There’s definitely no dearth of teen characters in movies made in the ‘90s. In fact, that decade was a golden age for movies geared towards adolescents, from slasher revivals to high school comedies to provocative dramas. And many of the actors who broke through by playing those enduring teen characters are now highly respected performers with awards to their name and some impressive behind-the-scenes credits. Consider Reese Witherspoon, Sean Penn, and Kate Winslet, who all made names for themselves by playing teenagers. Rose McGowan is an activist. Freddie Prinze Jr. wrote a cookbook. And they have the ‘90s to thank for the platform that allowed them to make more interesting work. It certainly didn't hurt their careers to be the faces of some of these 22 iconic ‘90s movie teenagers.
How do you know if a movie teen is in the realm of the iconic? That depends, and any criteria is subjective. For me, it’s about the quality of the movie and the quality of the performance, but that’s not all. So often, you can reduce a teen movie character down to their “type”: the nerd, the rich girl, the bad boy. These characters own their categories and in some cases, subvert them. That’s why they still rule, 20 years later.
1. Cher From Clueless
A meddler with a heart of gold and a closet to give up The Real World for.
2. Kat From 10 Things I Hate About You
The first and only proclaimed feminist I remember seeing on a screen during the '90s teen movie boom. Kat doesn't need your validation, thank you.
3. Megan From But I'm A Cheerleader
This girl-next-door is attracted to other girls-next-door, and wins the fight against bigoted idiots who want to change her.
4. Randy From Scream
An unexpected pick from this series, maybe, but Randy is the knowledgeable stand-in for Scream's entire horror-obsessed audience.
5. Sue Ellen From Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead
Sue Ellen fakes adulthood and is pretty okay at it, which is what I feel like I'm doing every day of my life.
6. Kathryn From Cruel Intentions
She's the "Marcia f***ing Brady of the Upper East Side." Kathryn gets her comeuppance for being a remorseless manipulator, but she gets to have her fun first.
7. Courtney From Jawbreaker
Regina George owes a big debt to Rose McGowan's queen-bee character in the razor-sharp satire.
8. Jim From American Pie
Sex-obsessed but still sweet, Jim is the best of the hormonally-challenged teen comedy canon.
9. Rose From Titanic
Rose's coming-of-age is shoe-horned into one fateful boat trip where she meets the love of her life and throws off the pressures of her society upbringing.
10. Isis From Bring It On
Isis is the definition of a formidable opponent. She is not easily intimidated, and the respect that Torrance finally gets from her is well earned.
11. Spicoli From Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Sean Penn's surfer dude spawned decades of stoner sidekicks.
12. Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez From The Sandlot
Remember that one kid in your school who everyone knew was destined for great things? Benny is all potential, with a bunch of everyday people in his orbit.
13. Romeo & Juliet From William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet
Okay, this is maybe cheating. The '90s didn't invent Romeo and Juliet. But even Shakespeare would have been squealing over Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio playing those roles.
14. Rufio From Hook
Rufio wants to be a teenager forever, and unfortunately that is his fate.
15. Deb From Empire Records
Deb is the patron saint of mid-'90s goths, and Robin Tunney looked fabulous with a buzz cut.
16. Wade "Crybaby" Walker From Cry-Baby
Run Grease through the mind of John Waters and you get Cry-Baby: a movie musical about teenage greaser who's born to be bad.
17. Dionne From Clueless
Dionne knows what she wants and is not afraid to ask for it. Nor is she afraid to tell Cher when Cher is way out out of line.
18. Max From Rushmore
Max may have to fight it out with the last entry on this list for the Overachiever Award, but Rushmore's most ambitious student takes determination to a new level.
19. William From Can't Hardly Wait
The "nerd cuts loose" trope is a classic for a reason. William infiltrates a graduation kegger to blackmail his torturer and ends up having the night of his life.
20. Buffy From Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Before Sarah Michelle Gellar picked up Buffy's pom-poms, Kristy Swanson played the teenage vampire slayer in the campy movie version.
21. Zack From She's All That
The sensitive jock is another '90s teen movie staple. It was never so endearing as in She's All That with Freddie Prinze Jr. as a golden boy taking a geeky artsy girl under his wing.
22. Tracy From Election
Irritating, scary, and possibly a sociopath, Tracy Flick is a monster of a Type A teen, played impeccably by the sunny Reese Witherspoon.
No matter how many years go by, I'll never stop thinking these iconic movie teens are cool.
Images: Paramount Pictures; Giphy (22)