What Happened to the Teen Movie?

Jim's Dad (Eugene Levy) and Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) have an uncomfortable conversation while sitting at the kitchen table with a crumbled-up pie on the table between them

When we think back to the iconic coming-of-age teen comedy, we reminisce on the hormone-induced high school drama, the overly complicated love triangles, the cliques, the Molly Ringwalds and Regina Georges that blessed the 80’s, 90’s, and early 00’s. These movies held up a mirror to our early teens and projected the (somewhat) relatable lives of these young men and women on the big screen. Like most of you, we have also noticed a significant drop-off in the appearance of the, once essential, teen movie. So . . . what happened? 

She's All That
Zach Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Taylor Vaughan (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe) in She’s All That (1999)

The theatre became the go-to hangout for teens across the United States. Movies like American Pie (1999) and xXx (2002) dominated the box office, and studios couldn’t churn out enough of them. From the late 80’s to early 2000’s, we saw some of the best teen dramas, comedies, and buddy movies of our young lives! So when did these start to disappear?

Could it be that this new generation has no interest in watching Rachael Leigh Cook remove her glasses to shake out her hair to get Freddie Prinze Jr. to ask her to prom? Or is it that they have moved on from the out-of-date, teen-based rom-coms and now demand to see their real lives reflected back at them?

Today, teenagers aren’t just worried about such trivial things like prom, parties, and getting pimples— the templatized antagonists in this genre of movie. They have become fixated on new things like the trends of social media, cultural changes, and the countless distractions and channels of entertainment provided by the internet. 

The Internet

American Pie-2
Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) in American Pie (1999)

Some of us can remember the days before user-friendly internet, when it was a complex space of 1’s and 0’s that was impossible to navigate; Dazed and Confused came out around then. With the mainstream use and growth of the internet, by the late 2000’s we started to see a drop in the number of teen-focused movies making their way into theatres. 

With access to an infinite stream of information and entertainment, the expectations of the once movie-going teen began to change. We were able to find any video, any movie, and any show at the press of a button, and studios were just as aware of this trend. They stopped pumping out these movies aimed at young adults as they grew wise of teens staying at home, surfing the web— yes, “surfing the web,” we’re still in the early 00’s, remember?. 

Culture

Not Another Teen Movie
Priscilla (Jaime Pressly) and Jake Wyler (Chris Evans) in Not Another Teen Movie (2001)

The change in teen movies could arguably be due to a change in relatable culture. In order to satisfy the demand for teen content, movies about youth are being adapted to better reflect the lives of the young movie-goer. Over time, aggressive marketing towards teens in movies dissipated and became more focused in other areas, such as clothing, television shows, and social media. Less demand for teen movies led to less being made, let alone to be shown in theatres all over America. 

It may also be that this generation of young people is thought to be more cynical and distressed than the generations prior. With more access to information and less stigma around mental health and sexuality, more teens today are informed and vocal about their opinions and want to see that being reflected in the media they consume.

Revival

Booksmart
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) in Booksmart (2019)

Now don’t get us wrong: we are not saying the teen comedy is dead, it just needs a little redefining. As we grow out of the era where highschool kids are depicted as greek statue-esque beefcakes and pom-pom wielding mean girls, a new wave of teen movies focuses on the more topical and realistic icons, paying attention to more relatable problems. With the release of the more recent Booksmart (2019), we finally see a “teen movie” that is relatable and engaging for audiences of all ages—well, 17 and older anyway. But we should be proud that these new teen movies have cultivated a culture which celebrates the Napoleon Dynamites and Lady Birds of the world as much as their auspicious counterparts.