Teen angst has been a staple of generational cinema since James Dean first slipped on a red windbreaker and pouted. Before 1955, teenagers were too busy working family farms or faking their age to go fight Nazis to waste time with emotional turmoil, but then came suburbia and sorrow.
Of course, today's teens have a very dim awareness of Rebel Without A Cause. To the 21st-century teenager, angst began with John Hughes and his Brat Pack, a fact which ought to make you feel the chill of the grave. It seems to have stayed there, as the 1990s and the 2000s seem weirdly free of tormented teens. Brooding and turbulence comes by way of vampires and werewolves now. Even a movie like Easy A, a film that would have been full of naval gazing and New Wave in 1987, laughs and refers to The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles by way of emotional substitution.
I think teen angst might be dead in film. And if it's not, X-Men: First Class ought to drive the final nail into the coffin.
This is all hypothetical, you understand. I haven't gotten to see X-Men: First Class yet, but watching those young mutants glance at one another, eyes filled with pain, asking out loud why they can't just be normal ... that's the stuff that Molly Ringwald only wishes she could have felt. Ringwald never had anything to be really sad about, as opposed to Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique, who is blue, spiky, and probably gets dates only because she can morph into whatever her boy desires. Mystique wishes the biggest drama in her life was a geek showing off her underwear. It would be a nice break from society's hatred and fear.
And hey, Emilio Estevez. Hank "Beast" McCoy and Havok would like to have a word with you. Oh, and you too, Anthony Michael Hall. Sure, it's tough to have parents putting intense expectations on you, but at least your family wants you. When you spout blue hair or laser eyes, you can forget about anyone paying for college, let alone keeping you in house and home for these tender and formative years.
Oh, and get out of here with your ennui with the upper class, Alan Ruck. Angel Salvadore has insect bits, and is forced to entertain gentlemen for money. It's too bad you live in a house that's cold and beautiful, but she has to vomit on her own food in order to consume it.
All right, I'm being snarky (emotional pain is a valid thing, especially in youth), but there is something quite intriguing about this new shift in teen movies. It's as if the irony of Rebel Without A Cause's title finally sunk in, and teen angst movies have slunk away, re-emerging as science fiction, horror, and supernatural romance. It's only natural that this should happen, since so many of the themes found in genre movies were meant to mimic The Outsider, a place many teens legitimately occupy. Not all high schoolers are concerned with who will take them to the dance; they're disabled, fearful of coming out as gay, battling eating disorders, or coping with teen pregnancy. There are big issues out there that outstrip the stuff of John Hughes and James Dean, and there seems to be a startling and unexpected self-awareness from Hollywood about it. Does anyone really care about the spiraling moods of a suburban teenager who is just bummed they can't go to the mall when 16 & Pregnant and It Gets Better catch national attention? No. They ignore them, just as pop culture should have done, instead of enshrining them as voices of a generation. Feelings of loneliness and despair appear to be finding outlets instead with mutants and monsters, arguably a far more fitting and sensitive metaphor if you're actually a teen who is physically or sexually different than your peers.
This decade may finally have seen the end of the high school histrionics. I'm being glib in assigning its death note to X-Men: First Class when the reasons are undoubtedly societal and based in looser trends than Marvel's bankability. But I find it utterly delightful that a pack of lonely, broken mutants might just help undermine the credibility and complexity of The Breakfast Club and all that "being bad feels pretty good" nonsense. Ask Magneto about that once he's stopped the Cuban Missile Crisis, and revealed his childhood in a concentration camp, and then we'll talk about how sad it is to be 16.