Long ago in a galaxy far, far away (read pre-TV America), there was essentially no such thing as a teenage comedy, meaning films that reflected real adolescent concerns between the laughs. Hereby dismissed are sugary Shirley Temple and the goody-goody Andy Hardy series. For decades films were made mostly for and about grown-ups, with kids in supporting roles.
After TV and the recognition of teen spending power in the '50s and '60s, Hollywood rained teen flicks on the box office. The serious stuff, such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) with James Dean and Natalie Wood, got the care; comedies got the cheapo treatment. There were feeble vehicles for pop stars like Elvis, the infamous Frankie and Annette Beach Blanket epics and camp joke-fests such as Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) that enrolled Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld. But teen comedies always outnumbered the dramas.
Today, as we reach the end of summer of '86—still peak box-office season—teen comedy remains king. Adult entertainments, such as Heartburn and Legal Eagles, can't compare at the box office to the insulting Ferris Bueller's Day Off ($54 million in 61 days), in which a teenage Matthew Broderick systematically proves that most adults are jerks.
How tempting then to reject all teen comedy as twaddle, all teen stars as twerps. But the argument won't hold under scrutiny. Hard as this is to admit, 10 teen comedies listed below (and available on video) can be recommended as funny, truthful and appealing to teens and adults alike.
1. Back to the Future (1985): No teen epic has ever raided the box office more effectively (more than $200 million to date). The surprise is that the movie is good too. Michael J. Fox stars as an '80s high school student who gets zapped back in a time machine to the '50s, when his parents were teenagers. In the cleverest and most provocative premise any teen comedy has enjoyed, Fox must deal with Mom and Dad's initial nonattraction to each other (if they don't get together, he won't be born) and Mom's unmistakable lust for a boy she does not realize is her son. Director Robert (Romancing the Stone) Zemeckis beautifully establishes a feel for teens of two generations.
2. Sixteen Candles (1984): Writer-director John Hughes has been responsible for both the good (Pretty in Pink) and god-awful (The Breakfast Club, Weird Science) in recent teen comedies. But this, his directorial debut, remains his best. Molly Ringwald plays a 16-year-old who is humiliated that her parents have forgotten her birthday, and that she attracts the school geek (Anthony Michael Hall) and repels her dreamboat (Michael Schoeffling). Hughes shows a remarkable ear for the cadences of teen speech and a knack for finding belly laughs without cheapening the feelings of his characters.
3. Risky Business (1983): Easily the sexiest and strongest teen comedy ever made. Writer-director Paul Brickman is looking at the dark side of Andy Hardy. Instead of using his parents' house to put on a show, like Mickey Rooney, enterprising Tom Cruise turns the family home into a brothel while Mom and Dad are on vacation. Brickman's satire on what '80s capitalism may be doing to the cream of young America is sharply funny. Cruise and co-star Rebecca De Mornay, as his main call girl, do things that Mickey and Judy would have blushed to imagine.
4. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982): From Cameron Crowe's best-seller, this film about stoned, sex-obsessed high schoolers stays with you, thanks to Crowe's knowing screenplay and Amy Heckerling's unflinching direction. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Rein-hold and Phoebe Cates head a standout cast. But Sean Penn steals the show as a pot-smoking surfer who has pizza delivered to his history class and has little time for thinking of anything but catching the next great wave. This one is both funny and frightening.
5. The Wanderers (1979): Growing up in the Bronx, circa 1963, comes off as vivid, pungent and exciting in director Philip (The Right Stuff) Kaufman's film version of Richard Price's 1974 cult novel. The sounds of Dion, Smokey Robinson, the Shirelles and, especially, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons shrieking Walk Like a Man have the stuff to please more than nostalgia buffs.
6. Saturday Night Fever (1977): The only genuinely memorable film record of what it was like to be young during the 70s disco era. John Travolta dancing to a Bee Gees wail may already have turned into a film cliché, but after a decade, that image and the raunchy humor of working-class Brooklyn youth are still potent.
7. The Bad News Bears (1976): A failing Little League team, managed by a boozing Walter Matthau, gets a needed zap with Tatum O'Neal on the pitching mound. With that flimsy premise, director Michael Ritchie shapes a steadily funny and poignant film about kids in an adult world. Ritchie's 1975 film Smile, about a teen beauty contest, is another brilliant variation on the same theme, but, sadly, it's not available on video.
8. American Graffiti (1973): Teen comedies don't get any better than this. Director George (Star Wars) Lucas gathered a cast of future stars, including Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams and Harrison Ford, to tell the story of one California night in 1962 that encapsulates the last age of youthful innocence. If you were a teen during that time, you'll laugh with tears in your eyes.
9. Alice's Restaurant (1969): The hippie, dropout, draft-dodging era gets its fullest screen treatment from singer-actor Arlo Guthrie, whose hit record formed the basis for the screenplay. Guthrie and director Arthur (Bonnie & Clyde) Penn skewer the redneck mentality with a deceptively mellow menace.
10. Where The Boys Are (1960): A sentimental choice. The movie, about teens escaping school for a spring break in Fort Lauderdale, doesn't have a political or social thought in its head. Still, there's sparkle to spare in the innocent sexual bantering between an achingly young Paula Prentiss and Jim Hutton (Tim's father). And Connie Francis' yearning voice on the title song still evokes a time when nothing took precedence over the love between a boy and a girl.
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