Anything. In the film, Lloyd (John Cusack), an average student, falls for Diane (Ione Skye), the valedictorian. While the film’s overall quality is debatable, Crowe makes the pairing feel real, and the chemistry between them is undeniable. It is a movie that connects a subject that is rarely taken seriously (high school romance) to broader family drama. In Roger Ebert’s words, “[it is] a film that is really about something.”
Films like these appeal to teenagers not just because they are about teenagers; after all, Mean Girls claimed to offer commentary on high school social dynamics, but is better known for its quotable lines than being thematically interesting. The American Pie franchise follows a group of teenagers trying to get laid, but puts its characters in completely unrealistic positions simply for the resulting entertainment value (has anyone ever tried to have sex with a pie? Does that really happen?) There is no attempt to try and empathize with any of the people onscreen, and the result is a movie not about who these people are, but about making us laugh at them.
The best films in the genre are about teenagers, but don’t simplify their characters or their narratives as a result. Instead, like all great stories, they follow people that feel fundamentally real. Ferris Bueller may take a citywide parade by storm, but beneath the bravado lies a confused kid, terrified at the prospect of becoming a proper adult. Lloyd and Diane fall hopelessly in love like all great movie couples, but Diane must learn to confront her father’s flaws at the same time.
At their core, classic teen movies succeed because they desire to relate to their audiences and respect the young people they portray. It’s easy to laugh at these confused young adults, but their stories never fail to be poignant. That’s why we’re still talking about them, thirty years later. I’ll take that over a cheap laugh.