My Top 10 Obscure But Awesome Teen Movies of the ’80s

Yesterday I took a big step forward for my nerdy little corner of the web here–I joined The League of Extraordinary Bloggers. You could call them the Super Friends of pop culture bloggers.

This week’s assignment (my first!) was to come up with a Top 10 Movies list using any of our own themes or qualifiers. I jumped right on it because I’ve been dying–DYING–to have an excuse to mention some of the obscure but awesome ’80s movies that I’m about to show you.

But first, let’s talk about what it is that makes these films “obscure.” When most people hear “80s teen films” they immediately think of John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off), popcorn flicks that star Michael J. Fox (Teen Wolf, Back to the Future) or raunchy sex comedies like Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High–all awesome films, by the way. But for this teen movies list I wanted to focus on those little known (and consequently underrated) hidden gems that I think deserve more attention.

So here they are, in no particular order:

‘Three O’clock High’ – 1987

Three O’Clock High is probably the most well-known movie on this list, but I think it’s just obscure enough to still qualify. It’s exactly the right amount of obscure, if you will.

In case it’s not glaringly obvious from the poster, it’s about a high school geek taking on a high school bully. In other words, it’s a film we’ve all seen many times before.

3 O'Clock High

The film takes place over a single day in the life of Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko), who offends transfer student and rumored psychopath Buddy Revell (played by douchebag extraordinaire Richard Tyson, whom you’ll probably recognize as the bad guy from Kindergarten Cop) when he accidentally touches him. Buddy tells Jerry he’s going to beat the shit out of him in the parking lot at–you guessed it–three o’clock. What follows is a series of desperate acts where Jerry tries to do everything and anything in his power to avoid the confrontation.

Why It’s Awesome:

In short, the way it’s filmed. There’s all kinds of unusual camera angles, odd close-ups, slow-motion sequences, and other zany camera effects you wouldn’t expect but which are all used to great effect to magnify the sense of dread that Jerry Mitchell feels. The Tangerine Dream soundtrack helps, too.

‘Just One of the Guys’ – 1985

This is one of those movies I’m always surprised when people tell me they’ve never heard of it, which is a thing that happens so often to me (probably because it’s my “go-to” ’80s movie discussion icebreaker) that I felt obligated to include it. Just One of the Guys stars the beautiful if androgynous Joyce Hyser as Terry Griffith, a popular high school student who wants more than anything to be a journalist. When her article for the school’s contest to win a summer internship at the local newspaper is rejected, she believes the school’s sexist teachers–who don’t take “pretty girls” seriously as writers–are to blame. Her solution? Transfer schools and dress up like a guy!

Just One of the Guys

With the coaching of her sex-obsessed younger brother (played by the adorable Billy Jayne) and a wad of rolled-up socks, Terry (who conveniently has a unisex name) gives herself a transsexual makeover that could give Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning role in Boys Don’t Cry a run for its money. Hilarity ensues as Terry ventures into forbidden places like the men’s bathroom, gets bullied by the local jocks, hit on by other girls, and befriends–and eventually falls in love–with shy music nerd Rick Morehouse (Clayton Rohner).

Why It’s Awesome:

The big reveal scene at the prom. It’s the best “TITS OR GTFO” moment ever in a movie, and Rick’s reactionary quote is one of my all-time favorites. Plus, for you Karate Kid fans, there’s William Zabka (Johnny of the Cobra Kai!) doing his trademark tough-guy douchebag thing.

‘Old Enough’ – 1984

Old Enough is your typical “two friends from opposite walks of life” coming of age story (think Little Darlings) but has enough charm and realistic innocence to make it a standout; something that’s largely due to the chemistry between the two leads. Sarah Boyd stars as the wealthy but naive Lonnie who meets scrappy but streetwise Karen (Rainbow Harvest, whose parents I suspect must have been hippies) one summer day on the streets near her home in New York City. There’s an almost immediate infatuation between the two girls, who quickly become unlikely friends.

Old Enough

Lonnie ditches summer camp to hang out with Karen, who teaches her about things like boys, make-up and shoplifting, and in return Lonnie tries to impress her own morals and upbringing. The whole film only takes place over a couple of days, but in that time each girl does quite a bit of growing up and the experience feels genuine. Along the way they have a few misadventures, disagreements, awkward social situations, and laughs. Nothing really earth-shattering ever happens; the film is simply a chronicle of a few days in these two young girl’s lives.

Have you ever gone away somewhere and met someone you felt you really connected with only to never hear from them again–but you’ll always look back and remember them fondly? That’s kind of what Old Enough is like. If you don’t like slowly-paced character studies, steer clear of this one. But if you give it a chance, you just might find yourself becoming mesmerized by the acting and scenery as I did.

Why It’s Awesome:

Old Enough is filmed entirely on location in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, so you’re treated to a great summertime walking tour of this part of the city. I love, love, love movies that take place in New York City, especially movies that take place in the eighties in New York City (blame my Ninja Turtles obsession if you must). Also, you get to see Alyssa Milano in her first movie as an adorable eight year old. She plays Lonnie’s little sister and lends some much-needed cuteness and light comic relief, as some of the scenes get pretty angsty. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the seriously synth-tastic score!

‘White Water Summer’ – 1987

Speaking of summer camp and coming of age stories, White Water Summer is another teen movie you should know about if you enjoy that sort of thing. It stars Kevin Bacon as Vic, a rather creepy wilderness guide hired by the wealthy parents of a young, introverted city boy named Alan (Goonies-era Sean Astin!) to accompany him and and three other boys on their first wilderness experience. Vic is a skilled “survivor man” who’s good at what he does, but has something of a pushy camp counselor/big brother complex that he takes to extremes. He wants to make men out of his sheltered, socially awkward recruits but his ego and over-abuse of authority turns what should be a fun hiking trip into their worst nightmare.

White Water Summer

Why It’s Awesome:

It’s Kevin Fucking Bacon.  Even better, it’s creepy Kevin Bacon which is exactly how I like my Bacon. It also has a great soundtrack featuring music from Cutting Crew, Bruce Hornsby, The Cult and Journey that evokes exactly the right feeling of “Hey, look at us young, virile bunch of guys hiking around in the woods and doing cool outdoorsy stuff in the summer of ’87!” feeling you’d expect from a film like this. If you’re a nature enthusiast you’ll also appreciate the rugged scenery, as much of it was actually filmed in New Zealand (surprise!).

‘Nice Girls Don’t Explode’ – 1987

Wow… Where do I even start with this one? I’m going to go out on a limb and estimate that at least 95% of you reading this have never heard of Nice Girls Don’t Explode. I know you’re already thinking “Holy crap that’s an awesome movie title!” and you’re right. The premise is even more awesome: April Flowers (great name, huh?) is a teenage girl with a very “special problem.” That is, when April gets intimate with men she explodes!

Except not really. You see, April’s mother, who loves her little girl more than anything and doesn’t want her to be swept away by some man, has convinced April from the time she was a child that her hormones are all out of whack. She tells April she’s a “fire girl,” whose hormones can ignite fires when aroused and therefore she’ll never be able to get too close to men. How does she manage to convince April of something so ridiculous? By igniting the fires herself, of course.

Nice Girls Don't Explode

April’s mom isn’t exactly what you’d call normal, either. She has abandonment issues and something of a June Cleaver complex, spending her days meticulously keeping house and baking oatmeal cookies. Oh yeah, and crafting bombs in her kitchen! She stalks April on her dates and uses a remote control to set off fires whenever things get too steamy, usually to the effect of April never hearing from her dates again. But things begin to change when Andy, April’s childhood sweetheart, comes back into her life.

Why It’s Awesome:

To really appreciate this movie, you’ll need to keep your expectations in check because I must warn you that it is extremely low budget. That being said, there is still plenty of awesome here. For one thing it stars Michelle Meyrink (whom you might remember having a nerd crush on in Real Genius) as April; she’s an actress I always wished did more things. “Mom” (you gotta love that she has no other name beyond that) is played by an extremely coy Barbara Harris who is so good at being such a smug bitch and at the same time you can’t help but love her. But the best part has to be Wallace Shawn (“Inconceivable!”), the quirky, socially awkward pyromaniac whom I guess you could describe as April’s mom’s bomb dealer. His scenes are hilarious and completely steal the movie.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that the set design and decoration for this movie (if you’re the type who appreciates such things) is fantastic. I love the little details like the cookie magnets on Mom’s fridge, her mid-80s era orange Tupperware, and the ballerina dolls in April’s bedroom.  The film is like a perfect time capsule of 1980s suburbia, and you can tell they they did the best they could with it.

‘The Last American Virgin’ – 1982

Attention ’80s music fans: please direct your eyes to the below poster for  all the reasons you need to see The Last American Virgin:

The Last American Virgin

For the rest of you who came for the tits and cheeseball comedy, The Last American Virgin is like an early American Pie–it’s about a couple of horny high school guys who just want to get laid.  Gary and his buddies Ricky and David are looking for love in all the wrong places until Gary meets a beautiful new student named Karen (Diane Franklin, who despite having an overgrown almost-unibrow was blessed with incredibly alluring eyes–JUST LOOK AT THEM!–and manages to somehow be insanely attractive) who isn’t as innocent as she comes off.

Gary soon finds himself competing against his best friend in a love triangle for Karen’s affection, leading to some of the most angsty teen melodrama (you know, the good stuff) you’ll find in a movie that’s supposed to be a raunchy ’80s teen comedy. What sets TLAV apart, though, is that it has a completely unexpected “WTF!?” ending that will ruin your day. It’s like the filmmakers were all, “Oh, you were expecting a happy ending? Well fuck you.”

Why It’s Awesome:

Didn’t I just tell you?

‘A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon’ – 1988

Unless you’re a die-hard River Phoenix fan, A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon probably won’t be familiar to you. (By the way, if you do describe yourself as a “die-hard River Phoenix fan,” say hello or something because I need to know you). Like I alluded to in my Last American Virgin synopsis above, Jimmy Reardon is a film that suffers from being marketed as something different than what it actually is. I mean, just look how stupid happy everyone appears to be on this poster:

A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon

The actual movie is kind of a downer in the same way that What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is. It’s a mature coming of age film, not the shiny, happy but mindless teen film the packaging leads you to believe. There’s quirky characters and funny dialogue but everyone’s kind of an asshole with depressing life problems.

Jimmy is a rather jaded young man who’s trying to figure his life out while he smokes and sexes his way through it. He’s actually kind of a jerk, but he writes poetry (see? he’s sensitive!) and doesn’t want to end up like his dad. The movie chronicles a night (and unfortunate accident) that will become a major turning point in his life as he tries to find love and make peace with his father.

Why It’s Awesome:

How many directors do you know who wrote a semi-autobiographical novel and then directed a movie version? William Reichert did.   He made this movie at the height of River Phoenix’s career and although it wasn’t a very popular or successful film (for many reasons beyond the director’s control) it’s an impressive demonstration of his acting range and ability. Plus, you get to see two incredibly attractive young people, Ione Skye and River Phoenix, getting it on. So there’s that…

‘Seven Minutes in Heaven’ – 1985

If you think Labyrinth was the only awesome film Jennifer Connelly made in the ’80s, you probably haven’t seen Seven Minutes in Heaven (I’d also point you toward Argento’s horror film Phenomena from the same year).

Seven Minutes in Heaven

Jennifer Connelly stars as Natalie, a mature and studious teen girl whose father is away for a few weeks on a business trip. Her good friend Jeff (Byron Thames), who’s kind of a dork, talks her into letting him move in because his home life sucks. Meanwhile, Natalie’s other good friend Polly (played by Maddie Corman) is obsessed with boys and throws herself at a famous baseball player. You might think this all sounds like a wild house party just waiting to happen, but you’d be wrong. Rather, the film is an examination of the types of situations young people encounter on their way to becoming adults. The performances are outstanding and surprisingly honest.

(Sidebar: What’s with all these idiotic parents in ’80s movies leaving their teen kids home alone for weeks at a time? I’m looking at you Risky Business and Just One of the Guys! I’m not complaining, though, because it makes for interesting plots.)

Why It’s Awesome:

Seven Minutes in Heaven is a great little slice of ’80s teen dramedy that explores the friendship between three high schoolers and their blossoming sexuality. If you love movies like Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, this is right up there with them.

‘For Keeps’ – 1988

An ’80s teen film starring Molly Ringwald that isn’t directed by John Hughes or called Fresh Horses? DO GO ON!

For Keeps is the one about high school pregnancy where she gets knocked up by her boyfriend and they have to decide what to do about the baby. It’s a film that tackles young love on the rocks, a promised career cut short, abortion, adoption, postpartum depression, family drama, and all manner of other unpleasant things that go along with losing your childhood too soon.

For Keeps

Why It’s Awesome:

Because it’s a much more accurate and honest depiction of the realities of teen pregnancy versus films like Juno where wealthy young couples magically materialize to adopt your baby and all is forgiven by being a cute, quirky hipster. And Molly Ringwald’s performance is phenomenal.

‘Teen Witch’ – 1989

Teen Witch is one of those movies you watch because it’s SO AWESOMELY BAD that it’s somehow good.

As far as ’80s movies go, Teen Witch arrived at the tail end of the decade after all the good teen movies had come and gone, the hungover house party guests were leaving, and the more serious era of the early ’90s were upon us.  It’s as if the ’80s were desperately clinging to whatever was left and hurled themselves directly at this movie. Teen Witch is an ’80s fantasy movie that has the hair, the fashion, the requisite flimsy premise, and a bunch of terrible, terrible, pop songs you should never listen to outside of watching this movie.

And it has this God-awful poster and tagline, too:

Teen Witch

Louise Miller (Robin Lively–hey, remember her from Karate Kid 3?) is a shy, nerdy high school girl who learns one day that she’s descended from the witches of Salem and has inherited magical powers…which disappointingly only seem to work when she’s wearing her magical amulet. With the help of an experienced witch/fortune teller Madame Serena (Zelda Rubinstein), she uses her powers to make herself more popular and win the heart of the high school football captain. But her upgraded social status almost comes at the price of her best friend Polly’s friendship, and Louise begins to question if its right to cheat her way to popularity.

Why It’s Awesome:

Because it has outrageously cheesy song & dance numbers like this, this, and this. And who doesn’t love Zelda “Come into the light Carol Ann!” Rubinstein? Nobody, that’s who.

Final Thoughts

Yes, I realize some of these movies are way more obscure than others, but that’s okay. If this list of ’80s teen films has introduced you to at least one movie you’ve never heard of that looks even mildly awesome, I will consider my mission accomplished!

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