At the heart of the great teen movies stands a girl turning into a woman

IN AN age where movie studios believe they have to lure young audiences away from competing mediums with expensive effects and cheap laughs, you could easily believe that most films are made for teenagers. But The Perks of Being a Wallflower, out yesterday, plays to the now rarely seen definition of a teen movie. It's a story of bitter alienation, heartfelt friendship and doomed desire. In other words, adolescence.

With its central trio of thrown-together misfits distanced from an uncomprehending world, Stephen Chbosky's movie recalls a pair of seminal teen titles: 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, the Nicholas Ray melodrama that established the psychological parameters of adolescent angst, and 1986's Pretty in Pink, the richly observed romantic tale penned by the late John Hughes that helped revive the genre.

To watch the three pictures together - 309 minutes spanning 57 years - is to understand how teen movies exist in the moment, again and again, so that life's high and lows painfully coexist.

But another way to consider them is via the young actress at the centre of each and the telling performances they give. Natalie Wood, Molly Ringwald and Emma Watson, to list them chronologically, haunt their respective car parks and high school hallways.

''That's a new disease,'' is the verdict of Wood's Judy upon first meeting James Dean's Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. And if that sounds disaffected and desperate, then so is Wood. The film is lauded for the roiling, self-lacerating vigour Dean brought to what became an iconic role. But his portrayal - marshalled by Ray, whose compositions press in on the young man - works only because of the foundation provided by Wood.

Judy's yearning begins with her father's approval: she wants him to rein her in. But in Pretty in Pink Ringwald's Andie is in charge of her dad (a gentle Harry Dean Stanton), trying to prop him up and push him forwards after his wife and her mother has abandoned them. By Perks the parents, in some instances, are considered extraneous. Watson's Sam and her flamboyantly rebellious step-brother, Patrick (Ezra Miller), seemingly answer to no one.

In Rebel Without a Cause, being a teenager is like waging a border war with the adult world. But by The Perks of Being a Wallflower it's an insular existence - the conflict is turned inwards. That's one of the reasons Wood is so expressive, with her vulnerability plainly close to the surface. By contrast Watson holds back, providing an initially charming but inscrutable attraction to her besotted new accomplice, Charlie (Logan Lerman).

Pretty in Pink is the movie most alert to the milieu the characters inhabit. It is one of the few class-conscious American studio films - early on, a student from a wealthy family ridicules the cost of Andie's thrift-store fashion while a teacher lectures about the New Deal - and Ringwald's performance is predicated on how you define yourself in a world where assumptions limit you.

Howard Deutch, the director chosen by Hughes for Pretty in Pink, doesn't compare to Nicholas Ray, but he knew to stay close to Ringwald and there are lingering reaction shots where remarkable flashes of hope and fear play across her face and colour surges into her pale cheeks. ''I want to hear you say it,'' Andie yells at her privileged, vacillating suitor, Andrew McCarthy's Blane, when he abandons her, and Ringwald makes 16 an age for confrontation.

Being a teenager is a mysterious illness in Rebel Without a Cause and a form of casual purgatory in Pretty in Pink, but in The Perks of Being a Wallflower it's codified and acknowledged. Watson doesn't portray a young woman preparing to join the world, but rather someone recovering from crushing earlier encounters with it. Sam's the teenager as trauma survivor and Watson's achievement lies in making such a formal role appear spontaneous.

Wood and Ringwald play characters starting out, while Watson's Sam is starting over. Each finds a way to communicate their struggle, and it comes without the allowances the movies make for teenage boys in coming-of-age stories.

''Nobody acts sincere,'' Wood's Judy laments. And while that's the hardest thing for a teenager, or a teenage character in a teen movie, to achieve, it's what ultimately unites these three performances.

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