The Millennium Comes of Age: A Decade in Teen Movies

As the decade comes to a close, we take stock of the movies Hollywood made for and about teens.
Decade Teen Movies

This guest essay is part of our Decade Rewind. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.

As the new millennium aged into its own teenage years, the offering of teen movies released in the American film world took many shapes and forms. Before we get too into the weeds discussing where the genre went over the past decade and where teen movies are going to go from here, let’s first define what exactly a teen movie is. A teen movie is a movie mostly for teenagers and about teenage characters, yes, but more importantly, it’s a movie that deals in themes and stories specific to teenage life (including but not limited to first love, parental/authority conflict, angst, feelings of isolation…). Does that mean it can’t have crossover appeal to the adult market? Of course not. Most film executives would probably prefer it did.

A teen movie often involves some element of coming-of-age, a plot dealing with the transition from childhood to adulthood (some movies about adults feature a kind of coming-of-age, too, from adult-child to adult. Truly, we’re all still growing up, all the time, forever). Unlike a young adult novel, which isn’t a genre unto itself but rather a publishing/selling category defined by age range, a teen movie is, I’d argue, more of a genre; it has steadfast subject matter hallmarks. But it’s a genre that can also be a superhero movie, a dystopian movie, a horror movie, a romance, a dark comedy, and so on.

When the 2010s began, the teen movie landscape was in the throes of the super successful Twilight and Harry Potter movie adaptations, and both franchises continued into the decade before finishing (and then, in the case of Harry Potter, restarting, though not in the teen realm). The rest of the decade saw the growth of big franchise movies, adaptations of popular YA novels, and original IP teen movies (wherein “original” means not adapted from existing material) of varying success.

In the “big teen franchise movies” bucket, the 2010s brought filmgoers The Hunger Games movies, the Divergent movies, two new teenage versions of Spider-Man, one animated, one not, The Maze Runner movies, Kick-Ass and its sequel, Shazam!, Bumblebee, and the oeuvre of John Green adaptations—none of which are in the same series, but John Green, mega-bestseller, is his own franchise in the publishing world.

There were also a lot of adaptations of non-series young adult novels or comic properties for the big screen. It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Beastly, I Am Number Four, Vampire Academy, If I Stay, The DUFF, The 5th Wave, Nerve, Before I Fall, The Hate U Give, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Love, Simon, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Darkest Minds, The Sun Is Also A Star, Everything, Everything, and Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl all fall into this category (and I’m sure I missed a few). Surely, some of these were hopefully going to beget big franchises and didn’t, but others were always going to be one-offs — because the books that inspired them were.

The 2010s also offered up a few teen movie remakes, such as Footloose, The Karate Kid21 Jump Street, and Carrie. Then there were the original teen movies: Easy A, The Bling Ring (though this is adapted from a true story), Blue Is the Warmest Color, Thoroughbreds, Dope, The To Do List, Dear White People, Project X, Sing Street, Assassination Nation, Booksmart, Happy Death Day, Lady Bird…the list could go on. (For an exhaustive list of all the teen movies of the decade, click here and have fun perusing.)

There are some themes that will always repeat in content made for and/or about teenagers. It’s a time in life when most are trying to figure out who they are, what their place in the world is, how that very world works. These ideas will almost always show up thematically in teen movies, whether the world looks like the real one we live in or a wildly fantastical future dystopia. This is the coming-of-age factor. If and when the fundamental nature of teenagedom changes, the content of teen movies might change, too.

How a movie chooses to present or confront these themes — that of course, does vary. Movies like Divergent, The Hate U Give, and The Hunger Games show teenagers figuring out the world around them by standing up to society in an effort to change it. The Spider-Man and Kick-Ass movies feature teenagers with super abilities fighting against literal villains. Others, like Dope, The DUFF, Love, Simon, The Sun Is Also A Star, and Sing Street feature teenagers finding themselves and connecting with others, platonically or romantically. In Easy A, Emma Stone’s character confronts the slut-shaming that teen girls so often face, while the characters in Assassination Nation do so to both slut-shaming and social media bullying, in a much more violent, literal confrontation.

Whether or not you liked any of these teen movies is, of course, a matter of subjective opinion. I found this decade’s offerings of teen movies to be, on the whole, sharp, clever, inspiring, funny, emotional, and some of the highlights of the last 10 years. Be it franchises, adaptations, or original IP, teen movies (and in many of these cases, the material they’re adapted from) are doing interesting and refreshing things, even while still speaking to the themes of identity and coming-of-age that have populated teen movies forever. (The relative universality of these themes is also why teen movies will likely always find some crossover, and why adults can relate to these movies even if they aren’t technically aimed at them).

So where will teen movies go in the next 10 years? There will still be big-budget franchises (there are more teen superheroes in our future). There will still be book-to-movie adaptations. There will still be clever comedies, biting social commentary, dark humor, teens changing the world (especially as teens are actually changing the world IRL). Hopefully, we’ll continue to see fresh storytelling, humor, and wit in the teen space.

However, the format will likely continue to shift and change as ever more streaming services are in need of content and the theatrical release model continues to perplex. Netflix has been putting money into teen content for years now, and it seems like we can expect that to continue—perhaps more teen movies will go the way of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before or The Kissing Booth or Let It Snow, each made for Netflix first. Or perhaps we’ll see more and more teen TV for streaming services, like John Green’s Looking for Alaska on Hulu. It’s also entirely possible that teens themselves will stop caring about or seeing movies altogether, at least in the traditional sense. It’s a brave new world out there for movies, but teen movies will persevere in some form or another, be it in theaters, on streaming services, YouTube, or some other platform. They always have.

Jessica MacLeish: Jessica MacLeish is a and freelance book editor based in New York (but also on the World Wide Web, where we all live now).