by Samurai Mom
Some movies aimed at teens may seem full of stock characters, predictable story arcs and sappy endings, but these films are actually a resource for parents hidden in plain sight. Not all teen movies treat stories in a superficial way. Even among those which do, there are more than a few life lessons hidden among the drama and the keggers that you can use to communicate with your teens.
Here’s why: stories have the power to connect us. No matter how empathetic we try to be, parents forget what it’s like to be a teenager. Teen films – like books – may offer us a window into a teen’s reality. They can be a launchpad to new insights and richer discussions. Stories are also are a way to experience a character’s struggles and learn more about what it means to be human.
And of course, it’s far easier for teens to talk about a character with a problem than open up about their own struggles. All of this means that you may be more likely to gain a better understanding of your teen’s perspective through watching films together. Or reading books, but that’s another post.
*A caveat: teenagers between 13-18 go through a wide range of development and some of the situations in the films below are for older teens. You know your kid best. We recommend Common Sense Media as a go-to review source to decide whether the story themes are a bit too adult for your family.
Several of these movies are older; one even dates back to 1986. A film like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ” is irreplaceable for what it offers. At the very least, you can bond with your teen over the old technology in the movie.
Without further ado, here is a list of nine teen movies which offer insights about the teenage experience, our crazy world and other seemingly random topics. Look for ideas in each description to engage your teens in a low-key way.
1. 17 Again – PG-13 2009 ‧ Comedy – Zac Efron and Matthew Perry star in this rehashed body-switcharoo theme a la “Big” (with Tom Hanks) that somehow never gets old [ba-dump-bump]. Perry plays a 37-year-old dad with big regrets about choices he made in his senior year of high school. If only he could get a do-over! An otherworldly custodian intervenes to oblige him with a wild time/space vortex; suddenly Perry is 17 again and looks like Zac Efron. How many of us wish we could get second chance like that? In my do-over I’d be played by Winona Ryder in her “Beetlejuice” era.
This magical life-replay plot of “17 Again” can spark several different discussions with teens:
Empathy, Compassion and Teen Life Challenges – This one is all about empathy and the hilarious yet insightful scenes should provide plenty of fodder for discussion. Just because parents were teens once, does that help them understand what it’s like to be a teenager today? How is it the same? What kinds of things are different? How is it easier or harder to navigate the challenges of today vs. 20-30 years ago?
This may also be a good film to explore the subject of making good life choices. Perry’s character has the benefit of adult hindsight to see his mistakes. In “17 Again”, he wends his way through various machinations to correct what he thinks are the choices that side-lined his potential.
Teens often struggle with predicting the long-term results of their decisions. You can use this movie to talk about how life-altering choices are sometimes made with little thought. What would you do differently if you got a do-over? What would your teen do differently if they could reverse a decision they’ve made since childhood?
I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, but there’s a bonus life-lesson at the end.
2. The Princess Diaries 2001 G – For younger teens. Also, a book series by Meg Cabot. It’s predictable that a coming-of-age fairy tale would offer some lessons about acceptance and tolerance for differences. Still, “The Princess Diaries”, starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews, does a good (if lightweight) job of it.
As parents, we may get a bit caught up in what we want our kids to be, rather than who they really are. Queen Clarisse Renaldi valiantly tries to mold her gangly, geeky granddaughter Mia into a model heir to the throne of an obscure European country. She struggles, sometimes comically, to accept Mia for who she is. You guessed it: over time, the trust grows between them and Mia’s quirky personality wins her over. Queen Clarisse finally begins to recognize her granddaughter’s unique gifts.
While we all want to groom our princesses and princes into kings and queens, we may need to take a step back and support our teens in building futures and paths for themselves. This may be a good film for parents to spark discussions with younger teens about the expectations that society (including you as parents) have for who they are and what they’ll do with their lives. How do the expectations compare to how they see themselves? Have they ever learned things about their own history or experienced events that changed how they see themselves?
Another thread to explore with teens is the defense that Mia uses to ward off the teasing and bullying attracted by her unconventional perspective. She says that she expects to be invisible in life. Share your own defense mechanisms that you may have used as a teenager and ask about the types of things your teen does when they feel uncomfortable. Are those strategies effective in protecting you or do they limit you?
3. Ella Enchanted 2004 PG Comedy – also a book by Gail Carson Levine – Sometimes, a bit of disobedience can be a good thing, especially when the flip side of it is really free will and resistance to negative peer pressure. I guess I could’ve avoided doubling up on the Anne Hathaway movies on this list, but she’s just too cute.
When Ella is “blessed” with the gift of obedience by an unstable fairy godmother in this Cinderella tale, she finds herself unable to refuse any command given to her, whether real or sarcastic. While this was intended to ease the pressures of raising a strong-willed child, throughout her young adulthood Ella is pushed around, physically unable to refuse a command. She’s abused by a cruel step-sister and an evil king who use her lack of control to accomplish nefarious objectives. Ella rails frantically against her bonds when, to her horror, she’s set to assassinate her true love, the prince. This movie illustrates the downside of obedience and the high cost of doing what is demanded without the counterbalance of self-determination or judgment.
Having to follow rules is ALWAYS a hot button issue for teens. You’ll see them squirm in their chairs as Ella is ordered to humiliate herself and commit crimes for her tormentors’ amusement.
This movie can highlight the differences between obedience of the kind that Ella suffers and cooperation for the good of self and others. It’s a short leap from that idea to point out to your teen that your family’s rules help form an essential agreement of living together and growing up healthy.
Also ask: what are the advantages to being strong-minded like Ella was in spite of the curse upon her? What would be the worst thing about having the curse of obedience?
4. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 1986 PG-13 Comedy – Life is short. Matthew Broderick plays Ferris as a co-conspirator speaking directly to the camera to help us understand the importance of seizing the day. He makes a brilliant case for cutting class and savoring the moment. Maybe, to some extent, we could have identified with Ferris in high school or at least wish we could have pulled off his antics. After all, everyone needs a day off when the pressures mount. As Ferris says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Obviously, cutting school isn’t such a good idea for a couple of reasons. But before you write this movie off as an homage to the rewards of scheming and absenteeism, consider this: embedded in the hilarious moments, the message of the film drives much deeper than teen truancy. The day off that Ferris engineers reveals pointless societal systems and expectations while reveling in creative new experiences.
For example, Ferris cautions us against identifying so closely with any group that you lose yourself:
“-Isms, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.”
I think Ferris would exempt some life-affirming -isms from that advice, such as optimism. This movie highlights the power of positive thinking and setting an intention to view the world as a place of unlimited potential.
Ask your teens to contrast the outlook of Ferris and his best friend and reluctant partner in merrymaking, Cameron. How do their very different perspectives dictate the world they experience? Is it ever justified to thumb your nose as Ferris does at society’s rules in order to create a life you value? On the other side of the coin, how much do we need to follow rules and social conventions in order to create stability in our lives?
5. Mean Girls 2004 PG-13 – As the title suggests, the cutthroat social hierarchy in this classic teen film written by Tina Fey will curl your hair.
You remember those girls from high school, the untouchables, the ones who inspired equal parts fear and admiration. Hopefully, you weren’t one of them. If you were, it’s never too late to repent. Fey dubs them “The Plastics”. The girls, led by queen bee Regina George, run the school. Their weapons: a web of social cruelty wrapped in trendy fashion and good hair.
The story begins with the enrollment of new girl Cady, a formerly homeschooled daughter of zoologists who has spent her formative years in Africa with her academic parents. In other words, Cady, played by Lindsey Lohan, is a total innocent to the social jungle of public high school. While Cady is initially inducted into the Plastics inner circle, she becomes disillusioned. She disrupts the status quo, dismantling the group from the inside using their own patented medicine.
This classic film has endured for good reason. Many life-lessons embedded in this story will leap off the screen. First, it’s likely that your teen’s school has their own brand of The Plastics and they’ll enjoy comparing these somewhat dated caricatures to reality. You could lead into a conversation about how real cliques and exclusion affect kids they know and how they themselves have been touched by it.
What are the costs of mindless conformity to a group like the Plastics and their minions?
Also important in “Mean Girls” is the power of the misfit resisters, Janis and Ian, who form Cady’s real tribe and her conscience. She drifts from the pair as she succumbs to the heady power of The Plastics. Janis and Ian help her shake off the Plastics’ spell just in time before she loses herself. Ask your teens about the power and the risks of being an upstander. How do they respond when someone is bullied or excluded?
“There are two kinds of evil people in this world. Those who do evil stuff and those who see evil stuff being done and don’t try to stop it.” — Janis and Ian
Another possible discussion with your teen is the over-the-top behavior of Regina’s mother, played by Amy Poehler. She delivers many “cringy” moments as the ultimate permissive parent. I guarantee that your teen will have a reaction to Mrs. George’s outbursts, which Poehler delivers with perfect timing while trailing the Plastics like a puppy: “I’m not like a regular mom, right, Regina? I’m a cool mom!”
And later, checking in while Regina and her boyfriend make out on a bed: “Can I get you guys anything? Some snacks? A condom? Let me know! Oh, God love ya.”
While the comedic value of Poehler’s portrayal is spot-on, it’s also a cautionary tale of the potential consequences of permissive parenting. It’s clear that she’s the one responsible for creating the entitled monster that is Regina [side note: why is it always the mom’s fault? Sigh].
6. Love, Simon Romantic Comedy 2018 PG-13 – This is a film inspired by the book titled Simon vs.the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. Here’s another film to open the door to discussions about tolerance and honoring yourself and others. Simon, played by Nick Robinson, is a 16-year-old gay teen who is fiercely guarded about his orientation. Things begin to change when Simon falls in love with a classmate who communicates with him anonymously online. His journey out of the closet is complicated by what he perceives are the expectations of family, friends and an appearance of a black-mailing frenemy who demands a set-up with a friend as a condition of his silence. You can use this film to raise the subject of homosexuality in the abstract and the importance of trust and being true to yourself.
Simon carries a heavy burden of secrets and feels isolated because he doesn’t trust those closest to him to love and accept him for who he really is. Every human on earth is susceptible to this risk, regardless of sexual orientation. Secrets can be hard to share; yet, by carrying them alone they can make our teens feel isolated. With every open discussion of your unconditional love and support, you can build the degree of trust between you.
7. The Spectacular Now Romance Rated R For older teens. Common Sense Media rates as 16+ – Very soon after we meet fun-loving Sutter (Miles Teller), we see that he’s a high-functioning alcoholic. His spiked soda travels with him everywhere: to parties, to school, to work. Dumped by his sweetheart who has bigger plans for the future, Sutter circles the drain until he wakes up on a stranger’s lawn to meet Aimee, played by Shailene Woodley. Both Sutter and Aimee are raised by single mothers and parental addiction is referenced as part of their childhoods. This movie takes an unflinching look at the burdens that teens may carry inflicted by parents’ substance abuse or neglect. It’s also a story of self-esteem and self-determination, addiction and fear of the future.
Yeah, this one has all the heavy-hitting topics. And yet, it’s not without hope.
Granted, it’s hard to watch as Sutter gradually pulls naive Aimee into his addiction. My teens and I all shouted at once at the screen during the scene in which he gives her an engraved bourbon flask to keep in her backpack: “Nooooooo!!! Don’t do it! Aaaggh…”
Sutter tries to mold Aimee into the image of his hard-partying ex-girlfriend, while paradoxically encouraging her to advocate for her own needs. It’s confusing. But teens are not always self-aware, are they? In fact, Teller’s portrayal of a flawed and struggling teen living in fear of the future is multilayered and real.
There’s plenty of grist here to get life fears out in the open, especially with teens who are approaching high school graduation, the work world or college. Another angle that this film can highlight is the cost of using substances to escaping from your anxieties.
Finally, ask your teens if we are forever doomed (or blessed) by the choices that our parents make. That should be a rollicking discussion.
Here are some other conversation-starters for after the film if your teen is receptive: What does Sutter want out of life? What does Aimee want? Why does Sutter love alcohol so much? What does it do for him? What happens to Aimee’s life after she got involved with Sutter? What do they have to teach each other? Would you react the same way that Aimee does after the accident? And after Sutter stands her up at the bus station? The ending is ambiguous – what do you think happened after Sutter went to Philadelphia?
8. October Sky (1999) Drama Inspired by the Book Rocket Boys, by Homer H Hickam, Jr. – This is a true story set in the 1950’s amid the national frenzy of the Sputnik launch and the race for space against Russia. This coming-of-age movie explores the struggles of Homer, a coal-miner’s son (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) to chart his own destiny in rocketry in spite of pressure from his father that he follow in his footsteps. Jake gets stern support for his dream from an impassioned teacher played by Laura Dern. This is a great movie to explore the loyalty of friends as Homer recruits his group to join him in entering a rocket design contest with a big prize. The buddies overcome many obstacles in their pursuit of the prize; coal mine avalanches threaten their families; rocket explosions and Homer’s traditional coal-mine boss dad all threaten to derail their plan. But Homer is steadfast in his determination to win. He considers rocketry his way out of Coalwood and in order to do it, he must learn aerodynamics, advanced math and chemistry like the back of his hand.
This can be a good film to acknowledge the work and determination that go into following a dream.
Or the power of self-education: “I had discovered that learning something, no matter how complex, wasn’t hard when I had a reason to want to know it.”
― Homer Hickam, Rocket Boys
9. Eighth Grade 2018 PG-13 Drama Comedy – Social media has changed adolescence forever. We see this in the public YouTube confessions of an introverted 8th grader on the cusp of high school. Your heart will hurt for this girl, played by Elsie Fisher, as she tentatively, oh-so-painfully feels her way through adolescence with all the real-world risks that go along with wobbly self-esteem. You may also see yourself in the endearing but clueless single dad who reaches out to her again and again, trying to help. He can’t reach her because, of course, her walls are sky-high. Though he is right there, it’s as if he and his daughter inhabit parallel but separate worlds. We as parents can relate. The acting, casting and plot are pitch-perfect.
Our own two teens could not look away as our empathy for the universality of the awkward teen experience ramped up to almost unbearable levels in our living room. I say almost unbearable, because the ending wrapped up a very rewarding and thought-provoking experience. One of the many themes that you can discuss is the nature of consent How does the girl handle the scene in the car with the high school guy? What would you have done if you were her or you were the guy character? Other possibilities: Is it healthy to share intimate details of your life on social media? Where do you draw the line on what you share with others (hint: sexting)?
“Hey guys! It’s Kayla! Back with another video. I haven’t been getting tons of views on these so if you like them, please share them with your friends. I’d really appreciate it. Cool…so, um… today I want to talk to you guys about – Being Yourself.”
Some Secrets of Life These Teen Movies Explore
Practice kindness and patience.
Make big decisions carefully.
Seize the day.
Act with intention.
Craft your own life and flout social convention if necessary to do it.
Don’t let others think for you; think for yourself and take responsibility for your choices.
Speak up; try to right a wrong when you see it.
Be careful about what you share on social media.
A Note About the Power of Stories to Keep Connected to Your Teen
The years of middle school and high school have always been a time of turning outward, away from parents and activities formerly enjoyed. This isn’t new. But sometimes it seems like the walls our teens build are insurmountable.
Teens may appear to reject our values, our advice and even our hugs. They need to do this to forge their own path, separate from yours.
Always remember, though, that your teens still need you! Watching a movie together can give you the chance to gain insights about where they are in their heads, what worries them and what makes them laugh. Stories can help you stay connected and communicating about stuff that really matters.