Okay, let me clarify. I'm something of a 90s films connoisseur, and often these films get booted for not being as high-class as other kinds of films. Sure, stylistically they might not be as elegant as David Lynch or Wes Anderson, but these films are super important if you want to talk about teen pop culture and trends.
These days, these kinds of teen films are few and far between. You get the idea that censorship has bubble-wrapped what can be done in these kinds of films. I have five examples for you of this, of what can be achieved in an emotional, funny or aesthetic way. Let's start with a classic.
1. Clueless (1995) - Dir. Amy Heckerling
Ask anyone who is or once was a teenager to name a 90s classic film, and they'll tell you Heckerling's decade-defining teen flick. This film is known primarily for its fashion choices, it's stylistically obvious 90s chic and 'high fashion' look. They probably won't really discuss how it stemmed from a Jane Austen classic. The movie's about a girl named Cher who suddenly becomes interested in the new kid in school - she's completely oblivious to the fact that he's gay. She realises this just in time to notice that Paul Rudd (her ex-step brother) is the real love interest despite them having a hate/hate relationship, which we all know forges the best romantic conflict and therefore end result. The conflict is resolved in record-time and we're back in the feel-good feeling that a good teen 90s film should give us. It's these things and much more that makes this film such an important teen film.
2. Drive Me Crazy (1999) - Dir. John Schultz
This film is on the cusp of the 90s, and really it's more of a millennium film, but technically it's still the 90s. And if you watch the film, it still screams 90s in the wardrobe and plot, so I'm counting it. Adrian Grenier and Melissa Joan Hart front this one, about fake-relationships and peer-pressure and the need to be popular. Immediately, we see Adrian Grenier's Chase waking up in a mess and Melissa Joan Hart's Nicole already discussing this movie's prom equivalent - the Millennial Dance. Don't get me wrong, this film (and all of these films for that matter) trade in terribly cliche tropes and character arcs, but it's because of these things that make a 90s teen film a 90s teen film. Basically the rules for a good 90s film? The girl/guy gets the guy/girl in the end and all conflict is rendered unimportant because they got together. This includes their tricky situation now that they're parents are getting married, which just gets side-swiped - for a good reason because I myself wouldn't want to discuss the logistics of that. But the trashiness of this film, and all of the incredibly 90s outfits make this film an example nonetheless. And Adrian Grenier is undoubtably put into the trope of grungy teenage boy heath ledger type. Without a doubt. I still love it unconditionally.
3. The Craft (1996) - Dir. Andrew Fleming
Before I get into it, I would just like to add that this film was absolutely bonkers. Many times throughout this movie I thought to myself, 'where are they?' or 'why are they here?' or, 'why are there dead sharks on the beach?' Common questions, I know. I'm sure you'd have had the same questions. The cast of this movie screams 90s. Neeve Campbell, final girl from the Scream franchise (that we'll get to), Robin Tunney, Rachel True and Fairuza Balk are the leads in this strangely enchanting film. Not to mention Scream alum Skeet Ulrich. At first, I thought this film was going to be lighthearted, a more witchy version of sisterhood of the travelling pants (I'm not sure if that's a joke to be honest), but it was absolutely not that. Robin Tunney's Sarah is new to town, and it's learned that she's a really powerful witch. She's Sebastian Stan in The Covenant if that's not too vague a reference even though I'm sure it is. But again, there's a certain amount of leeway in a 90s film, people can die, like, straight up murder can occur and very little is done about it. It doesn't affect the characters the way it would affect us as an audience. This film is extreme, there's nothing about this film that is watered down or uncommitted. It deals with sexual assault, about promiscuity and how society sees it for girls and for boys, and the consequences of dealing with those things are deadly. For this one, murder and fashion as well as casting make this film the perfect concoction for a strangely intriguing film that absolutely would never have been made in 2016. Not for the same target demographic anyway.
4. She's All That (1999) - Dir. Robert Iscove
I don't think I'd seen a more cliched teenage movie before I saw She's All That. This film is so formulaic that it's almost hard to watch. It's not hard to watch because of Rachel Leigh Cook and Freddie Prinze Jr., trust me. No, it's hard to watch because as soon as the plot is revealed, you know exactly what's going to happen. This is arguably the most unoriginal form of the genre, but yet, you still have to watch it to see if it really will commit to the form. Spoiler alert, it does. But it's charming enough that you don't care. The film deals with popularity, but not enough to make it about that entirely because Laney (Cook) is too far ahead of the curve to care about any of that. However, Zach is perhaps the most footballer-y footballer on screen, he is such a bro that it's hard to watch. Not to mention the classic 90s trope of the scheming and two-faced best friend. We saw it in Drive Me Crazy, and we'll see it again no doubt. And yet, it's the mixture of all of these cliched tropes that make the pay-off at the end so worthwhile. It's simple, but it's nice. We leave feeling that something was achieved, someone learnt something or someone got what they deserved.
5. Scream (1996) - Dir. Wes Craven
I'm biased. I love these movies, all four of them. I'll watch them again and again and I don't really know why. Maybe it's because they're meta as hell, maybe it's because I'm such a movie nerd that I appreciate the work that goes into these movies. I don't know, but I do know that these movies, the first one especially is overlooked. It's overlooked because A) it's a teen film, or something pitched to teenagers, and B) because it's a slasher film. Those two things together aren't usually very popular among anybody else unless you're a horror fan. These films are so encapsulated that as soon as you start watching it, you seen the sepia grain that comes over the screen, and you know that you're watching a 90s movie. Neve Campbell is one of the most famous Final Girls, and for good reason. She constantly outwits or outfights Ghostface despite Ghostface always being a man (excluding Scream 4). And she does it all in high-waisted Levi jeans and double denim jackets. These films are hardly even 90s films because they're not trying to make a statement through their fashion. The fashion is a byproduct of the decade. Rose McGowan's outfits are almost normal, because Scream isn't about the fashion world. But this film falls into he murder category. Not only is this film my favourite 90s film, but I think it's a really underrated example of a 90s film.
Notable Mentions (AKA films that I love but I didn't want to have a crazy long list)
- Jawbreaker (1999) - Dir. Darren Stein
- 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) - Dir. Gil Junger
- Cruel Intentions (1999) - Dir. Roger Kumble
- Election (1999) - Dir. Alexander Payne
- Empire Records (1995) - Dir. Allen Moyle
- Never Been Kissed (1999) - Dir. Raja Gosnell