On rewatching teen movies as an adult

Last night I watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) for the second time. I had not seen the movie since around the time it came out, when I was in high school myself

Where the artifacts of youth culture are concerned, your mileage may vary, thirty-six years on. There are song lyrics that I thought were perfectly brilliant in 1985, that I cringe when I listen to today. 

It’s also worthwhile to remember that youth culture is ephemeral and constantly changing. I never really got a grasp on the youth culture of the Millennials (the oldest of which were born around 1982), and I am, of course, clueless about Generation Z. 

But I was clueless about much of what the Baby Boomers got excited about, too. I remember, in the early 1980s, hearing then forty-something Baby Boomers rave about the film, The Big Chill (1983). I finally got around to watching The Big Chill a few years ago, when I was a forty-something myself.

Suffice it to say, I was unimpressed. The Big Chill was intended to speak to the concerns of Baby Boomers, circa 1980-something, as they entered mid-adulthood and looked back on their youthful glory days of the 1960s. But the movie didn’t speak to me, as a middle-age adult in 2015 or so.

St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) is a teen movie from my own teenage years that I never got around to watching back in the 1980s. Everyone gushed about the movie in 1985, as I recall. 

I finally watched St. Elmo’s Fire as an adult a few years ago. I found the film stilted, boring, and self-indulgent. 

But the movie obviously appealed to someone, at some point. St. Elmo’s Fire made almost $30 million in profit—a lot of money in the mid-1980s. (A lot of money now, for that matter.)

The concerns of teenagers, at least when seen through the prism of adulthood, are trivial, insular, and self-obsessed. Older adults are often criticized for their rigidity and resistance to change—and often with good reason. But no one is quite as parochial as the typical suburban teenager, who believes that his or her little peer group comprises the entire universe. 

I suppose this is why teen movies often seem trivial, too. If you make a movie about a teenager doing something really important, then it exceeds the teen movie genre. Since the teen movie genre was launched (in the late 1950s), the teen movie has always been about hooking up, fitting in, and bucking the restraints of adult authority. Not since World War II have young people, as a generational cohort, done anything truly worthwhile; and this is reflected in the movies made about them and for them, ever since the Eisenhower era.

That all said, there are a handful of teen movies from the 1980s that I believe do stand the test of time. One of these is The Breakfast Club (1985); and another is Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). 

I’ve now rewatched both of these movies as an adult. And I’ll likely review them both in detail here, at a later date. For now, though, I will simply assert that both The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High continue to be enjoyable because both are exercises in the principles of good storytelling, with relatable characters, skillful pacing, and plenty of conflict. 

And yes: Both The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High are ultimately about the trivial concerns of teenagers: hooking up, fitting in, and straining against adult authority. But good storytelling is good storytelling. And not every good story has to involve a global conflict, a bank heist, or an alien invasion. 

Even the trivial can become solid story material…when the story is told in the right way.