Feature: The Dark Side of Teen Movies

me and earl

Originally published on The National Student on 14/08/15. 

With the Sundance hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl hitting theatres across the country this September, we take a closer look at some of the darker themes covered in teen cinema.

To quote Mean Girls, being a teenager isn’t always exactly “rainbows and smiles”, despite what some of the teen genre’s most famous entries would have you believe.

Suffering through the likes of drug addiction, unhealthy relationships or even mental or physical illness is tough at the best of the times, let alone when you’ve got general adolescence to deal with too.

Here are some of the most notable times that teen movies braved the more serious side of cinema:

Brick (2005)

Before he began flirting with that galaxy far, far away, a fresh out of film school Rian Johnson made this little hard-nosed indie gem, starring the then realtively unknown Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in a neo-noir style reimagining of the teen movie formula.

Concerned largely with the high-school drugs trade, Brick finds JGL as Brendan, a Bogart-esque misfit who finds himself investigating the disappearance of his former flame Emily.

But Brendan’s case takes a dark turn when he finds her dead in a nearby alley, leading him down an exceedingly tense path lined with nothing but murderous thugs and teenage drug lords, all of which are on the brink of a huge-scale gang war. As witty as it is effecting, Johnson’s film shines a particularly stylised light on an exceedingly dark corner of high-school culture, playing on the very importance of adolescence and the fears it can bring in a clever and engaging way.

The Fault In Our Stars (2014)

Much like the aforementioned Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, this one deals with the trials of teenage sickness, following the potentially doomed romance of Shailene Woodley’s Hazel and Ansel Elgort’s Augustus, two star-crossed lovers united by their fight against cancer.

An adaptation of John Green’s award-winning fan-favourite novel of the same name, the film digs rather deeply into the complex emotional journey of not just living with the disease itself, but also how loved ones deal with the process as well. The Fault In Our Stars is both a romantic and haunting portrait of teen suffering; how adolescents, who are still desperately trying to find their place in the world, must deal with potentially losing it too.

Carrie (1976)

The famed first novel of legendary horror writer Stephen King, Brian De Palma’s original Carrie(before the multitude of remakes) focuses on the more generalised teen issue of bullying, as well as highlighting the horrors of child abuse.

Berated by her classmates for her unusual nature – the product of a poisonous upbringing at the hands of her radically religious mother – Carrie White discovers that she has developed the ability to move objects with her mind, and one prom night, when she is finally pushed too far, she snaps, exacting bloody revenge on all those who have wronged her.

Not only is Carrie a dark and frequently disturbing look at the damaging effects of bullying, but it also functions as a morality tale, questioning the ethics of revenge.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012)

Stephen Chbosky’s cult 90s novel was adapted by the man himself in 2012, the tale of high-school freshman Charlie, a mild-mannered over-achiever with substantial mental health difficulties who finally begins to find himself “fitting in”.

No doubt a darn sight more uplifting than the large majority of this list, Perks is more subtle in the ways it presents illness, and a great deal more effective for being so. Chbosky’s narration takes us pretty much fully inside Charlie’s head, dealing with his issues and social struggles in real time, and making both the trials he faces and the victories he achieves all the more personal.

It’s a film that understands exactly how it is to be trapped inside your own head, providing an honest representation for the casual viewer, whilst also giving hope to those suffering similar battles.

Red Dawn (1984)

The notion of a full-scale invasion of America may seem a little silly now, but in Cold War Hollywood it certainly wasn’t. Imagining the lives of teenage rebels in the wake of World War III, Red Dawn finds a group of young high-schoolers forced to fight back against invading Soviet forces by using guerrilla warfare tactics, after their local town falls at the hands of the enemy.

Giving us a glimpse into a worrying alternate reality, John Milius’s film tackles the sensitive realms of teen independence and the effects of war on the person, in the process uncovering issues of loss and betrayal forefronted by classic 80s action spectacle.

This Is England (2006)

The precursor to Channel 4’s award-winning television phenomenon, Shane Meadows’ This Is England boasts a particularly British look at the coming-of-age tale.

Troubled young Shaun, left fatherless by the Falklands War, finds himself taken in by a gang of local skinheads who quickly become his surrogate family. This family are also struggling with their identity as racist ideals take hold in their chosen subculture.

As dark as it is thoughtful, Meadows’ film explores the naivety of youth and adolescence in a refreshingly honest way, creating beautifully real and textured characters that prove to also be profoundly moving in their trials.

This Is England puts the spotlight on the corruptible nature of growing up, and how easy it is to find yourself wrapped up in something damaging.

Kids (1995)

In comparison to the other films on this list, Larry Clark’s highly controversial Kids couldn’t be any more different if it tried. An insanely gritty and grounded portrait of a gang of dangerously irresponsible teens, the film stunned 90s audiences worldwide with its frequent recreations (or depictions) of underage sex, casual drug taking and rampant anti-social behaviour.

But more than anything, Kids highlighted the damaging effects that this troublesome teenage excess can have on its subjects, exploring the realms of sexually-transmitted diseases and the lasting mark they can leave on adolescent lives everywhere.  

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