The Best Summer Youth Movies by Decade

Written by Film

Ah, summer. It was the most important season in our adolescent lives. These days, summer to me is exciting because it means the school buses won’t affect my morning commute to work.

But when I was younger, summer was seemingly the most important time of the year. It was a time where I could cut loose and have more control in my life. I could hang out with friends. I could meet new people. I secretly hoped I’d find a romantic partner at a party somewhere. Of course, the reality was never as cool as it seemed in my head. But there were moments where I found myself joyriding late at night with some friends around town and I realized why our society has glamorized an entire season.

There are a few movies that capture that youthful tone and spirit that summer is shorthand for in our culture. Some of them don’t even take place in summer, but they all focus the importance of youthful shenanigans that played important parts in everyone’s lives.

But there are even differences between how movies of different eras view summer. Each character wants the same abstract thing, but they go about it in completely different ways. Depending on the decade, the teenaged/20 something characters are either treated as dimwits or as leading the life everyone wished they could have led in high school. It shows how young people have been viewed by filmmakers and studio heads. At first, they were scary, but slowly they came to be viewed as something warm and familiar.

With that in mind, let’s explore the films that capture the spirit of youth that summer has come to mean for everyone.

1960s: A Hard Day’s Night During the 1950s, teenagers were portrayed in two ways. Either the teens would be victims of atomic monsters or they were the villains to be feared by polite society. The few that didn’t treat their teen characters like props, like Rebel Without a Cause, were much darker than even the films they make now. Any movie set during the summer was usually a corny “beach party” movie that today play like a 50-year-old marketing executive trying to write copy for a YouTube celebrity. There was nothing that really captured any carefree spirit of teenagers.

A Hard Day’s Night officially changed all of that. It didn’t treat kids as threats and didn’t associate their activity with delinquency. Young people, and not their parents, were the driving force behind popular culture.

The opening scenes on the train establish this, as a WWII veteran chastises the quartet for playing the radio too loud. He tries to pull the “I fought for you,” card, only to be asked if he regrets it. And the nose-thumbing just keeps building from there as The Beatles give the most sarcastic answers they can during interviews and play pranks on their suffering manager.

But the most revolutionary scenes in the film were the scenes without the witty dialogue. The best moments are the ones that show The Beatles just hanging out and running around in a field.  

Those moments are the moments that really capture the free spirit of youth culture that still runs wild, especially during the summer. I know I remember days exactly like that, even if “Can’t Buy Me Love” wasn’t playing in the background.

1970s: Rock and Roll High School – I almost picked Saturday Night Fever to represent the 1970s, but then I realized how the ending ultimately shows that youthful dreams are useless – it’s Tony vs the city, but the city wins – and that the entire disco phenomenon it created was based on a lie. Then I almost picked Meatballs, but the only reason that movie is any good is due to Bill Murray’s performance. Then I thought about The Bad News Bears, but that’s more a film about the coach than the kids.

Then I remembered that not every film on this list must be set during summer. Indeed, some of the most satisfying moments of anyone’s youth is when they manage to rebel against authority – and succeed.

Then I remembered the Roger Corman produced film Rock and Roll High School. It starts PJ Soles as Riff, a young woman seemingly obsessed with giving The Ramones her song lyrics and fighting her school’s new principal. The film literally ends with her hanging out with the Ramones at Vince Lombardi High and utterly demolishing the place.

Riff is pure teenaged id. Her obsession with the Ramones isn’t just the obsession of someone interested in a band. It’s the entire driving force behind her existence. So long as The Ramones exist, she can exist in a state of bliss.

Plus, there are a bunch of scenes that will remind anyone of their youth, be it the scenes where Riff waits overnight for concert tickets, calls in a radio station to win concerts, or go with their boyfriend or girlfriend at make out point. The film also invents its own world around these kids. An impossibly young Clint Howard maintains a secret office on campus where he gives students test answers and tries to help them find dates. He even shows up at make out point to help teach couples how to unfasten a bra, in a conversation that has been played out countless times.

Rock and Roll High School took the 1950s views of adolescence and didn’t try to destroy it. Every teenager is obsessed with their favorite music and every one of them secretly dreams of driving the principal to a literal nuthouse and destroying their school. But that’s just a part of growing up.  

1980s: Ferris Bueller’s Day OffBy the 1980s, no one was afraid of teenagers anymore. If anything, people were increasingly desperate to impress them. A large part of this has to do with the rise of MTV but even more of it has to do with the rise of John Hughes.

Hughes was a writer who treated teenagers seriously. In retrospect, the things you were obsessed over as a teenager were banal, trivial, and ultimately unimportant. But the desire and pain you felt around those obsessions were very real. This was an important time in everyone’s life and Hughes was the first person besides JD Salinger to not treat it like a joke.

What does that have to do with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? The movie works on two levels. On one hand, it works in the same way that the counterculture films of the past worked. Ferris lives to cause chaos in authorities’ lives. There is nothing he can’t do, be it fake an illness, change his permanent record, or sneak his way into the finest restaurant in town for lunch.

And then there’s his friend Cameron. He’s stuck in a state of permanent anxiety, one that makes him afraid to try anything lest he incur the wrath of his abusive parents. Ferris is exactly the person Cameron wants to be. But even after careful planning, Cameron still is unsatisfied with what he’s done on his day off. He’s not satisfied until he realizes that he can face the consequences of his actions, no matter how scared he is.

Ferris’ day off contains all the youthful shenanigans one would expect in a film like this – trips to a baseball game, a parade, and hanging out with a hot girlfriend. But Cameron is more reflective of the audience. He is faced with amazing experiences but learns to grow up and deal with the consequences of his actions. It’s something that everyone can relate to, even if their coming of age moment doesn’t involve destroying a classic car.

1990s: The Sandlot I was having lunch with a friend one day and I told him I was working on this article about summer movies.

“Oh,” he replied, “You mean like The Sandlot?”

And he was exactly right.

During the 1990s, society was obsessed with youth. But while the young Gen Xers of the early 90s kicked off the independent film boom, other filmmakers were more obsessed with their own youth in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s why Forrest Gump did as well as it did. Aging Boomers wanted a nostalgia kick.

But The Sandlot is different. It was supposed to be another boomer nostalgia film, but they reacted to it with a shrug and a pat on the head. It was the new generation that embraced the story of an endless baseball game and the fight against The Beast really clicked with ‘90s kids to the point that “You’re Killing Me Smalls!” still appears on t-shirts 26 years later.

Why?

Part of it is because all the things that make up the film are timeless. It’s a relatable story about a nerdy kid who desperately wants to fit in with the cool people who do nothing all summer but play baseball. The film nominally takes place in the early 1960s, but nothing about the setting establishes that. As far as the characters are concerned, their world is built on the same things that every kid’s world is built on – leisure, urban legends, girls, and above all friends.

Each of the kids have their own unique personality but are still reminiscent of people everyone knew growing up. There’s the cool guy who still makes time for the awkward nerds, there’s the kid who knows everything that happened in the neighborhood, and there’s even a kid whose appearance perfectly matches his larger than life persona.

But more than that, the film represents another way that the portrayal of youth changed in movies. Whereas kids before were interested in smacking down barriers and disregarding rules to the detriment of everyone around them, The Sandlot depicts these actions as just another part of growing up. The filmmakers even show the consequences of what happens when the desire to rebellion gets a little too out of control. But it was still possible for some of the most important moments in people’s lives to happen organically around friends during a time when they didn’t have adults around.  

2000s: SuperbadSuperbad was released after several years of bad gross out comedies centered around teenagers. American Pie had set a template for sweeter teen movies about relationships and love. But everyone only remembered the bits where Jim humps a pie or where he tricks a woman to go in his bedroom so he can record her naked body without her permission. And that’s what they sought to recreate in their films.

It took Judd Apatow to remind everyone that there were human beings behind the semen eating jokes. In that way, he was reminiscent of John Hughes and treated all his characters with respect and acknowledge the obsessions that teenagers, young adults, and middle-aged people hold onto.

His first big hit was about a middle-aged man, but two years later he helped produce Superbad, a film about teenagers who have just graduated high school. They’re obsessed with getting underaged kids alcohol for a party, being a “mistake” women make when they make out with them, and drawing phalluses.

The film hits all the notes of a youth’s summer dream – parties, fake IDs, winning more popularity, and sex – but it presents them in a completely different way. The sexual encounters are awkward and unfulfilling (one character accidentally head buts his date) the fake IDs don’t work. They’re more a symbol for the aging police officers who encounter McLovin to try to recapture their own youth.

That makes Superbad one of the most honest films on the list. Everything seems to go wrong for the characters, but they still have a good time doing it. And yes, they still will remember this party for the rest of their lives.

2010s: Moonrise KingdomAnd finally, we come to Moonrise Kingdom, a movie that combines every element present in the other films. It’s simultaneously nostalgic but treats young love as something to be feared. It takes place in the 1960s but treats all the child characters as adults in a way that movies didn’t treat them until much later.

But most importantly, it’s centered around a summer camp. It’s a camp that everyone recognizes even if they never went to camp. The Khaki Scouts are all trying to build on their boyish obsessions. But one unpopular boy, Sam, runs away so he can spend the time with his new girlfriend Suzy.

They basically spend the time re-enacting the romantic moments they’ve read about in stories. It’s them pretending to be adults and trying to fulfill the fantasy they have over what a relationship should be like. Which, ironically, is exactly what filmmakers are doing whenever they make a film about youth.

Wes Anderson has spent almost 25 years cultivating his own unique style. But it’s a style indebted to the past, which is fully on display in Moonrise Kingdom. It runs the gambit of hating youth to attempting to understanding them to celebrating them. At the start of the film, the Khaki Scout master treats his students as constantly in the process of harming themselves. Then, he tries to find the unpopular Sam and show him the error of his ways. But later everyone has a change of heart and wants to help Sam and Suzy end up together.

It’s the entire history of the teen/youth film of the 20th century. And the fact it’s centered around a summer camp emphasizes how connected summer will always be to the youth culture. As we move into a new decade, I don’t think that’s likely to change.