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Top 20 Teen Angst Movies
It’s tough being a teenager. Not quite an adult, but no longer a child. All that peer pressure and puberty. All those raging hormones. It’s no wonder, perhaps, that teenagers are moody. Prone to tears and drama. And bad poetry.
You’re only young once, thank goodness. If you are still a teenager, you might want to check out these carefully curated teenage angst movies, one for every mood. If your teenage years are far behind you, thank your lucky stars, grab some popcorn and watch them anyway. And, because everybody loves a good wallow, we have 20 them.
20 Rebel Without A Cause
You were expecting this one right? Cool . . . so was everyone else. So we’ll get this out of the way first.
Probably the most famous teen movie ever, starring a 24 year man playing a 17 year old. The movie was supposed to be an exploration of the moral decay of American youth, based on the work of a psychiatrist, and his book Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath. Luckily they shortened the title in the movie version.
The film was a runaway success, partly because it was released just a few weeks after Dean’s death in a car crash. Interestingly, much of the moral decay in the movie comes not from the teenagers but from the parents. After someone dies, Dean wants to do the right thing, but mom and dad would rather turn the other way and pretend it never happened.
Dean slows the spread of moral decay in American youth in a movie that is, perhaps, high on melodrama, but still makes interesting viewing, as long as you can suspend your disbelief long enough to believe that James Dean is 17. And if you can’t . . . well at least he’s smoking hot.
Angus is a chubby kid who is good at football and science, and is just a bit weird. He is teased for not being ‘normal’ by the popular and handsome Rick.
Rick, of course, is a bit of a douche.
As the prom rolls round, Rick engineers a school election, so that Angus is faced with the prospect of having to dance with the girl of his never-before-revealed secret dreams, and he contemplates moving schools in order to avoid the humiliation of dancing badly while dressed in a plum coloured velvet suit.
Will Angus run away and get a fresh start at a new school, where Rick is not stalking the corridors with video of him learning to dance with an inflatable doll? Of course not. Angus is from Minnesota, and they are made of sterner stuff up there. So who’s normal now?
18 Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko is the ultimate moody teenager. Like all moody teenagers, Donnie is possessed by an inability to communicate with his family. Unlike other teenagers, however, he is also possessed by visions of someone in a freaky rabbit costume who foretells the end of the world.
Donnie spends a lot of time sitting on the psychiatrist’s couch trying to make sense of the apocalyptic visions that the rabbit-man-monster brings.
The film had a very limited cinema release in October 2001, largely because the film featured a crashing airplane, which, given the very recent events of 9/11 was deemed inappropriate, and then went straight to video, where it has become something of a cult favourite, particularly with moody teens.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie, mostly lying on his bed, talking to himself. And to the rabbit, of course.
17 10 Things I Hate About You
Teenage angst doesn’t have to be miserable. 10 Things I Hate About You, for example, still has awkward teenagers moping about, but in between the pubescent angst there is still room for a bit of romance. Or comedy. Or romantic comedy.
The film was said to be a modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew. Julia Stiles took the part of the shrew, with Heath Ledger as the shrew-tamer, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt assisting. Probably held his coat or something.
As it is basically a Shakespeare play, you can expect nothing really new in this movie, apart from Heath Ledger, for whom this was a breakout role. There’s also the bad poetry, of course. But, despite the poetry, it is consistently voted in the top 10 teen movies of all time.
The film was did very well at the box office, considering it was released the same week as The Matrix, despite the fact that the main plot line sees Levitt paying Heath Ledger to pretend to like Stiles, and ask her out. No wonder she is shrewish.
If you are looking for moody, you need look no further Twilight. Robert Pattinson managed to scowl his way through 5 films. He occasionally attempted a smile, but rarely managed more than a fleeting upward movement of one side of his mouth.
It seems even vampires have issues. There is the whole undead thing, for a start. Then there is being an old man who just happens to look 17, nasty neighbours, a whole array of other supernatural creatures, as well as, of course, the ubiquitous girlfriend trouble.
The films were a huge box office success, which probably made Pattinson scowl even more, since he is said to have hated doing Twilight. Even before his girlfriend trouble.
Children can be pretty cruel. And teenagers can be horrors. And for Carrie White, high school is just one long nightmare. Based on the Stephen King novel, Carrie is the sort of supernatural horror that you makes you glad your schooldays are over.
Carrie obviously missed the Sex Ed class the day they talked about menstruation. Perhaps because she was at home with her mom, praying. Whatever the reason, her first period comes as an unwelcome, and very public surprise, and these things can be pretty hard to live down at school. Being a Stephen King adaptation, of course, Carrie discovers the power of telekinesis right around the time she reaches puberty.
There have been four Carrie movies, beginning with Brian De Palma’s version, with Sissy Spacek as Carrie, and ending with Chloë Grace Moretz in the 2013 version. Although the first version was the most well received, its probably fair to say that it has not aged well, and the climatic scene is rather more school-kid than horror. However, it is still better than all the others.
14 Fish Tank
You might have missed Fish Tank when it came out in 2009. Though it won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and a BAFTA for best British film, it did not make much of an impact internationally. It starred Katie Jarvis as Mia. If you haven’t heard of her either, don’t worry. Jarvis had no prior acting experience. She was cast after she was spotted arguing with her boyfriend at a railway station. Afterwards she took on a small number of TV roles, before deciding acting was not for her.
However, her first job in the business was pretty good. She starred opposite Michael Fassbender, who played her mum’s boyfriend, amongst other things.
Fish Tank is a film about loss and desire. About family and friendship. It is about growing up and moving on. Fish Tank is about a lot of things. It’s not about fish.
Pariah is a coming of age film about a teenage African-American girl who discovers she is lesbian, and her family, who are not happy about it. Adepero Oduye stars as the girl forced to wear skirts and dresses by her mother, when she would rather wear shirts and chinos. And that’s before mom discovers her daughter is gay. Oduye is forced to emancipate herself, build a new life, and write a poem.
The movie is perhaps as much about coping with parental expectations as it is about discovering your sexuality. Parents in teenage angst movies are, of course, unrelentingly overbearing. Or neglectful. Or just embarrassing. But at least they’re not the ones reading out their poems.
12 Igby Goes Down
The Igby in Igby Goes Down is played by Kieran Culkin. Igby is clever, a bit of a rebel, and pretty funny too. Like all teenagers, Igby has parent trouble. Not for long though. His dad has been committed to a mental institution and his mother drinks too much.
Igby decides that life is short, and, before he turns into either his mother or his father, he is going to enjoy it. He escapes from military school, and lives it up using his mother’s credit card, before developing a crush on an unavailable woman.
There are definite overtones of The Catcher in the Rye in this film, but Culkin does a good job of differentiating between the two, and his Igby is his own man.
11 This Boy’s Life
Most teenage moaning about parents involves them complaining about the injustice of having to pick up their own dirty clothes from their own bedroom floors, and the movie versions of teenagers are pretty much the same.
Occasionally, however, the moaning is justified. Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life, is certainly justified. His emotionally unstable mother is desperate to find a good man who will look after them both. When she meets Robert De Niro, she thinks that she has found that good man. She hasn’t.
The ink is barely dry on the marriage certificate before he turns into a domineering bully who makes their lives a misery. Despite this, she can’t bring herself to leave him, and DiCaprio is forced to grow up under the constant threat of De Niro’s hair-trigger temper.
Leonardo DiCaprio seemed to make a specialty of troubled teenagers. Luckily, he was pretty good at it.
Teenagers can be so dramatic. When they’re not crying, or sulking, or screaming, they’re poisoning they’re friends with Drano. Heathers is a black comedy for teenagers, starring Winona Ryder as the Popular Girl and Christian Slater as the Cool Kid cum Serial Killer.
Intended originally as a dark satire, the movie has developed a cult following among teenagers and spawned a smash-hit musical version for the theatre, as well as a TV series. Rumours of a film sequel, however, are said to be untrue, despite doing the rounds at regular intervals.
You might say that Heathers is a film about liking yourself for who you are. Or about the dangers of peer pressure. Perhaps it is about friendship. Or not judging a book by its cover. Heathers might be about all these things. But it’s not.
What it really is, is a teenage fantasy about killing everyone who has ever been bitchy to you. Or dumped you. Or… well you get the picture. Although it’s true that, in the end, Winona Ryder puts her foot down, stops the serial killer, and saves the school, most of the fun is to be had before then.
9 The Lost Boys
Moving to a new town is tough. You have to go to a new school. Make new friends. Defeat vampires. When Corey Haim and his older brother, Jason Patric, first move to Santa Cruz, they find life a little difficult. Then it gets a whole lot harder.
Haim manages to find a friend, Corey Feldman, but Patric becomes besotted with a girl. Unfortunately she has a dangerous boyfriend.
Kiefer Sutherland is the leader of a biker gang. But not one of the good sort.
After being given a peculiar tasting drink at a party, Patric begins to feel very unwell, and the Haim begins to realise that his big brother is turning into a vampire. Luckily his friend has read some comics, and he knows exactly what to do. Kill him. And then kill the rest of them.
Is there much teenage angst in The Lost Boys? Maybe not. Unless you count Jason Patric mooning over a girl, or the two Corey’s freaking out over vampires, or the lost boys hoping that the girlfriend can be turned into their vampire mother. So yeah, some teenage angst. But it’s ok. Being a teenager doesn’t last for ever, and, in the end, all boys grow up. Except the undead ones.
Being a teenager is hard, being a gay teenager can sometimes be harder still. Being a gay teenager in the Seventies in conservative French Quebec, is, apparently, crazy hard.
C.R.A.Z.Y is a Quebecois film about just such a teenager. It was very well received on its release in 2005, winning multiple awards and big box office receipts.
Zac, played by Marc-André Grondin, has a close relationship with his father, until the day that his dad comes home and finds him dressed in his mother’s clothes. Despite, or because of, his father’s attempts to ‘cure’ his son, Zac leaves home to find himself.
C.R.A.Z.Y. is about discovering yourself, but also about acceptance and reconciliation and family. It may not be a feel-good movie, but it is an emotional movie. So bring tissues.
7 The Basketball Diaries
The Basket Diaries is more of a cautionary tale than an angst movie, although there is a fair amount of angst in it. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a promising basket player, and would be writer, whose life turns upside down when his best friend dies, and he is sexually assaulted by his coach.
He begins to take drugs to numb his grief, and his basketball suffers, leading him to be kicked off the team. At this point, his life is as good as its going to get for quite a while.
The 20 year old DiCaprio puts in a great performance as the nice kid on the slide to drug addiction, but there is no doubt that the movie is uncomfortable to watch. Depressing even. And it’s even got poetry in it.
Scum is a British film about life inside a detention centre for juveniles, or borstal, as they were known at that time. The film is billed as ‘uncompromising’, which means violent, and ‘controversial’, which, in this case, also means violent. It was intended to be a searing condemnation of the borstal system, and a timely warning to British youth, although Scum’s continued popularity amongst young disenfranchised men suggests that not all of them got that message.
The film starred Ray Winstone, in his breakout role as Carlin, a young man sentenced for stealing scrap metal. After briefly flirting with non-violence, and suffering brutal treatment at the hands of the Daddy of the block, Carlin decides enough is enough and, with the aid of a couple of snooker balls and a sock, he fights his way to the top. Who’s the daddy? Winstone’s the daddy.
The film the futility of both fighting the system and working within it, when that system is stacked against you, but it is also a film about the difficulty of being young. Of having to be tough, when you don’t want to be. Of having to be a man, when you’d rather be a kid. None of these Borstal Boys can be daddies, because, as yet, none of them are men.
5 A Clockwork Orange
Teenagers speak their own language. This is especially true of the teenagers in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, it stars Malcolm McDowell as the leader of a very singular gang of Droogs.
No ordinary youth, McDowell likes ‘a bit of the old Ludwig Van’ Beethoven rather than rock roll, and jock straps rather than leather jackets, and he and his gang choreograph their violence as if it were a ballet.
Even stranger is their language, Nadsat, which seems to be a mixture of Russian, Cockney rhyming slang, with other bits of slang thrown in for good measure. The movie is not comfortable to watch at the best of times, and parts of it are positively eye-watering. It was banned in a number of countries because of its ‘ultra-violence’ and ‘the old in and out’. Despite this, it was nominated for a Best Picture and Best Director award at the 1972 Academy Awards.
Who wants to settle for a boring job and a boring life in a boring town? Not Jimmy. Jimmy doesn’t want to turn into his dad. He lives for the weekends, when he can don his tight bespoke suit and get into fights on the beach. That is really living . . . mod style.
Jimmy wants to stand out among the parka-wearing crowd. He wants to become a face. A face like Sting. Well, if you’ve got one… Sting is cool. So cool that he steals Jimmy’s girl.
Quadrophenia is a film about being young and restless. About believing the world is yours for the taking . . . and then discovering you are wrong. Most of all Quadrophenia is about finding your idols, and discovering that those idols have feet of clay.
Quadrophenia comes from the minds of The Who (it is their second rock opera after Tommy and was adapted into this movie) and it tells us the story of “The Mods” versus “The Rockers”. From Italian scooters decked out with extraneous lights and mirrors, to boys putting their jeans on in the bath to get ultra-shrinkage, this film is better than any at presenting the crazy 1960s from a British perspective.
3 The Breakfast Club
The Breakfast Club is a much lighter kind of teenage angst movie. Made in 1985, with the 23 year old Emilio Esteves and 26 year old Judd Nelson as an unlikely pair of high school students who, along with some actual teenagers, turn up for a day’s detention at Shermer High School.
The film throws together students who would never normally mix at school. A “brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal” must spend 9 whole hours together and write an assignment before they can be released.
After initial tensions, they learn to bond over their shared experiences of crappy parenting, thus effectively demonstrating that their poor behaviour is someone else’s fault.
There is nothing like having a common enemy to foster peer relationships, and the naughty kids soon begin to build unlikely friendships.
At least until detention ends.
2 God’s Own Country
If you hated Brokeback Mountain, you’ll hate this. Everyone else will love it. God’s Own Country has been hailed as the “better” Brokeback and once you’ve seen it you’ll understand why.
Like its counterpart, the film is set amongst sheep, mountains, and people with funny accents – though in this case the Yorkshire kind. It is a film in which a young farmer (whose age is not clear but as a recent school leaver we presume he is meant to be in his late teens) has to cope with a future running the family farm because his dad is ill, a future of anonymous sex in the back of cars because he’s gay in a straight-man’s land, and a future of alcoholic binges and misery.
And then a Romanian man arrives (frequently referred to as a “gyppo” much to his disdain) and turns everything upside down . . . in a good way . . . mostly.
Unlike many films today covering themes of homosexualism, coming of age, and class division, the acclaim received by God’s Own Country is not a mindless virtue signal. This really is a brilliant film. See it.
1 La Haine
You might think, at first glance, that La Haine is one of those arty black and white French films, and you might be right. But take a second glance. La Haine (Hate) is actually the story of three friends, living through riots in Paris, and its immediate aftermath. The friends are all from different immigrant backgrounds (a black, a jew, and a muslim), but they all feel equally vulnerable in the wake of the unrest.
This film is not a feel good movie, but it does explore what it means to belong, and what happens when you feel that don’t belong anywhere. Although it was made in 1999, it feels very current. So much so that a 4k re-release is scheduled three days from now (11th September).
Hate begets hate, they say in the film. And violence breeds violence. And when violence erupts, no one can predict the consequences. There may well be a lesson in here for us all right now. “So far, so good” . . . but how much longer will we be able to say that?