Turbulent Teens – a collection of diverse movies exploring adolescence

Turbulent Teens – a collection of diverse movies exploring adolescence.


2009 would see Xavier Dolan emerge as one of the most exciting young writers and directors of a generation with his debut, I Killed My Mother. Dolan would explore the anger, frustration and hurt of teenage life through family conflict, unspoken love, and the need for escape as a mother and son clashed in a dance of independence. Dolan wrote the screenplay for I Killed My Mother at the tender age of sixteen, and due to this, he manages to convey the volatility of youth in a way few adult writers could. Here themes of family breakdown, emerging sexuality and an urgent need for independence dovetail with the need to escape parental control in a film that understands the complexity and fireworks of the teenage/parent relationship.


To say Harold Chasen’s life is turbulent is an understatement; after all, he spends all his time devising new suicide scenarios while taunting his emotionally distant mother (Vivian Pickles). Harold is disturbed! But he is also looking for something we all seek at one time or another: the meaning of life. On attending an individual’s funeral he doesn’t know, Harold meets 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon). Maude is a live-wire, eccentric, kind and mysterious, and for Harold, she is magnetic and beautiful. As Harold and Maude grow closer, they slowly become one as they explore the meaning of life and the foundations of love, friendship and companionship.

Harold and Maude may have bombed at the box office, but it has since earned cult status through its wickedly sharp comedy, incredibly tender love story and humanism. Alive with the music of Cat Steven’s Harold and Maude is a hilarious, heartbreaking, beautiful and rare film that carries a deep and significant meaning that continues to resonate as two souls find each other in the right place at just the right time.


Francois Ozon is a master of observation and a cinematic surgeon of human emotions, desires and thoughts. Based on The Boy in the Back Row by Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga, Francois Ozon’s wickedly spikey story of power, passion and teenage imagination is primarily about the nature of storytelling. English literature teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) believes he may have found a unique new talent in fifteen-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer); after all, one of the boy’s short assignments offers a fascinating glimpse into the private life of his best friend’s family. But there is also something disturbing and uncomfortable in the pages, a sense of voyeurism, manipulation and sexual control. Germain shares the text with his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), who agrees that there is enormous potential but also a troubling air to his work. The problem is Germaine is transfixed not only by the words on the page and the boy who writes them but the story of a family who has no idea they are being observed.

Ozon delights in exploring the hazy line between truth and fiction as Germain becomes a part of Claude’s creative game. Here he creates a Hitchcockian atmosphere as a manipulative teenager builds a prison of words for a teacher who mistakenly believes he is the boy’s intellectual superior.

KES (1969)

Ken Loach’s second feature film, Kes, would see him adapt Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave, working closely with the author to maintain the book’s themes. Here Loach would explore the British education system and its failure of working-class children, as it forced them into manual labour despite their skills and abilities. Influenced by the Kitchen Sink movement and Italian neo-realism, Loach would craft a film bathed in documentary-like realism as he unpicked late 60s Britain and the class divide that haunted education, employment and opportunity.

Loach beautifully captures the hostile environment surrounding young Billy and the moments of calm and solitude he finds through his Kestral Kes as the adult world threatens to derail his freedom. Here Loach layers Billy’s journey with moments of humour, love, and profound sadness as Kes lays bare the realities of poverty, class oppression and isolation. While we would hope things had now moved on, Billy’s life and Loach’s commentary sadly still feel all too relevant in Britain today.


In Water Lilies and Tomboy, Céline Sciamma explored emerging identity, sexuality and gender through social pressure, conformity and individuality. Girlhood would build on these core themes while exploring the social barriers of oppression, race and poverty at the heart of modern France. Girlhood is an intimate exploration of the need for escape and shared identity as it follows young Marieme as she escapes her family life through a gang of girls in a poor Paris suburb. But the sense of belonging and safety Marieme seeks comes at a price as she sacrifices her old self. Céline Sciamma’s delicate yet compelling exploration of the rocky road to adulthood is fraught with anxiety, joy and uncertainty as she explores the working-class experience of a group of black girls in a society that ignores their talents, worth and culture.


The 1960s would see a new generation define the cultural landscape of the Western world. This new generation was bold and creative and driven by a collective need to wipe away the sterility of the past. They rebelled against their parent’s view of the world and challenged political thinking while also giving birth to a new form of cinema, art and expressionism. Bernardo Bertolucci’s, The Dreamers is set during the student protests and riots that engulfed Paris in 1968, but this is no ordinary coming-of-age story of rebellion. Bertolucci’s hormonal and sexual story is about art, film and personal reinvention. It’s about the need for escape, belonging, and the rebellious urge to define new boundaries in sex and love as we follow Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American exchange student and the free-spirited twins Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green).

Alive with hormonal energy, excitement and uncertainty, Bertolucci captures the vibrant colours of youth in a way few films have managed through the heat of infatuation and the joy and pain of sexual discovery. The Dreamers eloquently plays with expressionism and escape and is never afraid to explore the blurred lines between art, sex and cinema as American conservatism meets European liberalism.

Turbulent Teens

Turbulent Teens

MOMMY (2014)

I Killed My Mother may have announced the arrival of Xavier Dolan, but it was Mommy that cemented his place as one of his generation’s most exciting writers/directors. Mommy would embrace the loneliness and uncontrollable anger of teenage rebellion and the heartbreak of parental support against all odds through a poignant, emotional, beautiful story of a mother’s struggle to support her volatile son. But Dolan’s film is also a dissection of isolation, rebellion, freedom and social imprisonment. Each character screams for escape as they claw at the social bars that contain them. Mommy is Xavier Dolan at his best, as he wraps his audience in stunning cinematography and sublime performances that never shy away from the powerful themes of heartbreak, love and despair held in Mommy’s captivating screenplay. Once seen, never forgotten, Mommy is a masterpiece.

Turbulent Teens

LÉOLO (1992)

Whether Lauzon’s French-Canadian film is a dark fantasy or a powerful exploration of adolescent mental health, sexual discovery, and dysfunctional family remains debatable. Lauzon’s film swings from Léo’s fantasy world to the darkness of the real world surrounding him. His imaginary world is full of childhood fears, comedy, fantasies and uncertain but exciting new sexual thoughts. At the same time, his external world is rooted in fragmented family relationships, declining mental health and community isolation.

While Lauzon’s film may initially inhabit Italian-inspired dark comedy, Léolo takes a much more serious turn as we realise that Léo has no choice but to live in the fantasy world of his writing, the real world far too painful and upsetting for his young mind. As Léo says, “Solitude is my castle. That’s where I have my chair, my table, my bed, my breeze and my sun. When I sit anywhere but in my solitude. I sit in exile. I sit in Fakeland. Because I dream, I’m not”. Here Lauzon offers us a profoundly challenging and complex portrait of adolescent mental health and escapism through the often grotesque dreamlike state of a boy trying to make sense of an incomprehensible adult world.

turbulent teens

Turbulent Teens


John Singleton’s uncompromising exploration of inner-city life for young African Americans not only broke the glass ceiling but took a sledgehammer to it in creating one of the most influential and important films of the 1990s. While many may argue Boyz n the Hood is a typical coming-of-age film of the period, nothing could be further from the truth. Here Singleton’s movie not only embraced the spirit and drive of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) but further explored the reality of inner-city life for African American teens in the early 1990s. 

Singleton would directly confront systemic racism, neglect, and police/community relations at a time when the Rodney King case only further highlighted the institutional racism still rampant in American society. Boyz n the Hood would be the first of several movies from Singleton exploring race and culture in the United States, but it is Boyz n the Hood that remains his finest work.


Few films encapsulate the emotion and intensity of teenage life, like Roy Andersson’s beautiful and complex tale of young love in 70s Sweden. Anderson tenderly explores the first throws of love, jealousy and emotion against a backdrop of dysfunctional family life. Anderson combines the beauty of Bergman with a darkly comic and tender coming-of-age tale that demonstrates how family life steers and affects the life chances of young people. But it is the realism held in Anderson’s film when exploring first love, sex and emotional development that makes it a work of art.

Often overlooked, A Swedish Love Story is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful explorations of first love ever brought to the screen. Anderson’s tale carries a Romeo and Juliet-inspired intensity as two young lovers meet, fall apart due to family struggles, and attempt reconciliation. A Swedish Love Story is one of the finest coming-of-age movies ever made.


Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is a stunning exploration of one young man’s journey through the emotional, social and personal turmoil of family breakdown and neglect. Haigh’s exploration of modern America and the relationship between family, community and opportunity is not only challenging and relentless but rooted in conversations on the social division of the United States. Through the journey of Charley (Charlie Plummer), Haigh captures the loneliness and isolation of teenage life and the devastating realities of childhood poverty and neglect as we follow Charley and an ageing racehorse named Pete. Plummer’s performance is stunning as he delicately explores the coming-of-age process from the perspective of a hurt and isolated young man who has lost all trust in humans. Charley’s only peace, calm and solace comes from an animal who listens without judgement. But, as Charley discovers, the world is far from a forgiving place, and no matter how far and how fast you run, we all have to face the demons of our past eventually.


Nadine Lebaki’s sublime, challenging and emotional film weaves its way through the streets of Lebanon like a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Writhing with the city’s energy, emotion and heat, we follow young Zain through a fog of abuse, separation and longing. Here, Lebaki expertly offers us a powerful reflection of our damaged world from a child’s perspective. The performance of young Zain Al Rafeea is one of pure authenticity and beauty as we travel at his side, longing for his happiness and security. In many ways, Zain’s journey echoes a Dickensian novel as he fights for his place, purpose and security in a city where the odds are stacked against him. Here Lebaki’s razor-sharp film explores the no-mans-land between childhood and adulthood in poor communities with stunning clarity.

Turbulent Teens


Uruguayan writer-director Lucia Garibaldi’s debut feature, The Sharks, submerges us in the burning and predatory desire of emerging sexuality, creating a fascinating portrait of adolescent desire. As the sun beats down, Rosina (Romina Bentancur) runs along a small coastal path towards the sea as her father urgently calls her name. But as Rosina enters the water, a fin glides through the salty waves. It’s a summer when Rosina will work with her father and his small ragtag group of men to keep pathways clear, bushes trimmed, and pools in working order. But it is also a summer when Rosina meets Joselo (Federico Morosini), a young man a few years older than her. As lust and desire mix with adolescent curiosity, The Sharks delicately explores the hunter in every hormonal teenager.

SPUD (2010)

Donovan Marsh’s adaptation of John van de Ruit’s best-selling coming-of-age comedy, Spud, could be described as a South African Adrian Mole. But there’s so much more to this film than the painful and awkward trials and tribulations of puberty. Marsh’s film is about discovery, identity, self-worth and, above all, friendship. Young John Milton (Troye Sivan) is underdeveloped for his age and is yet to find a solitary hair under his arms, let alone anywhere else! But to make things worse, he is a working-class boy from a loving but dysfunctional family about to join a middle-class boarding school. 

As Milton is dropped off at the gates by his dad, he knows his size could be his undoing. As he joins the raucous dorm, it’s not long before he is christened ‘Spud.’ But at least he isn’t the only different kid; Gecko (Jamie Royal) doesn’t fit either, and the two quickly become friends. Then there’s his English teacher, the unpredictable, unconventional, but fascinating Mr Edly (John Cleese), or The Guv. As South Africa changes around him with the release of Nelson Mandela, new friendships and relationships are born. And as an alcoholic teacher becomes a mentor, Milton slowly but surely finds the confidence he never thought he had. 

With an exceptional performance from the young Troye Sivan alongside a sublime ensemble cast, Spud is a pure delight. Yet despite the expertly-timed comedy and endless heartfelt emotion, Spud is a movie that never made a much-deserved splash here in the UK.


Socrates (Christian Malheiros) is fifteen-years-old when his life is thrown into turmoil by the sudden death of his mother. Struggling to keep his head above water on the streets of São Paulo, Socrates attempts to keep the family home running. But poverty and isolation are only a part of Socrates’ troubles as he navigates his emerging sexuality on city streets where safety cannot be taken for granted, especially for a young gay man. As Socrates attempts to find a route through the grief, poverty and volatility around him, he meets a young man who works as a labourer and enters a secretive affair. But all is not as it first appears, and Socrates is about to discover that secrets and lies thread through the gay male experience in a country where homosexuality is feared and oppressed. Alexandre Moratto’s debut feature is heartbreaking and compelling as it offers us a journey into grief and loss performed and produced by at-risk teens living on the streets of São Paulo.


Based on Christine Angot’s semi-autobiographical bestseller, An Impossible Love explores the lives of a mother and daughter in Châteauroux, France and an absent father whose smile hides a toxic secret. The year is 1958, and 25-year-old Rachel (Virginie Efira) is about to meet a handsome yet mysterious young man in the office canteen, Philippe (Niels Schneider). Before long, the pair embark on a passionate affair, and Rachel finds herself pregnant with his child. However, Philippe has no intention of marrying Rachel or, for that matter, allowing his daughter to bear his family name. But as their child becomes a teenager, Philippe decides to take an interest with devastating consequences. Corsini’s compelling drama wraps us in an epic family journey held hostage by unspoken darkness, narcissism, abuse and control.

Turbulent Teens


Some films vanish without a trace for no real reason, and White Squall is one of those movies. Directed by Ridley Scott with an all-star cast of up-and-coming actors, including Scott Wolf, Ryan Phillippe, Balthazar Getty, Jeremy Sisto and Ethan EmbryWhite Squall should have knocked the ball out of the park on its theatrical release. However, despite being led by Jeff Bridges, Caroline Goodall and John Savage, with a Hollywood Studios (Disney) distribution, White Squall was the second Ridley Scott movie to flop in a row following 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992).

In 1961, thirteen teenage boys set off for a year in the Caribbean on the Ocean Academy’s, Albatross schooner. Under the steer of their Captain, Christopher Sheldon (Bridges), the boys would learn teamwork, mathematics, seamanship and more as they worked together across the Ocean. However, in 1961 the Albatross was hit by a reported White Squall, and the boy’s journey and education ended in tragedy. Scott’s fictionalised account of the journey plays fast and loose with the facts but is elevated by the outstanding performances of its young cast. White Squall is, in essence, a coming-of-age movie about the bonds of brotherhood, the veil of masculinity and the need for escape.



Dogtooth is not your average coming-of-age film. You will not find the empathetic character-driven sensibilities of John Hughes here, nor will you be able to relate to the struggles of the teenagers. This is a profoundly misanthropic film, but would we expect anything different from Yorgos Lanthimos?

As a Greek patriarch asserts his dominance over his children by keeping them contained within their family compound, he attempts to teach them an alternative view of the world that fits his damaged vision. They’re intentionally taught incorrect definitions of words and encouraged to compete against one another through animalistic physical strength and endurance contests. What prevents them from leaving is the fear that they will be killed by the unknown monsters that lurk beyond the house’s walls. Often regarded as Lanthimos’ break-out film, Dogtooth is wrapped in surrealism and fear. Is Dogtooth a satirical take on the Edenic myth, or is it a dissection of parental abuse and power? Lanthimos ultimately leave you to unpick the puzzle.


Do you remember the long summer holidays away from school at the tender age of 15? As we grow older, many of us now look back at these times with rose-tinted specs, but those summer breaks were often painful, disappointing and challenging for our parents and us. During those forced holidays, our hormonal confusion and desire for freedom clashed with relentless boredom and frustration leading to uncomfortable conversations, brief moments of pleasure and embarrassing excursions. The reality of those long summer vacations is rarely reflected in film, with many movies opting to tell us tales of rebellion, defiance, sex and drugs over teenage life’s tedious and frustrating realities. Simon Bird’s Days of the Bagnold Summer joyously breaks that convention.

Bird offers us a delightfully intuitive comedy as we follow mother and son, Sue and Daniel Bagnold (Earl Cave and Monica Dolan), during a lazy, challenging and transformative summer holiday. Bird celebrates the uneasy and unsure love of a mother and son as adolescence takes hold, reflecting an unspoken reality of life – adolescence and mid-life both majorly suck!


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