"Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way. What's the matter with kids today?" goes the song from "Bye Bye Birdie." Hasn't there always been something the matter?
American movies have exploited adolescence for its built-in audience appeal for years, but a few movies have sneaked through over the years that capture something incandescent, unchanging and sometimes disturbing about growing up.
"The Little Fugitive" (1953), directed by Ray Ashley, is the finest Amercian movie ever made about childhood. Shot in black and white on a shoestring budget, it follows a boy who has run away from home on a summer day in New York and gone to Coney Island, where he gets lost. The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
"Rebel Without a Cause" (1955), directed by Nicholas Ray, a milestone in American culture, dares to suggest that adolescents from dysfunctional families will join together and form their own "family" if given a chance, as James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo do here. The "chickie run" is the last word on male rites of passage in American adolescence.
"Last Summer" (1969), directed by Frank Perry from Evan Hunter's novel, goes deeply into the games horny, indolent, middle class white teens play with each other. Two boys and two girls lock horns one summer at a shore resort. Actress Cathy Burns will break your heart.
"American Graffiti" (1973), directed by George Lucas, perfectly captures American teen culture in California during the 1950s. Teen culture could not exist without cars then. Nor can it now.
"Over the Edge" (1979), directed by Jonathan Kaplan, may look a tad dated and didactic now with its alienated kids vs. fretful parents in a "planned suburb," but it achieves an honesty that overcomes its preachiness. This is the first movie by Matt Dillon, playing the biggest troublemaker of all.
"My Bodyguard" (1980, directed by Tony Bill, proves that first class Hollywood filmmaking can coincide with worthwhile social comment. Chris Makepeace is the kid who hires the hulking Adam Baldwin to protect him from hoodlum-bully Matt Dillon. It's a lot of fun, but quite predictable.
"Fast Times at Ridgmont High" (1982), directed by Amy Heckerling, is like a field guide to the post-Sixties American teenager and his habitat. The kids in this movie manage to make human connections in the schools and malls despite tremendous obstacles of banality and bullshit. A young Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a girl who has to get an abortion.
"The Flamingo Kid" (1984), directed by Garry Marshall, is another terrific vehicle for Matt Dillon. This time, he's a plumber's kid in New York who becomes a little starstruck when he gets a summer job at a members-only beach club and falls under the spell of a strutting car salesman, played to perfection by Richard Crenna.
"The Breakfast Club" (1985), directed by John Hughes, may well be the masterpiece in the Hughes teenpix canon. Set entirely during a detention at a high school on Saturday, it allows the lives of five very different kids--jock, punk, nerd, queen, recluse--to unfold in funny and dramatic ways.
"Stand By Me" (1986), directed by Rob Reiner from the novella by Stephen King, captures American boyhood with grace and affection. Four boys prove their mettle during a two-day odyssey to find a dead body by the railroad tracks.
"River's Edge" (1986), directed by Tim Hunter, takes teen alienation and multiplies it by a sickness factor. A bunch of aimless kids doesn't know what to do when one of their group commits a murder down by the river.
"Heathers" (1989), directed by Michael Lehmann, is the first and, so far, only successful black comedy about teen serial murder. Outrageous "authentic" teen dialogue is a highlight of this scathing cult comedy about high school cliques.
"Dazed and Confused" (1993), directed by Richard Linklater, is essentially "American Graffiti" moved ahead 14 years. However, in 1976 marijuana was teenage oxygen and the band to dig was Aerosmith. It's the bullies and uptight adults, as always, who hassle this well-meaning cross-section of kids.
"Kids" (1995), directed by Larry Clark, is a scorched earth depiction of teen pathology among the skateboarding set. First feature by a still photographer walks the line between exploitation and candor.
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