10 Unconventional Films About Teenage Girls
10 Unconventional Films About Teenage Girls: Films that deal with adolescence have achieved and maintained an unrivaled cultural relevance – when done well, they are touching and relatable, a way for us to laugh at ourselves, or at least our younger, presumably sillier versions. However, following the changes in the contemporary film landscape, so-called “teen films” have also undergone a significant stylistic and thematic shift, which makes them arguably the most diverse film genre.
In addition to classic teen comedies we all know and enjoy, there have been many intriguing attempts in foreign and independent cinema that have changed our perception on how adolescence is depicted on the big screen, by changing both the lens, and the setting. As most coming-of-age films have been traditionally centered around boys, the change allows us to look at how girls specifically deal with sexual awakening and issues related to growing up. While fan favorites like “Mean Girls” and “Clueless”, or even “Heathers” haven’t lost their appeal, this list discusses some surprising and unique films about growing up, that bring fresh perspectives into the mix.
10. Mustang (2015) | Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
The sometimes tragic, and always poignant Oscar nominee often dubbed the “Turkish Virgin Suicides”, has a corresponding dreamy aesthetic, but a wider political scope. Five orphaned sisters in a northern Turkey village are constrained by much more than their inner or even family lives, their daily existence marked with patriarchal abuse. Forced to live with their conservative guardians, the girls are seen as not only a financial burden, but an embarrassment waiting to happen – they are treated as mere hormonal ticking bombs, their youthful beauty a major liability.
When an innocent afternoon at the beach with friends gets misinterpreted as inappropriate, sexually explicit behavior, a plan to find arranged spouses to all sisters old enough to marry is set in motion. The girls are now openly evaluated as commodities waiting to change ownership, their sexuality and autonomy harshly policed, controlled, and sanctioned. The film depicts abuse and disrespect justified by religion and tradition, explores sibling relationships, the meaning of family and culture, and the boundaries of societal repression when met with female resistance, making it the perfect film to watch if you enjoy politically engaged media, or have a penchant for the gritty understatedness of Turkish cinema.
9. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018) | Director: Desiree Akhavan
Desiree Akhavan’s newest is a funny and charming, but quiet little film, with long-lasting messages, and an understated political relevance. Based on Emily Danforth’s novel of the same name, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” focuses on a more private story of sexual repression. The titular Cameron Post ends up in gay conversion therapy after being outed by her first girlfriend, which sets up a series of defining, albeit difficult experiences.
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Although the film often stays pretty light in the way it portrays the traumatizing experiences of conversion therapy, the story has a quieter way of developing its characters in time to pack a heavy emotional punch, and higlight the more subtly devastating consequences. Akhavan chooses to forego putting its lead character through some of the most damaging parts of the practice, offering a sense of hope and possibility that these individuals are able to see some good in their lives and relationships, and forge meaningful, life-affirming connections amidst an aggressively hostile environment, insistent on punishing them for their most fundamental features. Here is #9 in the list of unconventional films about teenage girls.
8. Persepolis (2007) Director: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
This funny, clever, touching, and highly educational animated film by Marjane Satrapi,based on her graphic novel of the same name, is unrelenting in its relevance and spirit. Set over nearly a decade, the film follows Satrapi’s childhood in Iran during the Islamic revolution, her relationship with her Marxist parents and her rapidly changing homeland on its way to becoming a theocracy.
After Iran instills strict rules completely incompatible with little Marjane’s prior lifestyle, banning everything considered Western including pop music, and makes wearing a veil (or a hijab) a legal requirement for all women, Marji moves to a school in Austria to continue her education in a what she expects to be a safer environment. However, the feelings of otherness and alienation she experiences along with homesickness, culture shock and constant worry, turn out to be a kind of prison on their own.
Persepolis is widely read, watched, adored and banned with the same ferocity today as the day it first came out. It is all, naturally, for a good reason, since it simultaneously explores the human cost of immigration, the meaning of patriotism, and the changing nature of society, while proving that certain values aren’t inherent to the West, and that education and critical thinking abilities are a girl’s most important assets.
Persepolis depicts a different kind of nuclear family, the type that is a young girls main source of support, and encouragement, rather than another way of perpetrating and reproducing patriarchal oppression, bringing into question the outdated notions of family, and the Western gaze that tries to depict the people of the East as in need of enlightenment. It is a wonderfully feminist, opinionated and warm film that asks uncomfortable questions, and gives an insider account of a historical period, and a geographical region most widely misunderstood.
7. Peppermint Soda (1977) | Director: Diane Kurys
This 1977 French film that had its digital restauration in 2018, takes place in 1963, and is an autobiographical account of growing up in a time of constant change, and political upheaval. Director Diane Kurys was close in age to the protagonists in the early 1960s, making her nostalgia for the time palpable, but also grounded, and oddly trustworthy. Peppermint Soda is unashamed in portraying female adolescence and the world of young girls, with all its peculiarities, even those problems and interests traditionally dubbed as trivial.
Kurys clearly understands and respects young girls, realizing how important and life-changingly dramatic seemingly small, everyday events can be in that age, never resorting to a condescending or judgemental tone. Sisters Anne and Frederique are doing their best to understand the world around them and deal with the regular pains related to growing up, but their issues are made worse by the fact that the adults around them don’t seem to listen or have too much substantive advice – they are either emotionally absent, but overly controlling, or simply disinterested.
The societal norms they are expected to follow are especially rough on young girls, as they are expected to uphold some chastity ideals oddly reflected in preferable choices in not only social activities, but also clothes, and hairstyles, and entirely adamant in demanding they show no political interest, or any semblance of an independent opinion. Of course, Peppermint Soda is also a film about how to grow up female, while standing your own ground, finding and defending your values, and only subscribing to a version of femininity that fits you, even if it doesn’t fit others. This is what makes it relevant 40 years on. Here is #7 in the list of unconventional films about teenage girls.
6. Pariah (2011) | Director: Dee Rees
In her debut feature, Dee Rees takes an unrelenting look at the crossroads of family and identity, crafting an emotional and heartfelt coming-of age film along the way. Young Alike is a funny Brooklyn teenager of color with an exquisite writing talent, and a complex family life. Her homosexuality is an identity she has accepted as an essential part of her being, but is also its only facet that doesn’t fit in with the rest of her life, or the persona other people like to assign her.
With her self-involved parents, a confusing love life, and an unwavering sexual curiosity, Alike has to thread carefully, knowing her “secret life” of gay bars and strip clubs will soon be uncovered, unsure of the repercussions that come with living authentically in a hostile environment. For Alike, the knowledge that the only condition necessary for her to receive the love and acceptance she craves and deserves, could be the one that is not only impossible to meet, but completely destructive and contradictory to who she is, is nothing short of devastating. This makes Pariah a touching story of the destructive capacity of rejection, and the regenerative power of acceptance that make up the life of every marginalized individual.
5. Lady Bird (2017) | Director: Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut features a lot of first times – first boyfriends, first sexual encounters, and first disappointments, but it has also been the first “teen” film nominated for Best Picture, and a very rare occurrence that a female filmmaker was nominated for best director. Its spotless record with both critics and audiences is owed to the honesty and humor with which it treats its characters. Our protagonist, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is special because of how little she fears not being easily likable or relatable to the audience – she is flawed, but ambitious and driven, as well as entirely unapologetic, which makes her a good role-model, despite her numerous questionable decisions.
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It is a film that is both proudly within the “rules” and themes of the high school movie genre, but also its own, and completely unique in how honestly and compassionately it deals with adolescence. Its female characters and their friendships are the emotional core of the film – particularly Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother and best friends, but their development positively influences the male characters who seem human and well-thought out, even when they are present for short periods of time. Essentially, it is a warm, nostalgic but honest, and intelligent love letter to Sacramento, adolescence and the early 2000’s, and a film that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve, and never apologizes for loving the things and people that it loves so ferociously. Here is #5 in the list of unconventional films about teenage girls.
4. Turn Me On, Goddammit! (2011) | Director: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen
Any discussion of cinematic girlhood, or teenaged sexuality will undoubtedly always point in Scandinavia’s general direction. After Sweden’s Lukas Moodyson explored female sexuality, and sexual identity through a story of two girls’ burgeoning relationship in “Show Me Love” – a feat entirely unheard of for the (American) cinematic mainstream in 1998, 2011 takes us to a Norwegian small town not at all unfamiliar with the ancient practice of treating female sexual desires with contempt. The protagonist, 15-year-old Alma, is constantly horny, and entirely unashamed of it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for people surrounding her who are entirely at loss about how to deal with it.
The film’s treatment of her burgeoning sexual desires is refreshingly earnest and completely devoid of any judgment, showcasing her ventures into masturbation, phone sex, and an intense attraction to a boy from class. When he showcases interest in an unconventional way, Alma is the one who gets shamed, and turned into an outcast for being weird, too sexually forward, and even a liar. This makes the film most efficient in exploring the different repercussions boys and girls face for their actions, with Alma needing serious courage just to withstand the consequences of someone else’s choices. As a young woman unashamed of her sexuality, she is misunderstood, even feared, and vilified, thanks to society’s ideas of gender, human relationships, and standards of acceptable behavior, cruel to those willing to disobey them.
3. Thelma (2017) | Director: Joachim Trier
Norway also proves a perfect backdrop for Joachim von Trier’s supernatural, coming-of-age LGBT superhero thriller drama, that is as wonderfully complex as it sounds. Coming from a deeply religious family, 19-year-old Thelma leaves her small hometown for the first time to go to university in Oslo, and faces a world entirely different than the one her sheltered upbringing allowed her to imagine. In a midst of stress typical for big life changes, Thelma also has to deal with controlling parents, peers with fundamentally different outlooks on the world, and her suddenly dynamic love life. Thelma is primarily an effective allegory about religious repression, and values used to establish control over female behavior.
The protagonist is thorn between the norms she has long been taught to associate with morality, and her enjoyment of all the new, overwhelming, big-city experiences she is having, including her sexual awakening – particularly her first time unmistakably experiencing (entirely requited) same-sex attraction towards her classmate, the charming Anja. Her worries are so devastatingly visceral that her subconsciousness manifests itself through seizures of sorts – a consequence of her suppressed telekinetic powers. Sometimes associated with “Carrie” in the themes it explores, “Thelma” is more subtle in showcasing the protagonists inner fight to suppress her feelings in an environment where there is no one else to forcefully do it for her.Iit is the film for every teenage girl who has ever struggled to fit into the skin others are willing to allow her. Here is #3 in the list of unconventional films about teenage girls.
2. Eighth Grade (2018) | Director: Bo Burnham
Comedian-turned-writer-director Bo Burnham’s big screen debut is as heartfelt as it is relentless in painting an accurate portrait of the so-called “social media generation”. One of the only two films on the list not written and directed by women, “Eighth Grade” manages to capture the growing pains of a 14-year-old girl with an honestly and ease completely uncharacteristic for most portrayals of Generation Z.
Every generation seems to think its children are irresponsible, juvenile and infinitely worse than the ones that preceded, and conveniently raised them, but this has never been as prominent as it is in discussions of children of the new millennium. They are considered socially inept, uninterested, and beyond saving from the grips of technology and the widely available easy gratification, with girls in particular, being unfairly perceived as shallow and superficial, obsessed with image and their social media presence.
However, Burnham offers a much more nuanced and accurate, as well as compassionate take on digital adolescence, showing how having one’s life be readily available online from a young age can have a negative impact on youth. Regular problems related to body image, social anxiety, sexual awakening, and confidence, that teenage girls always experienced, are now amplified by the fact that their lives are not only publicly broadcasted, but also evaluated through an unattainable standard, based on a filtered, and highly amplified version of reality.
The story of our protagonist Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is so thought-out and poignant, that it is almost viscerally cringe-worthy, evoking everyone’s most painfully embarrassing middle-school moments, leaving the viewer with a touching and loving portrait of a generation that needs as much patience and compassion as all others, if not more.
1. Edge of Seventeen (2016) | Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
According to director-screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig, the angsty adolescent tirades such as “nobody understands me”, and “I hate everyone” are as noteworthy and relevant as ever. In this wonderfully rewatchable, witty and observant film that strikes a perfect balance between drama and comedy, Nadine (Hailee Seinfield) struggles with establishing her identity independently from her relationships. When her long-time best (and only) friend begins dating her older brother, Nadine’s deep seated insecurities come to light, as well as all the resentments and misunderstandings that strain her relationship with her family.
Nadine is smart and funny, and as flawed as she is sympathetic, occasionally a bit of an asshole, and always deeply touching in her attempts to deal with the world that seems to constantly suggest she is not enough as she is. This makes her relatable to both those whose teenage years were marked with extremely low self-confidence, and those who were at peace with themselves, but not their environment, as well as everyone stuck somewhere in between.
What makes The Edge of Seventeen particularly unique within the genre, are both the way in which it rejects the conventional high school social hierarchy by refusing to paint anyone as a villain, as well as the ease in which it incorporates an Asian love interest who is both nerdy and dreamy, as well as artistic, without resorting to stereotyping.
Aside from the amazing female characters, the film does a great job showing struggling, flawed, sympathetic, and entirely decent teenage boys, also achieved through focusing on a sibling relationship that is the backbone of the script. For anyone who relates to only seeing your best features in your siblings, and loving, admiring and resenting them for it, The Edge of Seventeenis the movie that can offer catharsis, reflection, and pure entertainment.
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