The Most Controversial Teen Movies Of All Time

Whether it’s a wholesome Disney Channel Original movie or a heavier story being told on the big screen, teen movies can have a profound effect on those coming of age with themes and messages often addressing real difficulties and hurdles viewers are facing. While films aimed at this demographic can cover anything from young love and parental conflict to rebellion and the struggle to fit in, there are some more controversial stories unafraid to venture into the dark places in which some teens find themselves.

Teenagers occupy a difficult, transitional stage of development - not quite a child but not quite an adult. Parents and society at large certainly want to protect these young people from the dangers of the world, but often this isn't possible. More serious themes like murder, assault, drug abuse, domestic violence, and self-harm have wormed their way into some of these coming-of-age stories, for better or worse. 

The films on this list have been both praised and criticized for their intense themes, with some critics accusing them of glorifying damaging behavior and others praising them for shining a light on the often-ignored realities teens are exposed to. This list will dive into these murky waters, revealing the darker side of the teenage experience that many are afraid to look at directly or even acknowledge.

  • Thirteen is an intense film about the effects of peer pressure on a 13-year-old girl named Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood). She begins as a quiet honors student in middle school, silently struggling with feelings of abandonment due to her recovering-alcoholic mother focusing more on her fellow ex-addict boyfriend, the stress of which leads Tracy to self-harm. After being made fun of by popular girl Evie (Nikki Reed) for having “Cabbage Patch” clothes, she decides it’s time to shed her little-girl persona and gets trendier clothes to fit in, attempting to befriend Evie.

    Tracy steals money to impress Evie, and this willingness to engage in theft secures Evie's friendship. She in turn introduces Tracy to a world of sex, crime, and drugs. This exposure sparks a change in Tracy - she begins wearing more revealing clothing, drinking, doing drugs, and engaging in sexual behavior. This puts a deeper strain on Tracy’s life and relationships, even causing her mother to try sending Tracy to live with her father to break up her and Evie’s friendship. When Evie eventually turns on Tracy, the toxicity of their friendship finally becomes apparent to Tracy. After a huge blow-out with Evie, Tracy, Tracy’s mom, and Evie’s current guardian, the extent of Tracy’s self-harm is exposed. The movie ends with an unnerving shot of Tracy spinning and screaming on a merry-go-round at the park.

    The film garnered mixed reviews upon its 2003 release, with critics claiming that it glorified self-harm and was exploitative of young girls, while others considered it a raw, unfiltered look into the life of Valley Girls and the early sexualization they endure from society at large. The two young actors were both 14 years old during filming, and despite growing very close during their time together, they didn’t speak for many years until finally reconnecting in their early 20s. About this, Reed recalled:

    We were too young to realize this at the time, but there were a lot of people that were kind of pitting us against each other and making it a competitive atmosphere. Which, now, in hindsight, I’m like, “Of course, because isn’t that the recipe for how [to] treat all young women in this industry?”

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  • The story of the 2001 film Bully is not an easy one, as it features themes of assault, abuse, and murder. Following the story of South Florida high school dropouts Ali, Lisa, Bobby, and Marty, who become friends and quickly engage in sexual contact with one another, both consensually and non-consensually. Bobby is the bully of the group, assaulting both Ali and Lisa throughout the film, as well as emotionally and physically abusing Marty since they were very young.

    Finally sick of the abuse, Lisa proposes they murder Bobby, calling on the aid of a few other teens. When they fail to follow through with their initial plan, they turn to a supposed “hitman,” a friend of Ali’s named Derek. The group initiates a new plan in a remote canal, luring Bobby with the promise of sex, and Donny begins the act by stabbing Bobby in the neck. While the others run away in horror, Marty eviscerates Bobby, and after Derek strikes him with a baseball bat for good measure, they dump the body in the swamp.

    Overcome with guilt and trauma from witnessing the murder, Lisa and her cousin admit what they’ve done to some friends, and Ali phones in an anonymous tip to the media about Bobby’s death. They are all eventually arrested or turn themselves in and appear in court, where Marty and Donny start an argument that implicates them all, securing their guilt in front of an onlooking courtroom. Several of them receive life sentences, and most notably, Marty is sentenced to death. 

    Based on an actual murder case from 1993, the film is brutal, rife with gratuitous nudity and graphic sex scenes. While its director, Larry Clark, was attempting to tell a raw story of kids getting in way over their heads, he reflects that he clearly exploited these young actors by showing their bodies and presenting them as air-headed kids only interested in sex and violence.

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  • Another film captained by Bully’s Larry Clark, Kids sparked just as much controversy in 1995, as it showed a group of teenagers in New York City having sex and taking drugs. It follows a boy named Telly and opens with him sleeping with a 12-year-old, later bragging about it to his friend Casper. The two shoplift a bottle of liquor and go to their friend Paul’s apartment, where they smoke cannabis and inhale nitrous oxide out of balloons. The narrative shifts to Ruby and Jennie among a group of girls discussing sex, in which we learn that Jennie tested positive for HIV. Quickly realizing she got it from Telly, she spends the day attempting to locate him to prevent other girls from getting it as well.

    The film switches back to Telly, who steals money from his mother and goes to buy cannabis in Washington Square Park. While there, Casper bumps into a man that begins threatening and pushing the boy for his carelessness, provoking Casper’s friend to strike the man on the head with a skateboard. After the man collapses, other skaters join in, stomping and hitting the man until he is knocked unconscious. The boys discuss whether or not they’ve killed the man when a 13-year-old girl named Darcy draws Telly’s attention. He convinces her to accompany them to the pool and then a house party.

    Meanwhile, Jennie arrives at a club in search of Telly but has a pill shoved into her mouth, which turns out to be a depressant. By the time she gets to the house party, the drug has taken effect, and when she discovers Telly is having sex with Darcy, she cries and passes out on the couch among other sleeping attendees. A drunk Casper assaults a sleeping Jennie, thus exposing himself to HIV, and wakes naked and confused the next morning.

    The film is without question very controversial, especially due to the presence of drugs on set for the teen stars. Since the film’s release, two have died in the following decade from suicide and drug overdoses. Actor Hamilton Harris has opened up about how exploitative he felt the film’s narrative was and how the subsequent trauma inspired him to write a documentary about the film called The Kids.

  • The second film in director Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy,” Elephant is the harrowing chronicle of the events surrounding a school shooting in the suburbs of Portland, OR. Based in part on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, we meet a cast of students prior to the shooting in short scenes of their daily lives: John struggles with his alcoholic father, the outcast Michele struggles with body issues, John’s friend Acadia attends a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting, Elias builds a portfolio of student photographs, and bulimic Nicole, Brittany, and Jordan complain about their parents. 

    Unbeknownst to any of these students, Alex and Eric are planning an attack on their school. We see them have a short sexual encounter in the shower, as well as flashbacks of them ordering weapons online and planning their onslaught. On the day of the shooting, Alex and Eric enter the school armed and encounter John, who they tell to leave. Realizing what's going to happen, John attempts to warn others but is mostly ignored.

    When the propane bombs Alex and Eric planted in the cafeteria fail, they begin shooting indiscriminately, killing almost all the teens shown earlier. The two take a seat in the cafeteria and, surrounded by half-eaten lunches and deceased students, they discuss who they’ve shot. Alex kills Eric mid-sentence. The film ends with Alex discovering two students hiding in the freezer, to which he tauntingly says, “Eenie, meenie, minie, moe,” while deciding who to kill first. The film cuts to the credits before the decision is made.

    Elephant brings a unique sense of realism in that it employs inexperienced actors and introduces each character without bias, something critics have praised it for. Despite the compassionate way in which it addresses school shootings, it was still a polarizing film - critically it was well-received, but the difficult subject matter left many viewers uncomfortable.

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  • Set in the Watts and Crenshaw neighborhoods of LA, Menace II Society follows the story of Caine and his best friend, O-Dog, as they're rushed to pay and leave a liquor store as the cashier suspects the boys are there to steal something. When the cashier makes the mistake of saying, “I feel sorry for your mother,” O-Dog fatally shoots him and his wife, robs the cash register and wallets, steals the surveillance tape, and runs off with Caine. O-Dog later shows off the surveillance tape of his crimes to friends, despite Caine’s irritation and warnings.

    When Caine and his cousin, Harold, are carjacked while on the way home from a party, Caine is injured and Harold is killed. Caine learns the location of the carjackers, and with the help of O-Dog and their friend A-Wax, they hunt them down and avenge Harold’s death. Caine and O-Dog continue their entanglement with crime and drugs, eventually leading to a fateful incident in which the cousin and friends of the woman Caine impregnated and dropped do a drive-by shootout that fatally wounds Caine. As he slowly dies, he recalls his grandfather asking if he even cared should he live or die, and in those final moments, Caine realizes he does care, but it’s too late.

    According to directors and twin brothers Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, the movie was made to let white people know what was really going on in the inner city. Critics responded well to it, claiming it was a gritty, unforgiving look into the complicated and violent world that people are still living in.

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  • Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
    Photo: Lionsgate

    Precious tells the story of 16-year-old Precious and her life in Harlem with a physically and verbally abusive mother. After being raped by her father before he disappeared, young Precious is left with two children, a daughter with Down syndrome and a second child she is currently carrying. After learning of this second pregnancy, she's sent to an alternative school in the hopes that she can change her life for the better. In order to escape her traumatic daily life, Precious often daydreams of a world in which she is loved, whether it’s as a singing starlet or a white woman with blonde hair.

    Precious finally learns to read and write at this new school and even reveals who the father of her children is to a social worker. After giving birth to her second child, Abdul, her mother deliberately drops the newborn and attacks Precious, revealing that they’ve been cut off from welfare due to Precious reporting the sexual abuse to the social worker. Precious fights back, flees with Abdul, and eventually finds shelter in a halfway house with the help of her teacher. Unfortunately, Precious then learns that her father has died from AIDS and she herself is HIV-positive. When her mother admits that she always hated Precious for stealing her man and “letting him” abuse her, Precious cuts all ties with her mother, now having seen the woman for who she truly is. Precious leaves with her two children and plans to complete her GED, go to college, and start a new life.

    The story is challenging in its heart-breaking themes, and while many have praised it, some still question if it depicts a racist cliché. In many ways, it shines a light on the rampant racism and social inequity that resulted from Ronald Reagan’s presidency and Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, but the book’s author, Sapphire, argues that child abuse is not Black. Regardless, it’s hard to look away from the drama that unfolds in Precious, and it will keep many asking the same questions about race and poverty in America for years to come.

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