What is it about being a teen that universally sucks? The farther I get from my adolescence, the more I learn that even my peers who looked like they were sailing through were hiding insecurities and personal challenges from the world. The hardest part about being a teenager is that you feel so much. But, coincidentally, that’s also the best part. I’ve never loved anything as hard as I loved the things I discovered in high school, from friends to boy bands to Jane Austen novels. Movies, too. My theory is that every woman has a film that got her through adolescence. They’re those movies you return to again and again, for escapism, identification, or catharsis. Bustle asked 28 women to share the movie that defined their teen years, and it’s a pretty empowering list.
My pick is Clueless. It came out when I was on the precipice of teenagerdom, and I instantly fell in love with its cotton-candy palette, quotable script, and bouncy soundtrack. I must have watched it hundreds of times between the ages of 11 and 20 (and added a fair few viewings in the years beyond), and now I really know why. Cher Horowitz subverted everything popular film was trying to tell me about women. She was an impossibly privileged girl who was also kind and vulnerable. With society instructing me to hate on every girl who had something I didn’t, I — a chubby, permed pile of awkwardness — delighted in rooting for rich, beautiful Cher. Because she was nice, and she was human.
Read on for responses from 28 more women about that one movie that took some of the sting out of adolescence.
1. Brittany, 24
Now And Then. This movie was the first time I realized not only that female friendships were the most important support systems you could have, but also that it's okay for friendships to drift apart over time as long as you remember who is loyal to you and who you are loyal to. Change is part of growth and this movie helped me see that I was free to change as I grew because that's how I would become the person I wanted to be.
2. Angel, 40
I am a Generation X-er, so while I can most definitely see where The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles shaped the way I interacted with peers and authority, I would say that Say Anything probably spoke directly to me about the KIND OF person that I wanted to be. Someone with convictions who spoke confidently about those convictions no matter who was in the room - and being willing to face whatever the consequences were for owning those convictions. Also, Grease - but less because of the actual movie and more because my mother came in the room once while I was watching it and it was where Sandy laments that "there's more to her than what they see" and my mom said "You should never have to change who you are to get someone to like you." And I think about that practically every single day & how it guided me through difficult situations and people my whole life.
3. Niki, 39
Pump Up the Volume. I was 13 and felt trapped in a small town, destined for a small life. That film was empowering and liberating for me, as I struggled with depressing conformity and puberty. To this day, that soundtrack makes me want to do something subversive.
4. Adrienne, 25
Across The Universe probably had the most impact on my life as a teen. I was already a Beatles fan, but the ATU soundtrack opened up a whole different side of their catalog to me. At the time, I was suffering from rather severe depression and they were the only thing that made me happy and feel like myself again. I started devouring everything Beatles. Their films, funny clips from variety shows (my favorite being their take on A Midsummer Night's Dream ), and biographies written by their colleagues. It's awkward to say that they saved my life, but I can't imagine how I would have gotten through that year-and-a-half without them.
5. Rachel, 22
I'll go with Juno. It showed a confident, interesting human being who owned her weirdness and didn't take s**t from anyone.
6. Anna, 33
The Craft. I guess this was more middle school/early teens, but it came at an awesome time in which female friendships were more central to my social life. I guess it sort of validated all that and our trips to The Magic Eye, and just any sort of vampy nail polish purchase. My mom swiftly banned me from wearing black lipstick and so I obviously wore it any chance I got.
7. Jen, 34
Movies were very important to me from around age 12 through 18 – particularly during my junior and senior year of high school, when my friends and I would spend hours (well, the hour of AP Lit multiple days a week) pouring over IMDB pages to decide what to see next. This coincided with what I call the Golden Age of teen movie (1998 – 2000). Movies like 10 Things I Hate About You, Can’t Hardly Wait, Down To You, She’s All That – they all had the standard boy-meets-girl-and-one-of-them-needs-a-makeover plot, but also this underlying theme that the things we’re supposed to be excited about as teenagers don’t have to be the things we’re truly excited about. That we can think about what’s next beyond prom or graduation, and it’s okay to find that next thing just as important as the high school milestone. So maybe these weren't as weighty as Dead Poets Society (although I'd argue that "Teen" and "Coming of Age" are different categories, and DPS definitely belongs in the second), but they had heart. Do they still make teen movies like these?
8. Shannon, 30
10 Things I Hate About You was hugely formative for me. It was released my freshman year of high school, and I was already feeling really out of place in my small town. All I wanted to do was play my guitar, wear lots of black and read weird old books, which wasn't what most of my friends were doing — but Kat Stratford was, and she gave me permission to own my interests without feeling like I somehow had to give up my femininity. She was compassionate and smart and saw a clear path to forming her own identity, despite what anyone else might want for her. I absolutely took inspiration from that, and the soundtrack was on my CD player whenever I needed some extra emotional backup.
9. Dawn, 45
I realize that my age should mean I am going to wax rhapsodic about something John Hughes did, and certainly there are some parallels there (particularly with Pretty In Pink, which used to make me want to punch the TV because no, the popular boy does not stand up to his friends, ever, thank you very much). But without a doubt, the most important movie for me was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Through RHPS, I found my tribe, my voice, my confidence, my inner drag queen, my outer fruit fly, and my enduring love for glitter in all forms. RHPS was instrumental in making me the LGBT ally I am proud to be today. It was my thing to do on weekends, even on those days where I was so tired, so over it, so just done with it all — I'd get up, put on my makeup, and meet my people for some toast, toilet paper, and Time Warp. I'm a wild and an untamed thing; I'm a bee with a deadly sting. The fantasy of RHPS definitely freed me, and I will love it and thank it always.
10. Maggie, 35
I wish I could say something along the lines of a straightforwardly important movie like The Perks of Being a Wallflower but I think my answer might be Scream. I bought the VHS and I used to watch part of it every day after school. My favorite character was Tatum and I've aspired to be a protective BFF like her my whole adult life. ("Bam! B***h went down!") But the movie was so clever and Sydney has to outwit and make it on her own and she did, and self reliance is a great takeaway from a teen horror movie.
11. Kim, 37
Obviously, The Breakfast Club was incredibly important to me, both for the way John Hughes seemed to intrinsically understand teen angst AND for the sharply drawn characters who became so much more than their archetypes. "We are not alone" indeed. (Also John Bender forever shaped my thing for bad boys, so thanks.) Dead Poets Society spoke to me in the way it appreciated the beauty of language and writing, not to mention the importance of sucking the marrow out of life, a message I truly didn't FULLY grasp until I was an adult. And lastly, I LOVED Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves because it made me believe in the dashing hero who believed in doing the right thing and who would be willing to die for you. Setting my standards WAY high at thirteen, Kevin Costner.
12. Melissa, 28
I watched The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Sixteen Candles almost every single day after school in high school. John Hughes was the king of high school movies and there was something so refreshing about watching other awkward teens just figuring things out that made me feel like I wasn't totally alone. That, and dreaming of meeting my own Jake Ryan totally got me through my high school days.
13. Caitlin, 31
I was actually pretty solid and even-keeled in high school. It wasn't until college and my early twenties that the angst really kicked in — as a millennial, I guess this is the delayed adolescence they talk about? Anyway, Garden State was huge for me during that time. I saw it six times in the theater, because I dragged every friend who would see it with me there the summer it came out. There is this whole exchange in a pool where Large and Sam are discussing how, at some point, the house you grew up in isn't really your home anymore, and that it's time to forge your own idea of home. This theme weaves throughout the film, and that scene particularly resonated with me, as someone pushed out into a world, wanting to forge that path, but also feeling nostalgic for the comfort of home. When you're a (affluent, white) kid, you have a prescription you can follow: go to school, go to college, and if you do well at those things, you make it to the next step. And then college dumps you into this world of endless possibilities that can paralyze a kid with its vastness, and just doing the status quo does not equal getting to the next step — if you even know what the next step is! Garden State made it okay to not know the next step, that there isn't a prescribed path in adulthood. Sometimes you just have to take your time and let your relationships and personal ambitions — whatever they are — guide you into a life that is personally fulfilling, whether or not it fits into a broader idea of "success." Home is a memory to remind you of where you came from, but no longer exists to define you — that power/burden is yours.
14. Rachel, 27
10 Things I Hate About You was literally the reason I applied to (was accepted by and graduated from) Sarah Lawrence.
15. Sarah, 25
Mermaids was (and is) one of my go-to movies for a bunch of reasons, but Charlotte and Mrs. Flax ended up being my comfort and my aspiration, respectively. While I had a solid circle of friends to help me through my teens, my interests and my passions never really fit with anyone else my age. Watching Charlotte's coming of age story, in all of its awkwardly quirky glory, made me feel not so alone in my own awkward quirkiness. And to see Mrs. Flax so rooted in who she is and never once altering that to fit whatever the norms of the time were inspired me to stay true to myself, at a time when I was ridiculously shy around people I didn't know and was overly eager to please everyone. And while the shyness hasn't completely gone away yet, I've fully embraced my quirks and I surround myself with people who embrace them as well.
16. Emma, 24
I watched Accepted throughout most of my senior year of high school to cope with the #feels of getting rejected from my dream schools and Justin Long's ridiculousness was far more therapeutic and impacting than any adult who tried to comfort me with actual logic.
17. Kelsea, 28
Labyrinth and Star Wars were my go-tos, A: because I am a giant nerd; and B: because if both Luke could get through learning Darth Vader was his dad, I could deal with my parents' divorce. And if Jennifer Connelly could get through the Labyrinth, make lifelong friends, and resist David Bowie, I could weather the panic attacks, crippling stress, and utter nonsense of too many extra curriculars, AP classes, scholarship applications, and all the other insane things high schoolers who want to get into a good college have to deal with.
18. Brittany, 26
Mallrats. It was just so fun and funny and showed the importance of being a good friend to someone, doing anything (no matter how ridiculous) to help them.
19. Jane, 30
In my younger teen and preteen years it was definitely Star Wars. I got quite sick when I was younger (about 11/12) and I was home in bed or on the couch for the better part of a year. And after that, I still had many sick days. Leia, Luke and Han were my companions and I would sometimes watch all three movies and start over again. Aside from the fact that they're just amazing, I think it was partly the black-and-white, good-conquering-evil themes that made them so comforting while I was struggling. It led to my devouring the books and comics as I got older, and, at 30 I am still dressing up as my favorite characters, whether it's at a convention or just to watch my favorite movies again.
20. Mandy, 30
I have to say Empire Records. There are so many films I loved during my formative years, but that one stuck with me, mostly because I was just like them — the misfits passionate about music and being rebellious in the way only teenagers can be. And I still celebrate Rex Manning Day. Damn the man, save the Empire.
21. Sarah, 38
The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love. I came out to my religious parents as bisexual in high school. I knew I liked boys and I liked girls and I sensed that it wasn't something I would be growing out of anytime ever. When I told them, I was convinced they'd reject me. They didn't. My mom took me to see this movie a few months later. It felt like she was telling me everything was okay, that she accepted me however I showed up. And again, it felt important to see Evie and Randy navigating their relationship on screen. I'd never seen that before.
22. Nancy, 54
Barbra Streisand was everything to me, because she always played the awkward, smart girl whose path to love always came with conflict and heartache, because eventually she would have to stand up for herself and stay true to her beliefs even if it meant losing her guy. I was the awkward, smart girl who just couldn't dumb herself down for a guy like so many of my friends did. I'd say that it's a toss up between A Star Is Born and The Way We Were for me.
23. Lindsey, 27
Heathers and The Breakfast Club! Because I was all about being so over high school bulls**t. And Dirty Dancing made me believe in love and the importance of safe abortion access. (I was in high school in the '00s, I don't know why I apparently didn't watch anything made at that time.)
24. Lauren, 35
Late teen years was Good Will Hunting, a story about the fact that people are not always what they seem and the importance of hanging on to good friends. But I also loved the story of two mostly nobodies (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) writing an awesome script and making big things happen for themselves.
25. Kathleen, 42
Old movies with banter: In Desk Set, Katherine Hepburn is smarter and more capable than Spencer Tracey! And all the other wonderful Hepburn, Holm, etc. movies that showed women talking, having voices, opinions, making jokes, and being smart.
26. Katie, 34
Speed! As someone who has always loved action movies it was the first one for me where the female character effortlessly upstages the males. The character of Annie was literally the driving force of that movie! (Pun intended.) It's still to this day my go-to when I've had a bad day. Things go from bad to worse, to a bomb strapped to your body handcuffed to a train pole — and no matter what, you can make it through, keep your sense of humor, and someone even the most unlikely will always be there to help you — all the while saving the day and maybe just maybe falling in love along the way.
27. Jordan, 28
This is kind of weird, but I think Pirates of the Caribbean was the movie that helped me transition from being a kid to being a teen, the one I watched the most, and a huge way for me to bond with new people. (My first little fan group.)
28. Somie, 30
Ever After. I loved that movie so much. I saw it multiple times in theaters. I had been in love with the Cinderella story since I was little and enjoyed all variations of it, from opera to manga. But as a kid and teenager in an increasingly female-empowering society, I felt a bit ashamed to enjoy Cinderella. Many saw her as just a damsel waiting for her prince and thought he only fell in love with her for her beauty. Ever After became the game changer. She kicked ass. She was kind. And she saved herself. She was strong enough to be vulnerable to fall in love with the Prince and live happily ever after. He loved her under false pretenses at first but realized it didn't matter. He loved her for her. And the costumes in Ever After?! This movie is everything to me.
Thank you to all of these movies for making a chaotic time in everyone's life a little more bearable. Now, about that nostalgic movie marathon...
Images: Paramount Pictures; Giphy (26); gingerrogerss/Tumblr