TV & Movies

These ’90s Teen Movies Should Have Been Way More Popular

From gay cheerleaders to singing newsboys, these cult films have it all.

Originally Published: 
Clea Duvall and Natasha Lyonne in 'But I'm a Cheerleader'
Lions Gate Films

You know all the biggest teen movies of your formative years and still keep them on a pedestal; you’ve got a monthly Clueless ritual and you haven’t stopped quoting Cruel Intentions since it came out in 1999. As anyone who grew up in the ‘90s knows, it was an extremely fertile period for movies for and about teenagers, and the canon extends well beyond the best-known films. There are plenty of hidden gems just waiting to be rediscovered, not least these 25 ‘90s teen movies, which should have been way more popular than they were. It’s time to give them the attention and love that they deserve.

Because here's the deal: While the ‘80s had the Brat Pack and the ‘60s had Frankie and Annette, no decade can match the ‘90s for star power (think Keanu Reeves, Christian Bale, Kate Winslet, and Kenan Thompson, just to name a few then-up-and-comers). And because teens were — and still are, for that matter — a desirable audience, studios built all kinds of movies around adolescent characters, from psychological thrillers to historical musicals to pitch-black comedies, all with a distinctive mix of wacky plot-lines, inexplicable hair accessories, and Generation Y cockiness. And even if you didn’t see them when they first came out, I bet these movies will make you feel a twinge of nostalgia for the days of Y-necklaces and Tiger Beat centerfolds.

Without further ado, check out thees 25 underrated teen movies from the ‘90s.

1. Drive Me Crazy

In the midst of her stint on Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Melissa Joan Hart starred in Drive Me Crazy as Nicole — an overachieving sweetheart who cooks up a scheme with her very antisocial neighbor (Adrian Grenier) to attract the attention of their respective crushes... only to discover they might just like each other. Plus, the title was taken from the Britney Spears song “(You Drive Me) Crazy.” Hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to the ‘90s than that.

2. Pump Up The Volume

Christian Slater was at the peak of his dreamboat phase in 1990, just one year after he’d appeared in Heathers. In Pump Up the Volume, he stars as Mark Hunter, a teenager who struggles to find his place at his school and instead dedicates himself to the pirate radio station he’s set up in his basement. Although he broadcasts anonymously, his identity is eventually revealed, and the radio station catches on with the student body — especially after Mark frankly discusses a fellow student’s death by suicide. The film also involves a sweet romance with another classmate and a tussle with the FCC over Mark’s First Amendment rights.

3. House Party

This electric film does what it says on the tin: invites viewers into the most enjoyable house party imaginable. The movie is bursting with music and energy, and appropriately, it stars two musicians — Kid and Play of hip-hop duo Kid ‘n Play — as well as up-and-coming Black actors including Martin Lawrence and Tisha Campbell. The film spawned multiple sequels and was critically hailed as a success at the time — a rarity for teen films in the ‘90s. Roger Ebert wrote that the film “is a canvas used by the director, Reginald Hudlin, to show us black teenagers with a freshness and originality that’s rare in modern movies.”

4. Good Burger

Sketch-comedy legend Kenan Thompson got his start on Nickelodeon’s sketch series All That, which was so popular that the network rushed Good Burger into development in January 1997; it would be released six months later. The film pits a small burger joint (the titular “Good Burger”) against the threat of the expanding and nefarious burger chain Mondo Burger. GQ described the film as “a stoner film for children” and “one of the weirdest films in children's entertainment,” and if that’s not enough to get you to watch, then what is?

5. Camp Nowhere

Do you dream about going away with your friends where no real-life distractions can impede your good time? That's basically the plot of Camp Nowhere, except the friends are all minors who probably should have a couple of chaperones. The film revolves Mud Himmel (Jonathan Jackson), a teenager whose parents try to send him to computer camp — a horrifying fate in the pre-social media ‘90s. Instead, he concocts a scheme to set up his own camp, “run” by an ex-drama teacher who has no interest in or ability to control a group of rowdy teenagers.

6. Angus

It’s still unusual to see films about teenagers or adults focus on plus-sized characters, and Angus, a thoughtful, kind-hearted film, remains refreshing. Teenage boy Angus (Charlie Talbert) has endured years of bullying at the hands of a “popular” kid due to his weight, and his well-meaning but clueless family isn’t any help. Over the course of the film, he gains self-confidence, realizes he has to stand up to his bully, and finds love.

7. Welcome to the Dollhouse

This offbeat coming-of-age dramedy, written and directed by Todd Solondz, presents an unflinching look at the earliest stage of adolescence. Tween Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) is a social reject who desperately wants to be older than she is. She pines for her elder brother’s handsome, romantically unavailable tutor and sabotages her one real friendship with an awkward but sweet boy who’s her own age. The film takes a darkly comedic turn and culminates in Dawn briefly running away to New York City to escape her life — only to finally learn that the only way to become an adult is to live through her teenage years.

8. Newsies

This Disney musical was a major flop when it was released: Critics panned it and it bombed at the box office. It found life, however, on home video, where it quickly became a beloved favorite of a generation of children who nursed crushes on a young Christian Bale. Despite its somewhat camp trappings — after all, it is a musical feature Christian Bale singing with a wonky “New Yawk” accent — it’s based on a very real and significant labor clash between young newsboys and the newspaper owners who were exploiting them. You can learn more about the real Newsboys’ Strike of 1899 by listening to the podcast You’re Wrong About, which covered it here.

9. Now and Then

This sweet coming-of-age film focuses on four 12-year-old girls in a small town in the ‘70s, played by Gaby Hoffmann, Thora Birch, Christina Ricci, and Ashleigh Ashton Moore. The girls all deal with familiar elements of adolescence, from developing breasts to overprotective parents — things that viewers will no doubt find familiar, but that feel seismic to the characters. They also become fascinated with a dead World War II veteran buried in the local cemetery and set out to find out what happened to him, an investigation that sets off a potentially supernatural mystery in town.

10. October Sky

October Sky moves at a calmer pace than some of these other movies and is perhaps not as showy, but those qualities are exactly what makes it so winning. The film is a biopic of Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a NASA engineer who grew up coal country in West Virginia. Like every other young man in town — and like his father before him — Homer is expected to work as a coal miner, but an encouraging teacher, played by Laura Dern, fosters his talent and sets his heart on rocketry.

11. Mermaids

This cult classic stars Cher and Winona Ryder as a mother-daughter duo in the 1960s. Rachel (Cher) has the unfortunate habit of picking up her family and moving whenever she ends a relationship — despite the fact that her teenage daughter, Charlotte (Ryder), can’t stand their nomadic lifestyle. The film finds them in small-town Massachusetts, with Rachel embarking on another romance with a local business owner played by Bob Hoskins. Meanwhile, Charlotte becomes infatuated with an older man and also obsessed with Catholicism — a disastrous combination that sends her infatuated adolescent mind spinning in wild directions.

12. Slums of Beverly Hills

The family in Slums of Beverly Hills moves even more often than the family in Mermaids: In order for their children, including 14-year-old Vivian (Natasha Lyonne), to attend better schools, the Abramowitzes are constantly moving from one crummy apartment to the next. Vivian wishes her family weren’t so embarrassing, although she bonds with her older cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei), who’s recently gotten out of rehab and offers her a glimpse into the adult world. She gets along less well with Rita’s controlling father Mickey (Carl Reiner), as the explosive climax of the film demonstrates.

13. All I Wanna Do

Odette “Odie” Sinclair’s (Gaby Hoffmann) parents force her to transfer to an all-girls prep school after they find out she has plans to sleep with her boyfriend. What they don’t know is that her new school is thinking about going co-ed. The potential merger wreaks havoc on the student body and on their panicked parents. This sly period comedy also co-stars Kirsten Dunst as the school’s queen bee, Lynn Redgrave as its headmistress, and Matthew Lawrence as Odie’s boyfriend.

14. Dick

While many of the films on this list have attained cult status since their release, adherents of Dick are particularly intense: They’ll tell you that it features two of the best performances ever given by its much-lauded stars, Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams. (And they’re right!) The beloved actors star as two politically clueless teenage girls who stumble into a friendly relationship with none other than Richard Nixon, who becomes addicted to their pot brownies. Williams’ character even becomes infatuated with the titular Dick. When he eventually shuns them, they take revenge by becoming Deep Throat.

15. Cry-Baby

Before his 1988 teen hit Hairspray, controversial director John Waters wasn’t exactly known for his mainstream success. But he went from Hairspray to make another teen musical comedy, this time set in the 1950s and starring Johnny Depp as a teen rebel who falls in love with a “square” girl played by Amy Locane. Convertibles, rockabilly jamborees, and Depp in full teen-dream mode make this ode to living free and maybe dying young a movie you’ll watch over and over again.

16. But I’m a Cheerleader

When it was first released, But I’m a Cheerleader was poorly received by critics, but since then, it’s become a touchstone for queer viewers. The film was ahead of its time: In 2015, Autostraddle named it the best Lesbian, Bisexual & Queer movie ever made. Natasha Lyonne stars as earnest vegetarian cheerleader Megan, whose parents send her to a gay conversion therapy camp that strictly enforces traditional gender roles. While at camp, she meets and falls in love with fellow camper Graham (Clea Duvall), who’s more comfortable with her sexuality.

17. The Incredibly True Adventures Of Two Girls In Love

The Incredibly True Adventures Of Two Girls In Love is another ‘90s lesbian film that was ahead of its time. Writer and director Maria Maggenti made the movie on a tiny budget and cast non-famous actors (Nicole Holloman and Nicole Ari Parker) in order to realize her vision: an honest story about two teenage girls falling in love in a small town. Although the film depicts the characters’ struggles with homophobia, it isn’t egregiously tragic, either — and even features a happy ending, a rarity in queer films from this era.

18. Edge of Seventeen

If you’re looking for another queer coming of age film from the ‘90s, look no further than Edge of Seventeen. Chris Stafford stars as Eric, a teenager who comes to terms with his sexuality one summer while working at an amusement park. Although his best friend Maggie (Tina Holmes) pines for him, he only has eyes for college student Rod (Andersen Gabrych). The heart of the movie, though, is the relationship between Eric and his older lesbian friend Angie (Lea DeLaria), who also works at the amusement park and offers him guidance as he figures out who he is.

19. Heavenly Creatures

Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet both made their first feature film debuts in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, a disturbing retelling of the real, obsessive friendship between two Australian girls and the unspeakable crime that it inspired. Working-class Pauline (Lynskey) is quickly enchanted by the more upper-class Juliet (Winslet), a new student at her school. Together, they invent a fantasy world they believe is real. When Juliet contracts tuberculosis and is forced to move into a sanatorium, the fracturing of the girls’ relationship eventually leads to disastrous violence.

20. The Opposite of Sex

When you think “romantic comedy,” you probably think of something like When Harry Met Sally or 10 Things I Hate About You. You probably don’t imagine a movie where a pregnant girl runs away from home, temporarily moves in with her gay older brother and his partner, and seduces that partner, only to persuade him that he’s the one who got her pregnant. But that’s exactly what happens in the gleefully twisted The Opposite of Sex, which stars Christina Ricci as its gloriously — or, depending on how you look at it, terrifyingly — amoral heroine Dedee.

21. Jawbreaker

Before Mean Girls, there were meaner girls. Inspired by Heathers, Jawbreaker is a viciously funny — and violent — satire of high school social hierarchy. The film stars Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart, and Julie Benz as a group of girls who routinely play a violent kidnapping “prank” on their friend Liz (Charlotte Ayanna) for her birthday. This time, though, Liz doesn’t survive the “prank,” and the girls have to scramble to figure out what to do with the dead body in the trunk of their car.

22. Dead Man On Campus

In this dark comedy, familiar ‘90s faces Tom Everett Scott and Mark-Paul Gosselaar star as two roommates determined to take advantage of an apocryphal university loophole in which they get straight A’s if their roommate dies by suicide. Deadbeat Cooper (Gosselaar) realizes he needs impossibly good grades to retain his scholarship — which won’t fly with his strict father — and he’s managed to drag the normally studious Josh (Scott) down with him. So they cycle through roommate after roommate, trying to find one who will fit their bill.

23. Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead

Christina Applegate stars as Sue Ellen, a normally responsible teenager whose life quickly goes off the rails in this zany, accidental crime caper. The last summer before she goes to college, her parents depart for a months-long trip, leaving her and her younger brothers in the care of a seemingly sweet old woman, Mrs. Crandell (Concetta Tomei), who turns out to be not-so-sweet after all. When Mrs. Crandell dies suddenly in her sleep, Sue Ellen and her brothers are faced with the prospect of a dead body and nobody to tell them what to do.

24. Go

The star-studded cast of this indie thriller includes ‘90s staples William Fichtner, Katie Holmes, Sarah Polley, Taye Diggs, and more. Directed by Doug Liman, who would go on to direct major action films including The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, this film juggles suspense, comedy, and drama in a series of intertwining plots and stories told multiple times from the same perspective. The film is sharp, fast, and flashy: Critics at the time compared it to Pulp Fiction.

25. The Doom Generation

This horror comedy by New Queer Cinema auteur Gregg Araki follows a trio of troubled, horny teenagers as they go on the lam after a murder. Rose McGowan and James Duval play a couple who pick up a hitchhiker (Jonathon Schaech) who accidentally kills a convenience store owner, sending all three of them on the run. As they drive around Los Angeles’ haunting urban sprawl, sexual tension abounds between the trio, leading to flirtations and couplings that can fool the audience — and the characters — into forgetting that the movie started with an act of violence. But it ends on an even more gruesome and disturbing note.

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