The 1980s saw the rise of cable television and the fall of the Soviet Union, but you can make a case that it’s also the decade where the teen movie really came into its own. Whether you were once a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess or a criminal, we can all relate to ’80s teen movies. But as much as we love John Hughes, there were some great teen movies from the Atari decade that had huge laughs and a few life lessons that didn’t come from the mind of the great and soulful teen whisperer. Before you flashback with IFC’s ’80s Weekend, check out these 10 underrated teen movies that deserve to be seen.
10. The Last American Virgin
The success of the hilariously raunchy Porky’s jump-started the R-Rated teen comedy genre, and no movie captures the way-too-harsh reality of being a sex-crazed and hormone filled teen like 1982’s The Last American Virgin.
Starring Diane Franklin of Better Off Dead and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure fame, The Last American Virgin has a gritty look and a cast of young actors who could’ve come straight from a Devo concert or roller rink. This movie is the greatest PSA for teen abstinence ever made as our hero Gary (Lawrence Monoson) and his pals go through some raw and un-sexy attempts to lose their virginity, including an awkward encounter with a prostitute that would never be confused for Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
The Last American Virgin is mostly remembered today for having the saddest ending ever for a teen comedy that also has Oingo Boingo on the soundtrack. It’s right up there with the ending to Old Yeller, except it’s Gary’s heart that gets shot to pieces by his jerk friend Rick (Steve Antin) and the girl he thought he loved.
9. Hiding Out
The 1987 high school comedy Hiding Out gave Jon Cryer the chance to play an adult after immortalizing himself in teen moviedom as Duckie in Pretty in Pink. Except here he plays a twenty-something stock broker forced to pose as a teenager in order to hide out from the Mob. It helps that when he shaves off his beard, he’s got a baby face and convinces his nephew Patrick (an even more baby faced Keith Coogan) to hide the fact that he’s living in the upstairs bedroom from his aunt.
Cryer’s Andrew Morenski becomes the impulsively named “Maxwell Hauser” and proceeds to have a much more popular high school experience the second time around. He develops a kinship with the adorably sweet Ryan (Mystic Pizza‘s Annabeth Gish) and ends up running for Class President, which isn’t the best way to keep a low profile. Cryer and Gish have a sweet chemistry together and Coogan’s Andrew has some funny moments trying to fit in with the cool guys at school.
If you’re looking for an ’80s blast complete with a roller rink date and a soundtrack that includes everything from the Johnny Rotten band Public Image Ltd. to Pretty Poison’s pop gem “Catch Me (I’m Falling),” then you’d be wise to spend a night in with Hiding Out.
8. Little Darlings
Featuring ’70s child stars Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal as rival 15-year-olds coming of age at summer camp, 1980’s Little Darlings is like a feature length “After school special” that’ll leave you feeling as good as its soft rock soundtrack. McNichol is Angel (don’t let the name fool you), the rough-around-the edges tomboy who’s new to the camp. O’Neal plays Ferris Whitney, the girl seemingly born with a silver spoon in her mouth. All the girls in their bunk are likeable and funny and the story revolves around a bet Angel and Ferris make to see who loses their virginity first.(No easy feat at an all-girls camp.)
Little Darlings is the movie that every parent should have their teenage daughter watch, as the emotions Angel and Ferris go through are far more raw and real than the ones depicted in glossy modern teen dramas. Retro cameo alert: In addition to Matt Dillon in an early heartthrob role, look for a very young (and very blonde) Cynthia Nixon as one of the girls in the bunk who are all not quite ready for adulthood.
7. My Bodyguard
Before Matt Dillon solidified his teen idol status as the cool, unstable brother figure greaser in The Outsiders, he terrorized Chris Makepeace as a bully in My Bodyguard. Makepeace, who you may remember as the homesick camper in Meatballs, could’ve used Bill Murray in this film as he plays a kid whose dad (Martin Mull) becomes a manager at a Chicago hotel, forcing young Clifford Peache to become the new kid at school.
With a name like Clifford Peache, it’s no wonder he becomes a target for Matt Dillon’s Moody who likes to shake down the smaller kids for lunch money. Basically the Mafia boss of the school, Moody offers Clifford protection from another teen named Linderman (Adam Baldwin), who rumor has it killed his own brother. In a fun twist, Clifford befriends Linderman and tries to get him to be his bodyguard against Moody.
Baldwin (no relation to Alec) is great in his film debut as the titular bodyguard, and the casting of Ruth Gordon (Harold and Maude) as Clifford’s cantankerous grandma helps give My Bodyguard its quirky hidden gem status. (Keep an eye out for a young Joan Cusack as the geeky Shelley.)
6. River’s Edge
In the dark 1986 drama River’s Edge, the kids live in a stoned haze and run wild while the parents all seem to be more messed up than they are. The story revolves around how a group of teens react when one of their friends, Samson (Daniel Roebuck, delivering a truly creepy performance), kills a young woman for no apparent reason. Matt (Keanu Reeves) and Clarissa (Ione Skye) try to come to terms with what their friend has done while Layne (Crispin Glover, bringing a Nic Cage level of over-the-top intensity) tries to cover up the murder.
You know a movie is dark when it has Dennis Hopper playing a crazed Vietnam Vet who’s a little too attached to a blow up doll and he’s not even the creepiest character. That award belongs to Matt’s little brother Tim (Joshua John Miller), who gives one of the all-time creepiest/funniest child actor performances as a punk kid who doesn’t just fall in with the wrong crowd but is the wrong crowd. Tim’s crazy eyes, along with everything Crispin Glover does, helps make River’s Edge a cult classic.
5. Vision Quest
Forget the Rocky movies — if you were a teenage boy in the ’80s, Vision Quest was the movie that had you doing push-ups in your living room. When Louden Swain (Matthew Modine) decides to drop over 20 pounds to wrestle an immovable object/cyborg of a state champion rival, he takes on the biggest challenge of his life and slowly wins the trust of his teammates and coach.
Featuring Linda Fiorentino as the older woman that Louden falls for, Vision Quest is a movie about how what you can accomplish in six minutes can change your life. It’s also a pure shot of ’80s awesomeness with Michael Shoeffling, aka Jake Ryan from Sixteen Candles, sporting a Mohawk and The Material Girl herself performing “Crazy for You” at a club.
4. Heaven Help Us
Welcome to St. Basil’s, a Catholic school where they preach discipline and patience — except patience is a paddle wielded by Brother Constance (Jay Patterson), a sadistic priest dedicated to instilling his will and spoiling any fun had at the all-boys school. In 1965 Brooklyn, Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) quickly learns that it’s not so much fun being the newbie at a strict Catholic school, until he reluctantly becomes friends with Kevin Dillon’s wise-cracking Rooney.
The gang — which includes Caesar (Malcome Danare), a know-it-all nerd who carries a laminated note to get him out of any gym related activities — end up breaking the rules and engaging in teenage shenanigans in their quest to meet girls. McCarthy’s Dunn is the heart of the movie as he recently lost his parents and meets Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), a girl who runs the local soda shop and cares for her depressed father.
Masterson exudes approachable cool, and shares some sweet moments with McCarthy. Look for The Princess Bride‘s Wallace Shawn as a priest who gives a lecture on the evils of “lussst.”
3. The Legend of Billie Jean
Teenage boys in the ’80s may have had Heather Locklear’s poster on their wall, but they dreamed of Helen Slater as Billie Jean. Slater stars as a Texas girl who lives in a trailer park with her mother and her brother Binx (played by a young Christian Slater) and dreams of living in Vermont. When spoiled and cocky Hubie (Barry Tubb) hits on Billie Jean and steals Binx’s scooter, it sets off a chain of events that leads to Billie Jean, Binx and their friends becoming fugitives.
Billie Jean lives up to her outlaw name as she becomes famous and helps people she meets while on the run. At one point, Billie Jean cuts her hair to look like Joan of Arc and also conveniently looks a lot like a blonde Pat Benatar, whose song “Invincible” is played throughout the film. Billie memorably says the line “Fair is Fair,” but it’s not fair that The Legend of Billie Jean isn’t legendary in its own right.
2. The Hollywood Knights
The Hollywood Knights might’ve been riding on the ’60s revival coattails that American Graffiti, but the George Lucas classic didn’t have a scene where prankster Newbomb Turk (Robert Wuhl) farts “Volare” into a microphone at a school dance. This classic scene of teenage shenanigans is just one of numerous Animal House-style moments that have lived on in the memories of anyone who stayed up to watch The Hollywood Knights on late night cable in the ’80s.
Newbomb is the goofball of The Knights, a car gang with a longstanding tradition of annoying the stuffy Beverly Hills Resident’s Association. The gang of teenage misfits causes havoc for the snobs who shut down the Knights’ hangout, Tubby’s Drive-In. It doesn’t get more ’80s than a film where a young Michelle Pfeiffer makes out with Tony Danza and Fran “The Nanny” Drescher turns up as a young fan of Newbomb’s antics.
1. The Flamingo Kid
Directed by the late, great comedy master Gary Marshall, The Flamingo Kid is one of the most likeable and underrated films of the ’80s. Matt Dillon breaks out of the tough teen mold as Jeffrey Willis, a kid who just graduated high school in 1960s Brooklyn and gets a job working at a posh Long Island Beach club that his upper middle class friends belong to.
A classic fish out of water (or fish out of Brooklyn) story ensues when wide-eyed Jeffrey meets a flashy car salesman (Richard Creena) who shows him a life his working class father doesn’t understand. Jeffrey’s not just another kid from Brooklyn — he also happens to be a world-class gin rummy player, and when he gets a chance at joining the big game, he makes the right choice at the table and in life. Give this one a shot and you’ll be rooting for “The Flamingo Kid” to say “Sweet Ginger Brown.”
Catch The Breakfast Club, Footloose and Fast Times at Ridgemont High during IFC’s ’80s Weekend! For more classic films you need to see, check out our list of underrated ’80s comedies.