Top 10 Teen Films of the 1980s…

March 28, 2020
…with impossibly soulful male lead characters.

Looking for something to watch during lockdown? Generation X’s Stephen Vagg looks back at the 1980s with his pick of teen films that glamourised soulful male leads. Warning: The Breakfast Club is not on this list. It’s on enough lists.

1) The Outsiders (1983)

C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio both look like lost lambs as they slap grease in their hair, method act their denim arses off and SAVE ORPHANS FROM A BURNING BUILDING TO REDEEM THEMSELVES IN THE THIRD ACT. (Burning orphans as a deus ex machina??? Wasn’t that plot outlawed in 1925? BC?)

There are both the very definition of early 1980s soulful male leads.“ Awww… it’s not their fault they’re bad. Their dads are mean! They just need a hug. And a job.” And will probably get drafted and killed in Nam, but anyways…

I’m being mean – this is a well made melodrama. I sometimes wonder if director Francis Ford Coppola wouldn’t have been better off just doing adaptations of classic novels instead of coming up with original ideas (The Conversation excepted).

Stay gold, Pony Boy.

2) Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)

Look, I love this movie despite its wonky third act – few movies capture the violent under-currents and constant tension of high school as well; Craig Sheffer’s psychopathic baddie is an excellent depiction of the type; it’s got the best kissing-practice scene IN HISTORY, Elias Koteas (Duncan) is the best friendly punk IN HISTORY; and Mary Stuart Masterson is extremely cute… but (SPOILERS) does Eric Stoltz have to spend all his savings on earrings for her??? I mean, MSM plays the sort of girlfriend you literally have to spend no money on. Sure, get her a gift if you want, but mate, seriously, not your whole college fund. A few weeks after the end credits you’re going to regret it and want it back and she’s going to get upset and it’s going to get awkward.

(Alternative reading of this film: MSM is secretly a gold digger and the whole film is actually a plot on her behalf to swindle Stoltz out of his cash.)

3) Say Anything (1989)

Remember kids: it’s not stalking if they love you. Even if it’s playing a boom box outside your window at four in the morning.

I’m being mean again – this movie is awesome, consistently surprising (well, it was in 1989) and one of the best cinematic depictions of what it’s like to be a guy with female friends… And why didn’t Ione Skye become a bigger star?

4) The Year My Voice Broke (1987)

This movie is wonderful but rarely gets brought up today because Noah Taylor isn’t particularly good looking, which is life.

5) Catholic Boys (1985)

I remember really liking this movie (Mary Stuart Masterson is in it, alongside a skinny John Heard) although like a lot of ‘80s movies I’m scared to watch it again because I have a feeling it’ll be awfully problematic. It’s part of Andrew McCartney’s “soulful teens” trilogy (along with Pretty in Pink and Class) and co-stars Johnny Drama, McDreamy and some guy who became a gay porn star in real life (not making that up).

6) Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Look, I was a nerd at high school but even I was cooler than Brian Backer in this film, who for some reason is catnip to Jennifer Jason Leigh. Backer is the one dud note in a film that is otherwise stunningly well cast. I think the casting director might have been blinded by the fact Backer had just played a Woody Allen surrogate on Broadway in a Woody Allen play. Backer would go on to be even less convincingly cast as a juvenile delinquent in Police Academy 4. I didn’t mean to make this entry all about Backer – this film is terrific and amazingly, in the year 2020, remains among the few realistic depictions of abortion in a teen film.

7) All the Right Moves (1983)

Tom Cruise’s great strength as an actor – and only the very major major stars can do it – was to combine cockiness with soulful vulnerability. He never did it better than in this film, which has been overshone by Varsity Blues and Friday Night Lights even though this did it first. Perhaps the Cruiser’s hottest ever love scene.

8) Wargames (1983)

Matthew Broderick proves that you can be a nerd, get Ally Sheedy and stop World War Three. Aside: would the Martin Brest version of this really have been so bad? What was he doing wrong?

9) Dirty Dancing (1987)

As those who work in a soap know, sometimes it helps when your heartthrob male lead has a limited range because it means the female audience can protect their particular fantasies on him (“he’s secretly deep”, “he’s secretly shy”, “he’s secretly afraid of commitment”) instead of them conveying any unsexy subtext. Jennifer Grey did the heavy lifting in this movie but only got a few studio leads afterwards (was Bloodhounds of Broadway the best thing on offer?) while Blank Slate Swayze got the bulk of the credit.

Still, it’s a beautifully constructed film (“it’s not his fault he’s mean, he just needed someone to believe in him”), and if you don’t believe me, try writing something like this, they are bloody hard to do.

Honest question for die hard fans: when Swayze knocks up Jennifer Grey after the climax to this film (as will inevitably happen, you can’t tell me she’s across contraception options) does Jerry Orbach offer to perform the abortion? Or does the mother take Jen “overseas” for nine months? Don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade but how else are these two going to pan out? A Broadway career? Running a dance studio?

10) Dead Poets Society (1989)

They don’t come much more soulful than students at an expensive all-boys private boarding school whose parents are forcing them into conservative career options and whose teachers are generally devoid of imagination and flair – so of course all us arty types at Brisbane Grammar, who would gaze wonderingly at Brad Shepherd’s graffiti on the wall of the Great Hall, identified like crazy. I remember my English teacher Mary Trenbath whingeing how they put Robert Sean Leonard’s character in a production of Midsummer Nights Dream when she felt Henry V would have been more appropriate. I mean, maybe she had a point, but Mary really wouldn’t let it go. At least say something nice about the acting first.

I also wondered if good old Skippy Lynch enjoyed the movie when he was at Brisbane Grammar (google him, if you’re interested). Did he find it entertaining? Arousing? Did he discuss it with his prey in their sessions?

Still, I’m glad the three teen leads went on to have decent careers.

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