If you’re anything like me, born in the ’80s, raised in the ’90s, and calling shots in the aughts, then the teen movies of the 1980s were likely where you cut your movie-watching teeth. I’ll never forget the first time my dad brought home 16 Candles from Blockbuster. My sister had loved all things Molly Ringwald and now it was my turn. My sleepover guests and I sat mesmerized in front of the TV as teen glory unfolded before our eyes. To us, it was some insight on the years that lied ahead, a glimpse into the intimidating world of high school. We all silently took notes: clothes matter, class matters, homework doesn’t really ever matter, and if you just be yourself you might get what you want in the end.
After my encounter with 16 Candles, I too consumed all things “Brat Pack.” Ferris Bueller became my #1 crush and I would do just about anything to mimic Molly Ringwald’s vocabulary. After all, I had to get prepped for the mean streets of high school. When real-life high school turned out to not be as formulaic as a John Hughes film, I escaped to my basement with my VCR and kept on watching. ’80s movies made sense and they were just fun to watch.
As time charged ahead and those Dawson’s Creek characters began representing our generation, I felt a tiny hole in my heart. The ’80s teen movie archetypes were so accessible and their motivation was easy to understand. When the ’90s attempted to copy that with films like She’s All That, it just came off as kind of forced and trite. ’90s kids lacked the innocence and candor of their ’80s counterparts. Nothing beats the ’80s.
And so it was back to the drawing board. I decided to figure out just what made ’80s teen movies so glorious. Now, after years of diligent movie-viewing and dissecting, I think I’ve cracked the code.
It’s not only about the characters; an ’80s teen movie needs to feel authentic. The film must capture the nitty gritty of teendom; the alienation, the pressure, the constant struggle for status and acceptance and, of course, the general absurdity of day-to-day high school life. Bonus points for including a generation-defining soundtrack.
Okay, but seriously the characters do matter. In fact, it’s the archetypal characters that give these movies their pizzazz. A great ’80s movie is all too aware of the power of cliques and cliches. Each character will stringently identify with a specific group. This way we know a bit about them and the way they think right off the bat. The Breakfast Club laid it out for us: there’s a jock, a prissy rich girl, a nerd, a stoner-loner, and a weird goth chick, or some version thereof.
But it’s the side characters that really set it off. If you would like to write an authentic ’80s teen movie, be sure to include at least two of the following people:
The Oppressive Authority Figure: Like Mr. Hand in Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Edward R. Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the oppressive authority provides the young protagonists with a challenge and a chance to triumph over adults. Everyone can relate to how awesome that is.
The Quirky Sidekick/Best Friend: Every strong lead character needs an unconventional buddy hanging around to bounce ideas off of and to scheme with. Lance in The Sure Thing and Fred in Valley Girl portray the perfect quirky sidekick.
The Quirky Sidekick/ Best Friend Who Is Secretly In Love: Sometimes you fall in love with your best friend. Boy, what a pickle! If you’re lucky like Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful, maybe things’ll will work out for you. But if you’re stuck in friend-zone like Pretty in Pink’s Duckie, this can be torture.
The Bully: Naturally there needs to be a jerk in the mix to spice things up, mostly because, when the underdog beats him at his own game, we can all celebrate. Steff in Pretty in Pink, Roy in Better Off Dead and of course Johnny and Cobra Kai in The Karate Kid are all bullies we love to hate.
The Token Ethnic Guy: The ’80s did its damndest, but political correctness was not really its forte. From 16 Candles’ Long Duck Dong to Fast Times At Ridgemont High’s Jefferson to the Tri-Lambs of Revenge of the Nerds, almost every film featured at least one token ethnic character.
Now simply juxtapose these characters with some extraordinary high school event — this event will usually take the form of a large out-of-control house party or some kind of athletic contest. You also might want to make mention of a track or basketball scholarship and/or the prom. Weave it all together with witty quips and voila! you have the quintessential ’80s teen movie.
It also helps if you listen to the Psychedelic Furs or Simple Minds while working on your screenplay.