Break Out Your Leg Warmers, Because These Are the Best Teen ’80s Movies

·8 min read
Photo credit: Getty/Claire Brodsky
Photo credit: Getty/Claire Brodsky


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An essential sub-genre of the iconic '80s movies we all know and love is the angsty teen drama film. You know, the one that features romantic entanglements, big epiphanies about what you want to do with your life, and at least one montage. Some of the best movies in this category have that classic '80s hair and leg warmer and shoulder pads fashion—which, fun fact, are making a comeback this decade. But the '80s teen film was also an opportunity to explore issues that were original for the time, like (TW) suicide, poverty, sexuality, and generally not feeling appreciated by adults. Which, relatable at any age, but these movies made some teens feel really seen, so they hold a special place in people's hearts.

Some of these might be movies you grew up on—or, if you're not *ancient* like me, they're incredible classic throwback movies you ~rediscovered~. It's also true that some of these movies are...of their time, let's say, and have not aged particularly gracefully (a big yikes to some of the sexism, racism, and homophobia in movies from this decade, tbh). But there's some very classic stuff on here, from high school misery to crazy college parties to life on the beach to your stuffy summer vacay that leads you to meeting the hottest dancer ever. You know the movie I'm talking about—or you will by the end of this list. This list has some other classics on here, obv, but there are also a few films that you might have missed—or you're only familiar with the remake—that are totally worth your time.

So without further ado, the very best teenage '80s movies to add to your watchlist.

Heathers (1988)

Take everything you know about the classic '80s rom-com, and then do the opposite. There, now you know the plot of Heathers. Veronica (Winona Ryder) and Jason (Christian Slater) meet and fall madly in love, but there's one problem: They keep accidentally (?) murdering the mean kids at their high school.

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A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

This is the teen horror film of the '80s, thanks to final girl Nancy (Heather Langenkamp). Obviously, the movie's most known for introing us to Mr. Knives-for-Fingers himself, Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund), but a lot of the movie centers around being a neglected, misunderstood teen.

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Purple Rain (1984)

This coming-of-age story, loosely based on Prince's own life, is packed with his greatest hits. But it's also a look at a talented teen trying to escape a tough home life, and figuring out how to merge his life and incredible talent together.

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Fame (1980)

The students at the High School of Performing Arts live and perform in '70s New York, trying to "make it" while also struggling with, like, normal teen issues on top of that. The film dared to cover a bunch of then-taboo subjects like sexuality, isolation, and addiction.

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The Lost Boys (1987)

It's even more of a classic these days than it used to be. A few highlights: the music, the mullet-y but very handsome teen Kiefer Sutherland, and a killer last line (pun not intended). What really makes it so great, though, is that poor new kid Michael (Jason Patric) is stuck as the new kid in school—oh, yea, and a bunch of teens are vampires. Very chill.

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

This Hayao Miyazaki anime is, like, the most gorge film of all time and might make you cry. It's also a love letter to the innocence of being young but having to take on really adult topics like sickness and loss. I'm tearing up just thinking about it.

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Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)

Ah, stoner Keanu Reeves. This film dares to ask the question: What if two high teenagers were in control of a time machine and used it to pass a test instead of, you know, doing something important with it? And it's the best.

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School Daze (1988)

Iconic filmmaker Spike Lee makes a movie about Black college life, and the result is debaucherous (including a lot of Greek life) and incredibly razor-sharp in its commentary. A perfect film it is not, but it's insightful for the time.

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A Room With a View (1985)

Helena Bonham-Carter is Lucy Honeychurch, a proper British girl who gets stuck in a love triangle between brooding George (Julian Sands) and the uptight Cecil (Daniel Day-Lewis). She get into some very un-British romantic shenanigans—let's just say it's, um, very sexy.

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The Outsiders (1983)

This film is most known because of its many recognizable faces (Rob Lowe! Tom Cruise! Patrick Swayze! Diane Lane!), but the source material basically helped define the YA genre. It pretty perfectly captures teens resorting to violence and crime because they're lost, misunderstood, and disillusioned.

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Valley Girl (1983)

A young Nicolas Cage is...heart eyes emoji. Just sayin'. One of two movies on this list directed by Martha Coolidge, the story's really about breaking away from conformity—even if it scares you. So if you're ever interested in watching the remake, give the original a spin first.

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Lean on Me (1989)

Based on a true story, this movie avoids a lot of the cliche pitfalls of similar "teacher comes to a school and turns things around" plots. "Crazy Joe" (Morgan Freeman) has...let's call them unorthodox measures to help his students and teachers excel.

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Akira (1988)

This animated "cyberpunk" film is considered one of the best sci-fi movies ever: In a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, teens—some of whom are starting to develop psychic abilities—try to stay alive and protect each other in the face of corruption.

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Mystic Pizza (1988)

This early Julia Roberts vehicle is a coming-of-age tale about women working at a pizza place in a small town, falling in love with people who might be totally wrong for them. Light and frothy, sure, but also very watchable and fun—preferably with pizza in hand.

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Fright Night (1985)

Imagine you're a teen, and you're convinced that your neighbor is totally a vampire. And, because this is a movie, you're totally right. And then, uh oh, said vampire comes after your BFF and S.O. Relatable? Maybe not, but highly enjoyable anyways.

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Real Genius (1985)

This is a movie that wants to be silly and serious at the same time, but it's also kind of just a way for us to watch a young, very talented Val Kilmer. The second Martha Coolidge movie on this list, it totally rises above the "nerds are strange" tropes and dares to be truly weird.

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Footloose (1984)

Oh, Kevin Bacon and your silly dance moves and terrible hairdo, I love you! As wacky as the premise now is—a town with no dancing—the music, fashion, fluffy romances, and climactic dance scenes are never not welcome on my TV screen.

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Back to the Future (1985)

Again, a teenager travels back in time, and this time it's mostly about romance—in this case, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) getting his parents to fall in love. From the very improbable friendship between a high schooler and an adult scientist (Christopher Lloyd), to the weird subplot of Marty's own mom being into him (ewww), the weird alchemy of this movie somehow all comes together.

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Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Ferris Bueller wants to cut class, so he skips school and has the best day ever. Depressingly, I relate most to Ferris' anxious friend Cameron these days, but the 2021 takeaway from this movie is, like, take some time for self-care! And we all need that rn.

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Dead Poets Society (1989)

Carpe diem, indeed. Another "teacher comes to a school and shakes things up for the better" movie, this one's about a strict private school and the teacher who dares to inspire his kids. A hard TW (suicide) on this one, but these days it's also a testament to how incredible Robin Williams' acting was.

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Pretty in Pink (1986)

The reasons we watch it may have changed (like, James Spader is the best part of the movie, apparently??) but feeling like an outsider and having an impossible, all-consuming crush on the popular guy is basically a universal experience.

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Dirty Dancing (1987)

I mean. It's practically the law that a teen '80s film list has to have this one on here. If you're looking for the quintessential "find your first real love on vacation and can't be together but you'll kinda love them forever" movie, look no further than Johnny (Patrick Swayze) and Frances (Jennifer Grey).

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Say Anything (1989)

Lloyd (John Cusack) loves Diane (Ione Skye), but for plot reasons (aka her overbearing, imperfect, but still kind dad), they're not together. Lloyd pursues her anyways, including that iconic boombox outside the window scene. Is it a liiiiittle tiiiiiny bit stalkerish? Sure. Would most of us enjoy a grand romantic gesture from the person we really like? Yea, prob.

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The Breakfast Club (1985)

Five kids are stuck in detention. That's it, that's the whole plot, but it's way more than that. This is far from a perfect movie: Even the lead actor, Molly Ringwald, acknowledges some of its many issues. But if you want to watch a classic film that just gets teen angst in all its forms—from peer pressure and expectation to being a total outcast—this is it.

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