- Some teen movies cover dark or sexual themes that can result in controversy or mixed reactions from viewers and critics.
- The film distributor of “Assassination Nation” said they knew the film was a “stick of dynamite.”
- The teen rom-com “Sierra Burgess Is A Loser” contained plotlines and jokes that offended many viewers.
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A lot of movies about teenagers tend to delve into the darker side of being a teen. And although some of these portrayals are met with positive reactions, some are surrounded by a bit of controversy or mixed responses from viewers and critics alike.
From “Heathers” to “Kids,” here are nine of the darkest or most controversial teen movies that have been released in the past few decades.
Editor’s note: This post deals with topics like sexual assault and violence that could be disturbing to some readers. It also contains spoilers for the films.
Many consider “Heathers” to be one of the darkest teen movies ever, but one of the proposed original endings of the film was considered to be even darker.
Teenage angst comes with a body count in the 1988 pitch-black comedy “Heathers.” Winona Ryder and Christian Slater star as a teenage couple who murder their popular classmates and cover it up by making their deaths look like suicides.
Many viewers already felt the ending was pretty bleak (Slater’s character blows himself up after his attempt to bomb the school was thwarted) but the original ending could’ve been different.
Writer Daniel Waters told Topless Robot that the original script called for Slater’s character to successfully blow up the high school and then the film would depict the deceased students at a prom in heaven.
Director Michael Lehmann told Broadly that studio executives refused to make the movie unless the ending was changed. He said executives worried that “blood would be on [their] hands” if anyone attempted to emulate the film’s content.
“I would have liked to have seen the original ending with its full irony out there, with a darker feel and a kind of odd, perverse sense of optimism,” he added.
The film inspired a 2018 TV series reboot that was also met with controversial responses. The series was “indefinitely delayed” because of its bleak depiction of school violence in light of real-life, violent school tragedies that occurred around the time of the series’ projected release. Despite the controversy and delay, the series was later released but re-cut, according to Entertainment Weekly.
“River’s Edge” was called “an exercise in despair” by film critic Roger Ebert.
The 1986 movie “River’s Edge” follows a group of teenagers who have mixed and delayed reactions when they discover a friend has murdered his girlfriend.
Loosely based on the real-life 1981 murder of a 14-year-old girl in Milpitas, California, some felt “River’s Edge” was quite dark and offered no explanations, only bleak depictions of detached and despondent teens.
Film critic Roger Ebert compared the movie to the classic crime films “The Onion Field” and “In Cold Blood,” but “River’s Edge” was polarising at the time of its release.
“Some executives from a small distribution company wouldn’t look at us [after a festival screening],” one of the movie’s producers Midge Sanford told Vice in 2017. “People either embraced it or were very put off by it. It didn’t get picked up right away.”
The film distributor of “Assassination Nation” said they knew the film was a “stick of dynamite.”
“Assassination Nation” stars Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, and Abra as a group of suburban high school girls who find their lives turned upside down when a hacker begins sharing their town’s secrets on the internet.
The 2018 film divided most critics, who either hailed it as “a vicious, cathartic horror film about misogyny” or wrote it off as “a badly bungled attempt at social commentary,” but the controversy surrounding the movie started before it was even released.
Christian Parkes, chief marketing officer of the film’s distributor, Neon, told Variety that the team was “unable to rent” billboard space to put their promotional poster on. The poster contained the words “A– A– In Nation.”
“Every single out of home vendor in Los Angeles passed,” Parkes told the publication. “They thought it was a political ad calling for violence or that it was just plain offensive because it had the word ‘a–‘ in it.”
Parkes also said the film’s online trailers were rejected by YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram because they contained images of guns pointed directly at the camera, as well as footage of women undressing.
He added: “We knew that this film was a stick of dynamite. We didn’t want to dress it up into something it isn’t. This isn’t a feel-good coming-of-age story. It’s an honest meditation on where we are as a culture.”
“Sierra Burgess Is A Loser” contained plotlines and jokes that offended many viewers.
The 2018 Netflix original teen romantic comedy “Sierra Burgess Is A Loser” faced a lot of backlash because of certain jokes, scenes, and plotlines that some viewers considered to be offensive or inappropriate. The film stars Shannon Purser as an unpopular high schooler who tricks her crush into falling for her while pretending to be the school’s queen bee.
The film was called out for its storyline in which the leading character pretends to be deaf.
“It is extremely easy to make jokes about marginalised/disfranchised groups,” model and activist Nyle DiMarco, who is deaf, wrote when he criticised the film on Twitter in 2018. “But that makes you a lazy writer. And honestly, you shouldn’t make these jokes AT ALL because our lives are on the line … Pretending to be deaf is NOT [OK.]”
In addition to calling out multiple homophobic and transphobic remarks and jokes made by characters in the film, viewers were vocal about the film’s worrisome attitude toward the concept of consent. Many accused the movie of romanticizing deception and catfishing, calling attention to the particular scene when Sierra tricks her crush into kissing her when he believes he’s about to kiss someone else.
Some critics said “Jawbreaker” was “grotesque” and “sleazy.”
There were plenty of teen movies released in 1999, but one that received a lot of spirited reactions is the dark comedy “Jawbreaker.”
The film stars Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart, and Julie Benz as three teenage mean girls who accidentally kill their best friend in birthday kidnapping prank gone horribly wrong.
In what’s been called the film’s most controversial scene, McGowan’s character has sex with a man (played by then-fiancé Marilyn Manson) while her friend’s corpse lay under the bed as part of a plan to frame him for the murder.
“The movie was originally rated NC-17,” the film’s writer and director Darren Stein told Broadly in 2016. “One of the cuts we had to make to get an R was to cut out the number of thrusts. It was shot in slow motion. It was really sleazy. I guess too sleazy for the MPAA.”
“Kids” shocked audiences with its graphic depiction of teenagers in New York City.
The 1995 movie was a graphic look at the lives of New York City teens and it featured a cast of mostly underaged, first-time actors.
During a 2015 screening of “Kids,” director Larry Clark said he wanted to make a film that had “never been made before,” reported The Hollywood Reporter. At the panel, he and the film’s lead actor Leo Fitzpatrick agreed the film could never be made today.
The film, which includes graphic depictions of underage sex and drug use, was fraught with controversy from the beginning.
In a 1995 review, The Washington Post critic Rita Kempley said the movie was “virtually child pornography disguised as a cautionary documentary” and critic Janet Maslin at the New York Times called the film “so bleak and legitimately shocking that it makes almost any other portrait of American adolescence look like the picture of Dorian Grey.”
“I knew that the movie was going to be pretty controversial and that we were tackling a lot of new stuff like underage sexuality,” the film’s cinematographer Eric Edwards told Dazed in 2015. “Larry’s whole position was that this is what kids were f—— doing, and parents don’t know this and they should know, so Larry was going to show – I don’t want to say the darker side, but just a more truthful side of what kids were about, what kids were doing. He just wanted to expose it and explore it in a raw way.”
Harvey Weinstein, former co-chairman of Miramax Films who later purchased and distributed the film, told the New York Times in 2015 that “Kids” was “the most controversial film he’d ever been associated with.” Weinstein, who is currently serving a 23-year sentence for rape and criminal sexual act, also told Rolling Stone in 2015 that the film was threatened not only “on a censorship level, we were threatened on a criminal level.”
Because Walt Disney Company, former parent company of Miramax Films, had a policy about not releasing NC-17 films, the former Miramax co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein decided to “circumvent” the family-oriented company by creating a new, independent company so they could sell and distribute the controversial film without creating a “potential problem” for Miramax.
Miramax also lobbied hard against the NC-17 rating that was handed down and ultimately released the film without a rating.
“We did try to get an R rating; in fact, when the R was rejected, I remembering going out to LA with [a lawyer],” former Miramax executive Eamonn Bowles told Rolling Stone in 2015. ” … There was no actual nudity in the film. But at every juncture, and I have to emphasise this strongly, every strategic thing we did we had vetted by a whole team of lawyers, including the preeminent child pornography lawyer in the country.”
“Ken Park” was called out for its graphic depictions of sexual assault and violence.
Director Larry Clark teamed up with writer Harmony Korine for the second time to create 2002’s “Ken Park,” a dark dive into the lives of skateboarding teens.
“Ken Park” begins with the titular character’s suicide and branches off into the stories of four of his friends in the weeks leading up to his death. The movie contains graphic depictions of violence and sexual assault, as well as multiple sex scenes featuring the movie’s young-looking (although not underaged) cast.
In 2003, The Guardian reported that police in Sydney raided a public screening and confiscated a copy of the film, which had been effectively banned in Australia in 2003 when the office of film and literature classification, responsible for the classification of films, refused to give the film a certificate. The reason given for this refusal was they determined the film depicted “child sex abuse, actual sex by people depicted as minors and sexualized violence.”
“It never got to the point where there was a censorship issue – the movie’s out all over the world,” Clark told the now-defunct site Nerve in 2006. “We’re still trying to get it out. Obviously it would be unrated and obviously, it wouldn’t be appropriate for young children. I’m not stupid, you know. I wouldn’t want my son, when he was 13, 14 years old, to have seen an autoerotic asphyxiation scene.”
Many critics felt “Welcome to the Dollhouse” was incredibly dark but still funny.
The 1995 movie “Welcome to the Dollhouse” depicts pretty intense scenes of on-screen bullying. Heather Matarazzo stars as Dawn Weiner, an awkward 11-year-old, who is ignored by her family and routinely mocked and threatened by her suburban New Jersey classmates.
The generally well-received dark comedy “does a superb job of showing how cruelty begets cruelty,” according to film critic John Petrakis in The Chicago Tribune.
The movie has been long-considered by some critics to be one of the darkest yet comical stories about the “unrelenting hell that is middle school” and the film’s director Todd Solondz, who is no stranger to the dark film genre, was called “America’s Darkest Filmmaker” by Vice in 2016.
Some called “Thirteen” a gritty portrait of young teenage girls and the film has received mixed reactions.
In 2003’s “Thirteen,” Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed star as a pair of 13-year-old girls who become fast friends. The girls are nearly inseparable as they test the waters of sex, drugs, and a little bit of shoplifting.
“Thirteen” was met with controversy when it was first released. In a 2016 interview with Refinery 29, Hardwicke said that she brought along juvenile court judges and directors of rehab centres to back her up when she was questioned by concerned parents at post-screening panels.
“Three mothers stand up: ‘My daughter would never do that,'” she recalled in the interview with Refinery29. “And then the judge would say, ‘Excuse me, this movie is mild. Not one person got pregnant. No one got in a car crash, no one [died by] suicide. Nobody died. I see much more elevated cases than this every single day.'”
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