Teenage Rebels: Five great films exploring adolescent rebellion

15 mins read

We have all been there, those teenage years where you feel like nothing fits. Your very soul caught in a no-mans-land where joy and humour can quickly descend into the darkest of moods. While at the same time, parents are mere enforcers of stupid rules and peer groups reign supreme. Of course, the experience was different for each and every one of us. With some of us rebelling against the very foundations of society, while others railed against the restrictions parents tried to enforce. But whatever the personal experience, there is a film out there that reflects it. So join us as we look at five great films exploring teenage rebellion.

Mommy (2014)

French Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan burst onto the public stage in 2009 with his outstanding debut feature I Killed My Mother. His ability to reflect the intensity of family relationships and the emotional disconnect of parents and teenagers jumping from the screen. However, with Mommy, his ability to both challenge and engage is amplified to electric levels. With a film that embraces the loneliness and anger of teenage rebellion alongside the heartbreak of parental support against all the odds. In a movie that carries powerful and raw emotions embedded in love, anger, union and segregation. The performances of Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon and Suzanne Clément unforgettable in every way. While at the same time Dolan weaves a tale of a family crisis that transcends the boundaries of regular family drama.

At its core, Mommy is a poignant and emotional reflection of one mother’s struggle to control her wayward ADHD suffering son. But look closer, and Dolan’s film is a commentary on social isolation, teenage rebellion and parental freedom versus confinement. With each character screaming to escape the socially restricted boxes life has constructed around them. Their fingers clawing at the padlocks that keep them in captivity, while also aware that their freedom means letting go of those they can no longer support. And as the film ramps up to its emotional and dramatic conclusion, one social prison will be unlocked, just as the key turns on another.

Mommy is Xavier Dolan at his best, wrapping the audience in a film of pure beauty, adrenaline and emotion. Its cinematic power held in a mix of stunning cinematography and sublime performances. While at the same time, its narrative leaves an indelible mark on the mind of the viewer.

Director: Xavier Dolan

Cast: Anne DorvalAntoine Olivier PilonSuzanne Clément, Patrick Huard, Alexandre Goyette

Days of the Bagnold Summer (2019)

Do you remember the long summer holidays away from the pressure of school at the tender age of 15? For many of us, we now look back at this time through rose-tinted specs. But, the truth is these breaks were often painful, disappointing and challenging for both our parents and us. Our hormonal moods and desire for freedom clashing with the relentless boredom of teenage life. While at the same time, uncomfortable conversations and embarrassing situations haunted each day. Our burgeoning need for independence rudely invaded by our parents wishes to ‘spend time together’.

However, this reality rarely finds itself reflected on film, the power of teenage rebellion often wrapped in tales of sex and drugs. With the truth far more monotonous as our rebellion centred on meals, days out and petty disagreements. However, with Days of the Bagnold Summer, these realities find a new voice. In a delicate and bright portrayal of the changing relationship between a mother and son. Their bonds of love fragmented by teenage life, and stilted communication during a summer of relentless moods.

If all this sounds slightly ‘Ken Loach’ in construct, fear not. The resulting film is bathed in beautifully timed comedy. While at the same time, embracing a deadpan realism rare in coming of age comedy/drama. In a film that aims to reflect the real experience of so many parents and teenagers. While also highlighting the fact that teenage rebellion is often designed to evoke disapproval and concern. But, rarely causes much harm to either the child or parent as the hormonal shroud of despair lifts.

Director: Simon Bird

Cast: Monica DolanEarl CaveTamsin GreigRob BrydonElliot Speller-Gillott

if…. (1968)

Lindsay Anderson’s second feature film following This Sporting Life in 1963 is a complicated dissection of British Imperialism. Its mix of comedy, drama and surrealism continuing to catch viewers off guard some 52 years after its release. With a title inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s famous 1909 poem. The Empire inspired words of Kipling are subverted into a tale of rebellion, injustice and revolt. In a movie, revolving around the lives of three boarding school boys; Mick (Malcolm McDowell), Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny (David Wood). With all three slowly realising that escape from imperialism lies in enacting a violent revolution.

However, the reality of the boy’s plan and its subsequent implementation is held in a dream-like void. The narrative never allowing the audience to decipher whether their actions are mere wish fulfilment or rooted in physical achievement. While at the same time, Anderson explores the control, bullying and subjugation at the heart of the British public school system. The camera knowingly and purposefully ridiculing the pomp and ceremony of a system built on the foundations of Empire. In a movie that reflects the feelings of injustice and imbalance surrounding 1960s Britain.

But, while if… carries powerful political and social messages that reflect the march of change in 60s Britain. There are also powerful reflections on the eternal teenage need for rebellion against perceived adult control. Our eager young rebels debating culture, the state, mortality and sex, as they consume new ideas. There are even delicate yet brave discussions on homosexuality through the relationship of Wallace and a fellow student. The result of which is a film that still talks to the teenage experience today. The bravery of its revolutionary dissection of the class system both enthralling and engaging. While also disappointingly still relevant to power and place in a 21st Century Britain.

Director: Lindsay Anderson

Cast: Malcolm McDowellDavid WoodRichard Warwick, Christine Noonan, Rupert Webster

Heathers (1988)

It is hard to believe that Michael Lehmann’s pitch-black comedy about high school cliques, was a box office dud. Its total theatrical income back in 1988, a mere $1.1 million. However, Heathers was to mount a mighty come back care of VHS video rental. And by the mid-1990s had found itself hailed as one of the best teen comedies of the 1980s. With its cutting observational humour taking aim at the insanity of constructed school communities.

Movies exploring youth sub-cultures are, of course, nothing new, with The Breakfast Club and Dazed and Confused treading similar ground. However, unlike many of its contemporaries, Heathers is not afraid to delve into the inherent darkness of the adolescent mind. Its humour sitting within a pit of despair; the reason for its success, it’s upfront and abstract reflection of the anger and morbidity of youth.

Much of the film’s success comes from a screenplay steeped in satire, but, when this is placed into the hands of Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, Heathers comes alive. Its reflection of the darkness sitting at the heart of high-school life both fresh, engaging and darkly delicious. The teenage need for popularity, place and purpose laced with the desire for revenge, karma and destruction. In a movie that celebrates its nastiness from the first scene to the last. While at the same time subverting the classic Bonnie and Clyde story. With Ryder and Slater joining forces in a hormonal embrace, only to end up parting ways in an explosive finale.

Heathers is a brave and cutting comedy that would probably never make it to our screens today. In a world where daring humour and fresh new stories of teenage rebellion are few and far between. But, despite its age, Heathers still manages to feel fresh and creative, continuing to engage new teenage audiences over 30 years after its release. And the reason for this is clear to see, in its lawless, strange and downright vindictive delivery; with the confusion, anger and jumbled up morals of the teenage mind splashed all over the screen.

Director: Michael Lehmann

Cast:  Winona RyderChristian SlaterShannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker, Jeremy Applegate

The Outsiders (1983)

Based on the 1967 novel of the same name by S. E. Hinton, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders launched many of the careers of the so-called 80s brat pack. Its cast a veritable who’s who of 80s talent, from Rob Lowe to Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez and Tom Cruise. But, make no mistake this movie belongs to Thomas C Howell, Matt Dillon and Ralph Macchio. Their characters engulfed in the no-mans-land between childhood and adulthood in 1960s Tulsa. Within a timeless story of class struggle, gang culture, brotherly love and teenage confusion.

Coppola’s film begins with the gentle tones of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Stay Gold’; its relevance made clear later in the narrative. However, this calm and soothing opening is quickly replaced by the grit and grime of teenage life in 60s Tulsa. Where poverty, family breakdown and peer pressure sit side by side, as we meet Ponyboy (Howell), best friend Johnny (Macchio), and Dallas (Dillon). With each actor embodying a raw and unflinching honesty in their performance. While at the same time, also reflecting the confusion and isolation of youth shown in The Last Picture Show.

It is within the interface between wealth, poverty and opportunity that The Outsiders truly hits its mark. The ongoing conflict between the working class ‘greasers’ and middle class ‘soc’s’ reflecting an ever-growing division in American society—a division built on a capitalist dream that had just begun to take hold in many 1960s towns. And when this is dovetailed with the power of the peer group, the path becomes even more treacherous for PonyBoy, Johnny and Dallas. Their lives shrouded in a false bravado born from a need for belonging and purpose.

However, Coppola also has one last narrative device that makes The Outsiders unique, as he dovetails the boy’s journey with Gone with the Wind. The novels reflections of civil war and social rebirth through fearless gallantry finding voice in the boy’s perceptions of their own experience. Just at the cinematography of Stephen H. Burum, echoes the red and gold of freedom and stark blues and greys of social imprisonment. The result of which is one of the finest teen movies of the early 1980s. And one of the most daring from Coppola, after the global success of both The Godfather and Apocalypse Now.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: C. Thomas HowellMatt DillonRalph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise

Why not explore more films about teenage rebellion right here

Previous Story

1990s Children’s Movies

Next Story

LGBTQ+ Christmas Movies: Three outstanding festive treats