20 Movies That Nail What It's Actually Like To Be A Teen

·14 min read

We hope you love the shows and movies we recommend! Just so you know, BuzzFeed may collect a share of revenue or other compensation from the links on this page. Oh, and FYI: Platform, prices, and other availability details are accurate as of time of posting.

Being a teenager is a messy journey full of extreme highs and lows. While most would agree there is no shortage of movies about teens, these stories can often feel like they were crafted by people who have never actually had a conversation with someone in that age range — or, feature 27-year-olds playing them.

  Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Even the most beloved teen movies often feel entirely over-the-top in how they depict this unique period of life onscreen. So we put together a list of 20 movies that actually treat their teen characters like they're, well, teens.

*And, yes, before you point it out yourself, many of the titles included below feature actors who are in their 20s playing teenagers (it's a long, unfortunate Hollywood tradition!). Nonetheless, we believe they still accurately reflect the modern teen experience.

1.Lady Bird (2017)

Saoirse Ronan lying on the floor.

Lady Bird was considered a certified classic coming-of-age film pretty much the minute it hit theaters, earning five Oscar nominations (including Best Picture). That reputation has only grown with time and it's not hard to see why. The frustration and confusion that define so much of being a teen are masterfully captured thanks to Saoirse Ronan's powerfully restrained performance and the empathetic guidance of Greta Gerwig, who directed and wrote the film. Whether it's the pain of your first heartbreak or the inability to connect with a parent, everyone who has been or is currently a teenager will undoubtedly relate to Lady Bird.

Watch it on Netflix.

A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection

2.Boys State (2020)

Robert MacDougal giving a speech.

What's the best way for a movie to accurately depict teenagers? By filming real teenagers, of course, and that is what made Boys State one of the most acclaimed documentaries of 2020. We follow the gubernatorial campaign at Boys State, a program in Texas where thousands of high schoolers come together to try and form a representative government. While the race begins relatively civil, before long, the motivation to win drives some of the guys to resort to dirty tactics. It's easy to label certain candidates (and their "staffers") as heroes while deeming others villains but what really makes Boys State so compelling is how it manages to demonstrate the humanity — both good and bad — in everyone.

Watch it on Apple TV+.

Apple TV+ / Courtesy Everett Collection

3.Dazed and Confused (1993)

Wiley Wiggins talking to Christin Hinojosa.

Upon its initial release, Dazed and Confused was marketed as a wild stoner comedy, much to the frustration of director Richard Linklater. While there's plenty of pot in the movie, it's easy to see why he was displeased with this inaccurate label. What Dazed and Confused is really about is the boredom that is so fundamental to the teen experience, as everyone from the nerds to the burnouts to the jocks are shown to be motivated by the desire to escape monotony more than anything. It's a definitively anti-nostalgia teen movie, with Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London) even declaring "if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself."

Watch it on Peacock.

Gramercy Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

4.CODA (2021)

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Emilia Jones smiling in the water.

Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of her family and she struggles to balance the responsibility she feels to support them and her desire to have her own life experiences. In the wrong hands, CODA could have been a feel-good story with no real substance but thanks to a strong script and Jones' performance, we really get to see the conflicting desires in Ruby emerge in a way that allows us to empathize with her, as well as her family. Humans are filled with contradictions and that is especially true of teenagers. In the case of Ruby, it's both heartening and heartbreaking to see her reconcile with the guilt and anger she feels towards herself as her yearning for independence grows.

Watch it on Apple TV+.

Apple TV+ / Courtesy Everett Collection

5.Minding the Gap (2018)

Keire Johnson resting his head on his skateboard.

As a teenager, Bing Liu filmed himself and his friends, Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan, skateboarding around Rockford, Illinois. A decade later, the three are all trying to make sense of the responsibility of adulthood while also reconciling with difficult truths about their pasts. Through the footage, we see these three use skateboarding as a means of escape, as well as a way to form a bond that keeps them together even as they head in different directions. The Oscar-nominated documentary is a brilliant glimpse at the way that your friends during your formative years shape who you become.

Watch it on Hulu.

Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection

6.Eighth Grade (2018)

Elsie Fisher sitting in the pool.

For most, the jump from junior high to high school is a brutally awkward experience where you hope nobody realizes you have no idea what the hell you're doing. And that constant sense of anxiety has never been captured onscreen better than through the character of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), whose earnest attempts at finding herself as she reaches the end of eighth grade are weighed down by the casual cruelty that permeates the hallways of every school in America. Director and writer Bo Burnham also reflects how much social media has altered the landscape of adolescence, as the curse of self-awareness and the need for shallow validation makes this especially self-conscious time even more isolating.

Rent it on Amazon Prime.

A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection

7.Waves (2019)

Kelvin Harrison Jr. playing the piano.

As a teenager, it's easy to feel invincible. It's all fun and games, right? But the reality is that actions you take at that age have consequences on yourself and the people around you. In Waves, that harsh truth is explored with brutal clarity through the Williams family. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a popular high schooler but his life takes a dramatic turn when his wrestling career ends due to injury and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) tells him she is pregnant. As he struggles to accept these realities, as well as his domineering father, Tyler is weighed down by substance abuse, unchecked anger issues, and toxic masculinity. Things quickly spin out of control and the viewer gets a devastating reminder of how one bad decision can destroy so many lives.

Watch it on Amazon Prime via Showtime.

A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection

8.20th Century Women (2016)

Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning talking in the kitchen.

In 1979, 15-year-old Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann) is a high school student living in a Santa Barbara boarding house run by his single mother, 55-year-old Dorothea (Annette Bening). Julie (Elle Fanning) is his best friend but will not sleep with him because she fears it will destroy their friendship. Both Jamie and Julie endure the disappointments that everyone goes through as they grow up and make plenty of bad decisions along the way because that's just what teenagers do. And their relationship goes through similar ups and downs, as their inability to communicate openly and differing desires can overshadow the close bond they've formed together. It's a weird, confusing mess of a relationship that nearly everyone went through at some point as a teen.

Watch it on Amazon Prime via Showtime.

A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection

9.Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Hailee Steinfeld and Haley Lu Richardson looking back.

What sets Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) apart from other protagonists in teen movies is that we get to see the full intensity of the pain she is feeling. Her feelings of inferiority to her more popular older brother are only intensified when her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating him, to the point where she clearly is experiencing intense depression that she can only talk to her teacher about. Steinfeld manages to walk a difficult line here, as she keeps the audience sympathetic to what Nadine is going through while also exposing the ways in which her selfishness has made her her own worst enemy. It's the kind of depth not typically seen in a movie about teenagers, which is what makes Edge of Seventeen such an essential watch.

Watch it on Netflix.

STX Entertainment / Courtesy Everett Collection

10.The Way Way Back (2013)

AnnaSophia Robb and Liam James walking.

Duncan (Liam James) is an introverted teen who is forced to go on a vacation with his neglectful mother and her cruel new boyfriend. He is convinced he will be miserable and alone until he stumbles upon Water Wizz, a local waterpark, where he befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell) and is hired to do odd jobs. Like Duncan, loneliness is par for the course for most teenagers but there's a pure joy watching him discover a sense of belonging for the first time, which allows him to have the confidence to stand up for himself.

Watch it on HBO Max.

Fox Searchlight / Courtesy Everett Collection

11.Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Jon Heder and Efren Ramirez hiding behind some weeds.

When you're a teenager, everything in your life feels high stakes but Napoleon Dynamite is a reminder of just how mundane most of your life actually is during this time. Will Napoleon (Jon Heder) get a date to the dance? Will Pedro (Efren Ramirez) win the election for class president? The movie does a nice job of showing that none of this really matters that much because the so-called "cool kids" are secretly as uncool as the kids they look down on. Really, getting through high school is more about getting by than making epic memories that will last a lifetime.

Watch it on Amazon Prime.

Fox Searchlight / Courtesy Everett Collection

12.Booksmart (2019)

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever talking at their lockers.

Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends who, on the eve of graduation, face the rude awakening that they didn't really have any experiences in high school. So they decide to go to a party to see what everyone else was up to while they were busy studying for the SATs or whatever it is that good students do in high school. Booksmart is for all of the go-getting overachievers in high school who were so focused on the future that they may have forgotten about enjoying the present. And while some of the movie's hi-jinx are certainly a bit over-the-top, the core friendship always feels incredibly grounded in reality.

Watch it on Hulu.

Annapurna Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

13.Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Cuba Gooding Jr. talking to Nia Long.

Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Doughboy (Ice Cube), and Ricky (Morris Chestnut) are three lifelong friends who begin to discover that their paths in life may be pulling them in different directions. While Tre and Ricky hope to leave Inglewood behind and head to college, Doughboy dives deeper into the gangster lifestyle after being released from jail. But none of the characters are turned into stereotypes, as we see the ways that each of them doubt the road ahead of them, along with their fear about trying to survive in their violent neighborhood. The depth only makes the tragic ending that much more painful, with the senseless cycle of violence trapping them even as they try to escape.

Watch it on Hulu.

Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

14.Yes, God, Yes (2019)

Natalia Dyer staring at a computer screen.

The desire to get laid is the foundation of too many high school movies to count but what about all of us teens who were equally terrified of the notion of sex? Yes, God, Yes paints a painfully accurate picture of sexual repression created by religion, as Alice (Natalia Dyer) finds herself both intrigued and alienated by her growing sexual desire. Alice's attempts to stay on the path of righteousness will feel all too familiar to anyone who was taught that the only form of safe sex is no sex, along with the constant guilt she feels thanks to judgmental classmates and puritanical authority figures.

Watch it on Netflix.

Vertical Entertainment / Courtesy Everett Collection

15.The Princess Diaries (2001)

Anne Hathaway walking on bleachers and holding Hector Elizondo's hand.

Chances are, your high school experience did not involve discovering that you were the heir to a throne. But that doesn't really matter because despite being a princess, Mia (Anne Hathaway) remains a wallflower who is more likely to get sat on by a classmate than have any shred of confidence in who she is. Even when she does finally start to get attention from the boy she likes and the popular girls who ignored her, she finds that it's only because of her new status. These difficult reality checks are an unavoidable part of being a teen and Hathaway embodies that self-conscious spirit with tremendous accuracy.

Watch it on Disney+.

Walt Disney Co. / Courtesy Everett Collection

16.Dead Poets Society (1989)

Ethan Hawke sitting at his desk.

A group of prep schoolers find their lives forever altered when a new teacher shows up and encourages them to reexamine their lives and their place in the world. Are these boys a bit pretentious? Of course, but that's as much a part of the coming-of-age experience as uncontrollable hormones and acne. Who didn't have a phase in high school where you felt like nobody understood you except your moody playlists and annotated copy of Catcher in the Rye? Not to mention the all-too-common disconnect between teens and parents, which is shown with heartbreaking accuracy as Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) is unable to handle his dad's harsh rejection of his newly discovered love for acting.

Watch it on Amazon Prime.

Buena Vista Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

17.Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe eating lunch.

Okay, on the one hand, most teenagers do not go to a magical school where paintings talk and ghosts teach classes. But if you look past all of that, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is struggling with the same shit that the rest of us were at his age. And those struggles are at their most prominent in Order of the Phoenix. Awkward attempts at romance? An inability to express your feelings to the people around you? Rebelling against authority figures who are trying to keep you down? It's all here, along with the reminder that the only way any of us survived high school is good friends.

Watch it on Peacock.

Warner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection

18.Miss Stevens (2018)

Timothee Chalamet sitting at his desk.

To say being a teenager can be an emotional journey feels like an understatement and the complications that come with that are examined thoughtfully in this underrated dramedy. Billy (Timothee Chalamet) is a talented but troubled high schooler who feels drawn to his teacher during a weekend trip for a drama competition. To complicate matters further, Billy is reluctant to take medication for a behavioral disorder and also feels the pressure to perform well at the competition to help the school receive more funding for the arts. Before he became a household name, Chalamet proved his chops here, delivering a sensitive performance as a teen who is unsure of what he wants and his place in the world.

Watch it on Hulu.

The Orchard /Courtesy Everett Collection

19.The Spectacular Now (2013)

Miles Teller holding a red plastic cup.

Partying tends to be glorified in high school movies, as an epic house party allows teens to have the best night of their lives with the help of keg stands and beer pong. But we see the darker side of binge drinking in The Spectacular Now, with Sutter (Miles Teller) posing as the life of the party to hide his growing reliance on alcohol. The typical cliches of coming-of-age stories are refreshingly avoided here, as Sutter slowly realizes that his fear of the future has caused him to wallow in self-destruction and hedonism and that the only means to escape the path he's on is to take responsibility for his own life.

Rent it on Amazon Prime.

A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection

20.Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry (2021)

Maggie Baird and Billie Eilish speaking on the couch.

On the surface, the idea of a documentary about one of the biggest pop stars on planet Earth doesn't exactly sound relatable. But The World's a Little Blurry shows us the human side of Eilish in a way that modern music documentaries rarely do. Even as she is becoming a superstar, Eilish remains a remarkably grounded teen who still finds herself struggling to meet the ever-growing expectations that people have for her. The documentary also gives an honest look at Eilish's mental health struggles, seeing her try to battle through depression and body dysmorphia that have plagued her long before anyone knew her name.

Watch it on Apple TV+.

Apple TV+ / Courtesy Everett Collection
Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting