Remembering Movies We Loved Too Much as Teens

The good, the bad, the stuff that stuck with us over the years

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Teens are raging hormone piles filled with sugar and vape smoke whose judgement about music, movies and life should not be trusted, and yet they are our society's ultimate arbiters of taste. Did you like good things when you were a teen? Probably not! Teens mostly love complete trash, or at least wonderful poppy trash, but occasionally good things slip through the teen cracks, and your little teen brain freaks out and declares this work of substance to be the Best. Thing. Evar. Movies and music understand you when you're a teen. Art gets you in ways your parents, teachers and sometimes your closest friends don't understand. And that's why you overvalue this art's worth, because your brain doesn't level out until you're well into your twenties.

The things we listen to and watch during our formative years shape us in profound ways we can only hope to understand later. Some of it is good. Some of it sucks. We made a list of the good-bad movies we loved as teens, the stuff that stuck with us over the years, even though we realized that movie's flaws after clear-eyed viewings later in life. Donnie Darko is the perfect example of the phenomena we're trying to describe here. Pretty much every teen watches Donnie Darko, convinces their friends they understood it, and then watches it a thousand more times to impress other people, even though it's deeply flawed and mostly dense mumbo jumbo. That's why we're calling this The Donnie Darko Hall of Fame. So to fit with the season, this is the inaugural graduating class.

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko is an adolescent wet dream with time travel. Think about what Jake Gyllenhaal does over the course of the movie: he gets the girl (check), tells off a creepy authority figure played by Patrick Swayze (double check), throws a party without his parents (triple check), and turns himself into a martyr to save the girl/world (quadruple check). He also partakes in a bit of psychotic arson – of course I loved this movie when I was 14 years old. Donnie was brooding, complicated, smarter than his peers. In short, he was everything I had ever wanted to be. I’m pretty sure he’s what every high school freshman wants to be. Let YouTube user Phantasm Dusk explain in the description for a clip titled “My Favorite Scene” (it’s the one where Donnie calls Swayze “the fucking antichrist”):

Let's face it, Donnie is an asshole, but it's this scene that makes me like him. Somehow I just feel admiration for this guy when he stands up for common sense and says what we only wish we had the courage to. This is an odd one but a good film worth seeing at least once.

On top of all that, I thought Donnie Darko was a cinematic wonder. I actually watched the director’s cut version first (this movie taught me what a director’s cut actually was) and the interspersed pages of The Philosophy of Time Travel blew my freaking mind. On my second viewing (which immediately followed my first) I paused the screen at each page so I could figure out what the hell was going on. It was the first film I had to "figure out." Along with the way the film cuts back to the beginning at the end with the twist, I thought this was the most technically and thematically complex film I’d ever seen. There's a reason I spent hours trying to decipher this website, thinking there were hidden clues.

I never did get around to seeing S. Darko, though. And thankfully I never got that “cellar door” tattoo. — BC


I loved Clerks so much when I was a teen. SO much. I watched it the night before my SATs because I was like, just because I spent all this time studying for this test that will determine where I go to college and therefore where I get a job and therefore the financial and social quality of my adult life it doesn't mean I have to just give in to societal standards, you know? I could still be an independent spirit who lived in black and white, right? That was probably the third time I saw the movie. Here are the reasons I loved Clerks:

1. It was low budget. I thought that was cool. I especially thought it was cool that they incorporated how low budget it was by making the store being dark a plot point -- in the film, the store's shade is broken because some deadbeats jammed the lock with gum (could Dante's day get any worse?) but that was just because they were filming in a Quick Stop at night, when the store was closed, where Kevin Smith actually worked. So resourceful.

2. Jay and Silent Bob. Who among us did not irrationally love Jay and Silent Bob in our teenage years? I liked when Jay would sing.

3. Speaking of singing, I really liked that song "Berserker." That was a great song.

4. Even though they were obvious losers, the characters seemed to have things weirdly together. Dante's girlfriend did things like bring him food on the way to class, which seemed very adult, and they all had jobs that they cared enough about to show up for but not enough about to actually do very well. They also had lots of big ideas about the world and morality and Dante even decided to charge people using the honor system because he presumably had read the Prince and knew that we are all driven by fear of punishment. This appealed to teenage me.

5. "I'm not even supposed to be here today" is sort of like the angsty version of  "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." — DWB

Almost Famous

"i always tell the girls never take it seriously, if ya never take it seriously ya never get hurt, if ya never get hurt ya always have fun, and if ya ever get lonely just go to the record store and visit your friends." ~~ penny lane 3>

That's the quote I had in the bottom of my AIM profile when I was 15, next to a list of my best friends' initials and more hearts. The only true currency in Early Aughts Girl World was a shared admiration of Kate Hudson's character in Almost Famous. I'm not even really embarrassed by this — as a suburban, Catholic-school mall teen, Penny Lane was the first subversive female character I connected with on screen. Of course, so did all the rest of the girls in my class. I still see old friends quoting her on Facebook to this day. Band-Aids die hard. — AJ

Ghost World

Between American Beauty and Ghost World, grown-up Thora Birch contributed quite a lot to my teen Movie Snob experience. Ghost World, based on the Daniel Clowes comic, had a lot going for it, according to High School Junior Abby Ohlheiser. There's the Daria-like main character who had the perfect name of Enid, the drama of her disintegrating friendship with Rebecca, and the fact that the film literally begins with a piece of quirky video archive gold. If Ghost World didn't pander to the sort of teenager who tried so very hard to be different, someone who thought that teenaged life would be improved with the ability to grow porcupine quills, I don't know what does.

Who doesn't understand why anyone would voluntarily write and perform a novelty rap about graduating high school? Teenaged me and Ghost World's Enid, that's who. Actually, I still don't understand why anyone would do that. Maybe Ghost World is still a good movie. Why am I trying to trash it for work? Nobody understands me. – AO

Igby Goes Down

I haven't seen Igby Goes Down in years but my continued position is still that I will fight anyone who says it's a bad movie. Keiran Culkin plays the title character, a disaffected teen who rebels constantly against his family's privileged lifestyle. Igby was exactly the kind of smart-mouthed jerk teen I aspired to be, and sometime around my sixteenth birthday my dad probably realized showing me this movie was a bad idea. (Or he was secretly proud of me, WHO KNOWS.) The movie was smart and "darkly" funny in that way teens love, because it quoted authors and philosophers you wouldn't learn about until college and made jokes about death and insanity that you could relate to, because your own mind was spinning at a thousand miles an hour all the time and you constantly felt like death. It was also probably one of the first movies I saw at the hip local one room theater that always played indie movies and foreign films, to which my dad always brought my older sister.

It helps that the cast is top notch. Jeff Goldblum plays the hypocritical godfather with a dark, important secret. Ryan Phillipe is Igby's fascist, Young Republican older brother. Susan Sarandon plays the sociopathic WASP-y mother. Claire Danes and a peak Amanda Peet play the love interests. Unfortunately the only scenes that exist on Youtube are weird fetish videos of Danes and Peet smoking. — CS

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

I'm not sure the extent to which being exposed to Monty Python movies is still a critical component of the teenaged years of dorky boys, but when I was a dorky teenager, it was formalized ceremony.

You'd start with Holy Grail, good stuff, good jokes. You'd move on to Life of Brian, for which it helped if you'd studied Latin which I had so there you go. And then you'd watch Meaning of Life and you had to sort of pack it in with the other two, this third movie that was obviously just a series of sketches loosely tied together with the theme of "people are alive and then they are not." There are enough good jokes that you could talk about all three. Yeah, you'd say, I'm into Monty Python. And then you'd maybe sing the Penis Song, which was to my generation what wearing a fedora is to similar kids today.

But it's really a pretty dumb movie, falling too often into the sort of filler goofiness that makes a lot of the full Monty Python shows just dreck. There. I said it. That thing with the missing fish? Come on, son.

Anyway, I doubt kids watch this movie anymore, I don't know. The good sketches — like the good sketches from the TV show — are online, and can be seen without the surrounding nonsense. We had VHS tapes, for God's sake. Fast-forwarding wasn't an option. My point being: I grow old and weary. — PB

Napoleon Dynamite

"Napoleon, gimme some of your tots," my middle school friends would say every day, laughing hysterically when we did actually have tater tots for lunch. "Freaking idiots," somewhat else would mutter with that breathy, exasperated Napoleon Dynamite-like voice. The movie was dumb, to be sure, but in our minds it was the first movie to be intentionally dumb as a point of comedy. I can still quote plenty of lines from the movie, from Napoleon's one-percent milk speech to his love for ligers. Thankfully, I haven't yet rewatched the film and I really, really don't want to do so. I don't think I could last through a four-minute intentionally terrible dance routine at this point in my life. — EL

American Beauty

When I saw American Beauty at the age of 13, I was as blown away as a lot of much older critics and Oscar voters who honestly should have known better. American Beauty is largely a chronicle of a mid-life crisis and the stilted ennui of suburban life, which I took as established fact, as a searing indictment of every boring grown-up's blinkered life. It's also deeply concerned with the hopes and dreams of its teenage characters, who struggle vainly to both stick out and fit in, and are still romantic enough to see the real beauty in the world. Happily it didn't take me (or the world) too long to figure out what insipid garbage American Beauty is. It's a generous blending of cliches powered by goofy plot twists. But it's so gorgeously photographed and so bludgeoningly heavy on the visual metaphors (Roses! Innocence! Plastic bags! Beauty in banality!) that it was enough to have 13-year-old me pinning its poster to my wall. — DS

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.