Booksmart, Lady Bird, and Easy A are among the most popular teen flicks of the last decade. The most underrated teen movies from that same time period are every bit as good. They just, for whatever reason, didn't get the notice they deserved. This list will help to change that. There are certainly a couple of underrated teenage romance movies to discuss. However, the films you need to see span a number of genres, including horror, musical, and even animation.
Teen movies have been around for decades, but they really changed in 1985 with the release of John Hughes' The Breakfast Club. It wasn't the first to take adolescent issues seriously, but it struck a chord in a way no previous teen picture had. Diving deep into the themes of its story and the inner lives of its characters gave it massive, enduring resonance. Hughes' masterpiece has gone on to achieve classic status. After its release, exploring the things that matter to teenagers became permanently hot in Hollywood. Pretty in Pink, Election, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Mean Girls - all benefited from the trail The Breakfast Club blazed, as did dozens of others.
In every case, the most underrated teen movies of the last 10 years follow in the tradition of tackling issues that really matter to young people. They also have a nostalgic sense of relevance for those of us whose adolescence is in the rearview mirror. Be sure you're caught up with these important, entertaining works.
Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig
The Edge of Seventeen was released right before Thanksgiving 2016, quite possibly the worst slot that could be given to a sensitive teen movie. It couldn't compete with holiday heavy-hitters like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Doctor Strange, which is too bad, because the story is packed with insight. Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a high schooler whose life turns upside-down when her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) begins dating her older brother. This arrangement tests the limits of their friendship. Woody Harrelson costars as the not-entirely-sympathetic teacher to whom Nadine tells her woes.
Aside from the beautifully nuanced performances given by Steinfeld and Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen has a lot of astute - and often humorous - observations about adolescence, friendship, and the difficulties of fitting in. It's one of those films that feels so real and true that anyone who experienced uncomfortable teenage years should be able to identify with it.
Directed by: Greg Berlanti
Love, Simon is a tender and funny movie about a high school student (Nick Robinson) hiding the fact that he's gay from his family and friends. After falling for an anonymous classmate he's been corresponding with online, Simon decides that it might be time to formally come out. He worries about how his parents and friends will react though.
Given that teen romances tend to focus on proms or crushes, it's refreshing to find one that digs deeper. Love, Simon hits on issues that gay teens face on a daily basis, including fear of rejection from loved ones and trying to decide the right time/way to come out. A sense of honesty pervades the entire movie, which manages to earn laughs while still being sincere in its treatment of subject matter many viewers will find highly relatable.
- Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori
Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa
Dope is a coming-of-age story told through the prism of adolescent obsession. In this case, the lead character, Malcolm (Shameik Moore), is obsessed with '90s hip-hop music and fashion. He also plays in a band with best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori). One day, Malcolm does a favor for a local dealer in exchange for an invite to a hot party. Through a series of mishaps, he ends up in possession of a substance that another, less benevolent dealer wants.
The title Dope has two meanings: it refers to the synonym for "awesome" but also to the substance Malcolm needs to get rid of. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa has fun using the whole '90s hip-hop style to tell a story about a good kid who's forced to do some ethically questionable things in order to get out of a situation he never wanted to be in. The film is funny, substantive, and filled with classic rap tunes.
Directed by: James Ponsoldt
There are two great reasons to make sure you've seen The Spectacular Now. First, it provided early roles for Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, and Brie Larson. Second, it's a potent look at adolescent self-destruction.
Teller plays Sutter Keely, a guy who presents as Mr. Happy on the outside but is really just masking a lot of pain, thanks to an absentee father and a devastating breakup with his ex (Larson). Meeting new girl Aimee (Woodley) should be a positive turning point in life, except that the drinking he uses to blunt his feelings gets in the way. Thanks to sharp writing and dynamic performances, Sutter's journey to rock bottom and, potentially, back up again is unforgettable.
Directed by: Jonah Hill
Jonah Hill made a stunning directorial debut with Mid90s, his semi-autobiographical tale of a 13-year-old boy. Stevie (Sunny Siljic) comes from a troubled home, where his single mother (Katherine Waterston) is often distracted and his older brother (Lucas Hedges) is abusive. He finds solace among a group of local skateboarders who introduce him to some bad influences but also help him find his inner strength.
What impresses most about Mid90s is the way Hill achieves an almost documentary-like feel. Camera and editing techniques create a fly-on-the-wall sensation that allows us to really observe how this "lost" kid finds himself among a group of rebels and misfits. The film doesn't shy away from depicting the hardships Stevie endures, which gives his transformation a real punch.
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Mud does not look like a teen movie on the surface because there are so many elements to its plot. At heart, though, it's a coming-of-age story about a misguided 14-year-old who falls under the spell of a questionable man. Tye Sheridan plays Ellis, a kid who is watching his parents' marriage disintegrate. While trying to escape the strife at home, he and his younger brother sail a small boat down the river, where they encounter a fugitive from justice named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) hiding on an island. The film tracks their burgeoning friendship and the repercussions it creates.
Having its protagonist become influenced by a morally dubious character helps Mud to stand out. The audience perpetually wonders whether Mud's bad influence will rub off on Ellis, or whether Ellis' fundamental decency will rub off on Mud. McConaughey and Sheridan are terrific together, creating a dynamic between their characters that's hard to look away from.
Directed by: George Tillman Jr.
Whereas many teen movies deal with school, romance, and friendship, The Hate U Give takes on something far weightier: social awakening. Amandla Stenberg plays Starr Carter, an African American girl who feels she has to put on an artificial personality when she leaves her Black neighborhood to attend her predominantly white, upper-class school. After seeing her childhood friend Khalil fatally shot by a police officer in an incident of racial profiling, Starr finds herself pulled in various directions. The police argue that Khalil would not have been shot had he complied with officers, but she knows the situation wasn't that simple, and speaking out could potentially alienate her from friends of both races.
The Hate U Give follows how Starr decides to become an activist and speak up for what she believes is right. The film is inspiring in that regard and could spur teenage viewers to follow suit. It's a poignant look at the way young people have the power to change the world through their voices.
Directed by: Joe Cornish
Attack the Block holds an interesting position: it has a devoted cult audience, yet many fans of mainstream cinema still haven't heard of it. The story takes place in a South London housing project, where a group of street punks fight back against the alien creatures who have just landed in their midst.
Director Joe Cornish shoots the almost non-stop action with great style and inventiveness. This is one of those movies that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Running underneath that is a whip-smart satire of race and socioeconomic matters. The film has tons of thrills, but they're grounded in a little bit of substance. As an added bonus, you get to see John Boyega of the Star Wars movies in his cinematic debut.
- Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton
Directed by: John Carney
Sing Street is a must-see for any fan of '80s new wave music. Set in Dublin during that era, it tells the story of Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a boy who starts a band with his buddies in order to impress Raphina (Lucy Boynton), the girl he has a crush on. She agrees to star in music videos for the songs Conor writes.
Each of the original tunes in Sing Street was influenced by a particular group, including The Cure and Duran Duran. Writer/director John Carney - who also made Once and Begin Again - knows how important music is in the adolescent years. It literally becomes the soundtrack to life at that age. This feel-good film is an ode to that idea as well as to young love in general. We promise you'll have "Drive It Like You Stole It" stuck in your head for days afterward.
- Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage
Before I Fall
Directed by: Ry Russo-Young
Before I Fall is like a dramatic, teen-centered version of Groundhog Day. Zoey Deutch plays Samantha Kingston, a girl who passes on February 12. Instead of moving on to the Great Beyond, she's mysteriously forced to experience her final day over and over. In doing so, she learns a few secrets about her friends while also finding herself forced to confront some of her own flaws in life, especially the way she treated people.
Although it works strictly on the level of mystery, Before I Fall also contains a poignant message about how the quest to be cool can cause teens to become cruel. Thanks to Deutch's skillful performance, watching how Samantha comes to reevaluate her life is engrossing. Here's a film whose ideas are vital for real-life teenagers to absorb.
Directed by: Tyler MacIntyre
One of the big, if inconsequential, concerns for teens these days is achieving sufficient social media attention. Tragedy Girls is a stinging satire of that concern. Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp play Sadie and McKayla, besties who decide to boost their Twitter and Instagram followings by slaying people from their town then offering commentary about the "mysterious" passings online. They quickly establish themselves as celebs, until Sadie’s would-be suitor, Jordan (Jack Quaid), gets wise to their scheme.
Tragedy Girls uses horror to look at adolescent preoccupation with social media influence. It's bloody but also hilariously funny at times, as it simultaneously sends up horror movie and teen cliches. Imagine Mean Girls crossed with The Purge and you get some idea of how this delightfully twisted film plays.
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Marielle Heller, the acclaimed director of Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, made her debut with 2015's The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Bel Powley gives a knockout performance as Minnie, an adolescent who has an affair with an older man named Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). The hitch is that Monroe is the boyfriend of Minnie's mother (Kristen Wiig).
That could have been the set-up for a sleazy comedy. Instead, Heller uses it to explore Minnie's awakening on emotional, physical, and artistic levels. The movie is an open, honest examination of that moment in adolescence when the scales start to tip away from being a kid and more toward becoming an adult.
Directed by: Kevin Phillips
You need to have a strong disposition to watch Super Dark Times. As the title implies, the story told is super dark. Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) are best friends who hide the body of a classmate after the latter accidentally stabs him with a sword. The rest of the film follows the repercussions of this action, both in general and on their friendship.
Director Kevin Phillips and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski have created a mature, provocative film. Rather than being lurid or exploitative, Super Dark Times reflects on how violence - both the exposure to it and the repressed anger that leads to it - can have a devastating effect on teenagers. It's the kind of picture that rattles you to your core.
- Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea
Directed by: Dash Shaw
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is radically different from every other teen movie on this list in that it's an animated feature. The story concerns newspaper reporter Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and how his life changes when an earthquake rocks his high school, sending it into the sea, where it promptly begins to sink. Needless to say, the potential obliteration of everyone he knows is an occasion for personal reassessment.
This is not a traditionally animated film like the Disney classics, nor is it a work of CGI animation. Instead, it's an exercise in experimental animation where things purposefully are not as detailed or realistic as you might expect. In fact, you wouldn't be incorrect to say it has an impressionist vibe. Aside from those hypnotic, stylized visuals, the movie has fun spoofing the conventions of teen cinema, which adds a whole extra layer of entertainment.
Directed by: David Robert Mitchell
Following in the estimable footsteps of The Breakfast Club and Dazed and Confused, David Robert Mitchell's The Myth of the American Sleepover uses an ensemble to dive into its themes. Four teens from the Detroit area spend the last night of summer looking for romance and excitement before going back to school. As they cross paths in various ways, the characters reveal their thoughts on love, popularity, and the insecurities that come with growing up.
One of the most exciting things about The Myth of the American Sleepover is that it has a certain purity to it. These kids aren't getting drunk or hooking up, they're trying to find meaning in a period of life where meaning can be difficult to grasp. Mitchell gives it all a nostalgic feel that will make you yearn for the innocent days of your own youth.