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The Undercurrents of Adolescence


Tracking the Evolution of Modern Adolescence and Delinquency
Through Classic Cinema

For years I have been using movies, or snippets of movies, to help explain adolescent behavior to parents and professionals. Sometimes I would remind people of a classic scene, like where John Bender in The Breakfast Club showed serious thinking orders by continuing to argue with VP Vernon, earning multiple detentions. Or what James Dean might really have been rebelling about in Rebel Without a Cause. With both teens and adults, I have found movies to include some extremely useful illustrations of the adolescent process.

Both youth and adults seemed to enjoy this teaching style. Teens could relate to their peers and issues within the movies, while grownups enjoyed learning adolescent information in something other than a parenting book. I felt like I was a walking, talking DVD commentary with each film or clip, providing useful information on adolescence rather than just the producer or director giving anecdotes about the film. When I initially tried to encourage people to do what I had done, I realized that it was difficult to get many of the movies easily or cheaply.

While researching my first book, From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age, I became fascinated in the historical and sociological changes of the past century or so that impacted teens and led to the US having more teen drama than any other country. The early 1900s caught my eye as a spike in literature from professionals at the time noted that the period of adolescence was becoming longer and more pronounced as we shifted from a rural country to an urban one during the Industrial Revolution.

That made sense as youth tried to navigate the new urban environment, tenement housing, status offenses aimed at controlling teen behavior like truancy and school, and so on. But then I also noted a spike in adolescent discontent during the 1950s documented by the appearance of dozens of books tracking teen behavior, and literally scores of movies about teens. Insatiably curious about WHY teens had become such an issue when for centuries they barely blipped the radar screen, I intensified my search with the expansion of the Internet and acquiring about 150 movies about or starring teens.

The Internet also allowed me to find obscure references, publications and books back to the 1850s that helped me track the growth of mandatory education, limited job options, arbitrary age benefits, government intrusion into parenting areas, reformatories, and the huge cultural shift that happened when in 1918, America officially became more urban than rural. After watching scores of teen movies, I started to see an evolution of teen misbehavior in the cinema, beginning in the late 1930s

Fast forward (pun intended) a few years, and suddenly Netflix, Blockbuster and others began shipping almost any DVD to your home. Then streaming of movies began and I realized my idea was now logistically possible. With a little effort and money, people could easily rent the movie I was talking about, or even buy used DVDs on eBay or Amazon Used Books for a couple dollars. I dusted off my ideas, pulled out my old notes, watched dozens of movies again, and decided to write a commentary to go with good teen-based movie as a platform for teaching about teen issues: drugs, gangs, parent problems, delinquency, and so on. Finally, I figured I would try to use a movie from each decade starting back in the 1930s and moving forward into the 2000s, using each of the final ten movies I chose to discuss a particular issue related to adolescence and help readers see what was going on culturally and socially for context.

What I had come to view as the growing-but-hidden “Undercurrents” of teen problems and cause of their discontent was nicely documented by Hollywood over the century. Whether it was art imitating life or vice versa, moviemakers either consciously or by chance stumbled upon major elements of the shifts in society teens were trying to navigate. I could not adhere to my hope of a movie from every decade for a couple reasons. Twice, in the 40s, preoccupied with WWII, and again in the 60s, perhaps caught up in the shift from Wally Cleaver to Vietnam and hippies, there just wasn’t a good movie to use. But I worked around that by adding another movie from before or after each decade t fill the gap, so to speak.

Here are the movies discussed in Undercurrents…” and a brief idea what the main topic is. Many of these movies were nominated or won Academy Awards, and some caused controversy for their time. Also in each chapter is a look at what was going on in America or abroad to help you get your bearings for where our kids were at in time. Below are links to the original movie trailers for each movie I put in a dedicated YouTube site for you:

Dead End

(1937) Dead End:

Delinquency was first seen on screen with the Dead End Kids, cute at first glance but on the cusp of crime with dubious gangster mentors like jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Missing parents. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actress.


(1937) Angels With Dirty Faces:

America wants more of the Dead End Kids. Further training from more refined gangsters. Good vs. evil. Notoriety vs nobleness. Truancy, stealing, poor adult modeling. The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (James Cagney), Best Director and Best Writing, Original Story.


(1938) Boys Town:

Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan and the first healthy residential setting for troubled youth. Why were there so many homeless kids in 1917 in Nebraska? Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for Best Actor, and the movie for Best Writing, Original Story. It was also nominated for Outstanding Production, Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay.


(1955) Blackboard Jungle:

The first of the “troubled youth/idealistic teacher” genre in a trade school for delinquents. Violence against teachers, a female teacher almost raped by her students. Teens not buying into the American dream for the first time. Nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing.


(1955) Rebel Without a Cause:

Teens as the cause of the problem, not the symptom. Poor fathering. Teens having experienced two wars (WWII and Korea) and not blindly accepting suburbia. Parents & teachers not understanding adolescent shifts recently. Peer pressure. Nominated for Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Sal Mineo), Best Supporting Actress (Natalie Wood), and Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. Numerous other association awards.


(1961) West Side Story:

The first time we see gangs in film. What caused the Jets/Sharks problem? WWII immigration of Puerto Ricans who displaced poor white tenement dwellers causes turf wars. Alcoholic parents, prostitution, drugs. Under the great music and dancing is a script of major inner city dysfunction. Swept the Oscars with wins for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Art Direction, Director, Art Director and cinematography, Film Editing and Original Score, Best Sound and Writing, (Adapted Screenplay)


(1973) American Graffiti:

“Where were you in ’62?” George Lucas’ look back at the early 60s and the end of the “Happy Days” teens of the 40s and 50s. The best movie in the post-Vietnam 70s was about the wholesome 60s. Stay home or go to college? Friends or future? Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, and Film Editing. Won Best Motion Picture (Musical) and Most promising Newcomer at the Golden Globes, and was also nominated for Best Director and Actor.


(1984) The Breakfast Club:

Cliques and peer groups. Isolation. All social groups have their own rules, expectations and problems. More parental lack of understanding. Schools not adapting to modern teens. Even good kids do drugs. In 2008 it was ranked #369 by Empire Magazine for their All-Time 500 Greatest Movies list. NY Times placed it in best 100 movies of all time, and Entertainment Weekly made it number 1 of the 50 Best High School Movies.


(1991) Boyz n the Hood:

Modern, violent gangs. Inner city gangs. Ethnic battles rather than battling other cultures. Ghettos. No hope, no escape. Teen death is common. Single parents. Lack of options. Nominated for Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay. Director John Singleton was the youngest director and first African American nominated for Best Director. Numerous other film and music awards.


(2003) Thirteen:

Young girls cutting themselves, cutting school, peer pressure, modern drugs, single parenting, promiscuity. A quick decline into self-destruction. Too cool to care. Addiction. Holly Hunter was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and she & Evan Rachel Wood were nominated for Golden Globes. Teen Nikki Reed, Wood’s co-star, co-wrote the script.

About the Author: Bret Stephenson

Bret Stephenson M.A. is the author of From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age and The Undercurrents of Adolescence: Tracking the Evolution of Modern Adolescence and Delinquency Through Classic Cinema. He has been a counselor of at-risk and high-risk adolescents for twenty-seven years. Bret has worked in residential treatment, clinical counseling agencies, group homes, private counseling, foster parent training, Independent Living Program, and has managed mentoring and tutoring programs.

He has been a presenter and speaker at numerous national and international conferences and workshops, including being the teen coordinator at the International Transpersonal Association's Youth Conferences in America and Ireland, the United Nations World Peace Festival, Institute of Noetic Sciences, the World Children’s Summit and private workshops in Switzerland. Bret has worked with teens from more than 100 countries.

Bret is owner of the Adolescent Mind, a teen consulting business. He has trained and designed programs for numerous organizations including the Girl Scouts of America, Adirondack Leadership Expeditions and CASA. Bret is currently interested in creating youth employment and youth entrepreneurial models. Since the translation of From Boys to Men into Czech, he has been visiting Prague yearly to provide youth training to professionals. Currently Bret is the lead consultant on a project in the San Francisco Bay Area to bring services and mentoring to female victims of trafficking.

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