A heated lunch discussion with my colleagues last week got me thinking about all the great teen movies we used to watch in middle school and high school. Though the fashion and pop culture references might be dated, the one-liners and coming-of-age lessons are not. Here’s a three-part list of classic teen movies fully endorsed by the beijingkids team. (Note: Most of these include adult language and references to sexuality.)
Bring It On (2000)
Any girl in her mid- to late 20s can recite the cheerleading taunt “Brr! It’s cold in here, there must be some Toros in the atmosphere!” from Bring It On. Starring Kirsten Dunst as an all-American cheerleader called Torrance Shipman (what’s with these names?), the movie opens with Torrance discovering that the team’s former captain has been ripping off routines from the all-black, inner city East Compton Clovers led by Isis (Gabrielle Union).
Desperate to win at regionals and nationals, Torrance’s team the Toros recruit a recent transfer called Missy Pantone (the impossibly cool Eliza Dushku) and hire eccentric choreographer Sparky Polastri (these names). Love blooms in the form of a dreamy Cliff (Jesse Bradford), Missy’s brother and Torrance’s love interest.
Despite its campy premise, Bring It On features some truly impressive athleticism and funny moments. Some might decry the literally black-and-white morality tale, but to its credit the film does touch on issues of racial tension and economic inequality.
Memorable scenes: Sparky’s “spirit fingers” routine, Torrance’s little brother doing a flying fart in her face, Torrance and Cliff’s wordless teeth brushing face-off, any of the cheerleading sequences
Save the Last Dance (2001)
Save the Last Dance offers more race politics, but this time in the form of a teen dance movie. Julia Stiles plays a young ballet dancer called Sara Johnson whose dream is to be admitted to Juilliard. After her mother’s death, she moves in with her father and starts attending an inner city school in Chicago. There, she meets brother-and-sister pair Chenille (the beautiful Kerry Washington) and Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), who take her to a hip-hop club called Stepps for the first time. With Derek’s help, Sara incorporates more hip-hop moves into her dancing and they eventually start a relationship.
Throughout the movie, the couple has to navigate gang violence, racial tensions, and fraught family relationships. In the end, Sara finds the inspiration to audition for Juilliard, Derek gets into Georgetown Medical School, and she and Derek dance happily ever after.
Sure, the plot is formulaic, but the movie satisfies with its great dance sequences, depiction of an interracial relationship, and rapid-fire dialogue (Derek: “Stepps” ain’t no square dance. Sara: That’s OK. I’ll dance in circles, probably around you).
Memorable scenes: Chenille confronting Sara about “stealing” one of the only half-decent black men at the school, Sara going to Stepps for the first time, Sara’s nerve-wracking audition for Juilliard
She’s All That (1999)
This adaptation of My Fair Lady starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Rachael Leigh Cook is built on a classic teen comedy plot: popular guy accepts a bet to transform a dorky girl into the prom queen, falls in love with her in the process, and must confront his friends – and himself – when it all comes to a head at prom.
This movie definitely suffers from the “hot girl + wearing glasses = dork” syndrome (we’re looking at you, Princess Diaries), but we were busy daydreaming about the possibilities of high school and being head-over-heels for a young Paul Walker (who plays Freddie Prinze Jr’s friend).
Memorable scenes: The prom scene where Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook) confronts Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.) about being a “bet,” when Laney walks down the stairs in slow motion after her makeover (then trips), the end when they’re slow dancing and she says “I feel like Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman, except for that whole hooker thing”
10 Things I Hate about You (1999)
Building on the successful formula of turning classic literature into teen movie plots, 10 Things I Hate about You is based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The movie follows two social outcasts called Patrick (a smoldering, pre-fame Heath Ledger) and Kat (Julia Stiles) who fall in love after a convoluted plot in which Kat’s dad decrees that her sister Bianca cannot be in a relationship unless Kat is.
As teen romantic comedies go, 10 Things I Hate about You is one of the better ones out there. Julia Stiles excels at playing smart, unapologetic girls who don’t care about being outside the norm while Heath Ledger brings more charm and depth to the role of Patrick than
Memorable scenes: When Patrick sings “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” to Kat in front of her entire soccer team, when Kat reads a poem called “Ten Things I Hate about You” written about Patrick in front of their entire class (“But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you/Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all”)
Mean Girls (2004)
What list would be complete without Mean Girls? Written by the divine Tina Fey and starring a pre-meltdown Lindsay Lohan, the movie follows homeschooled Cady Heron (Lohan) as she tries to navigate the perils of high school for the first time.
With the help of two students named Damian and Janis, Cady infiltrates a trio of popular girls called the Plastics led by Regina (Rachel McAdams). In the process, Cady becomes as manipulative and superficial as they are and turns on her friends. The rest of the movie contains a surprising number of plot twists as Cady falls from grace and tries to right her wrongs.
Mean Girls turns the teen comedy formula on its head and mercilessly satirizes the genre. I remember watching this on the plane in my early 20s, not expecting much at first, and thinking “this is actually pretty good.”
Memorable scenes: When Cady sees Regina for the first time at school and falls into a trash can because she’s so mesmerized, Regina telling a fellow Plastic “Gretchen, stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen! It’s not going to happen!”