Thursday, August 18, 2011

Teen Movie Tropes

Back when I was writing the Magic Tween TV Formula, Lil' Lilith's help was invaluable. (It's nice having your very own tween correspondent right at home.)

In case you don't remember the formula, it went a little something like this: 
Marketable Lead + Wacky Ensemble + Normal Stuff + Crazy Twist + Hilarious Hijinks + Surprise Guest Stars = Huge Hit
Lil' Lilith was home sick the other day so we spent way too many hours on the couch watching way too many tween/teen movies. We realized that these movies often follow a similar formula... they are almost all filled with a ton of tropes or devices/conventions that pop up in most of these films. When it comes to teen movies, these tropes often fall into the realm of cliche. So she has agreed to help co-write a blog entry cataloging some of the ever-popular tropes in teen (and tween) movies today. (Consider this half a guest blog.)
  • The Morality Tale - A story in which the main characters "learn a very important lesson" whether it's to be happy the way you are, it's okay to try new things, don't be so selfish, don't judge a book by its cover, don't forget who your real friends are, etc. 
Picture This!Examples: Bring It On Again (a cheerleader quits the squad rather than leave her friends behind); Freaky Friday (a mother and daughter learn to understand each other after magically trading places); High School Musical 2 (a teenage boy gets caught up in the "perks" of his new country club job and temporarily forgets about his friends); Lemonade Mouth (a new girl goes against her principal to fight for what's right); Picture This! (a girl with an overprotective father realizes that he acts that way because he loves her); Sky High (a teen superhero leaves his "sidekick" friends behind after getting his powers).
  • The Karmic Reward - An unpopular kid becomes popular (or beautiful, wealthy, famous, whatever) seemingly as a reward for their past struggles. If this happens without consequence it's a true reward, if it comes with a "life lesson" then it's a Morality Tale.
Lemonade MouthExamples: A Cinderella Story (an unpopular girl finds her father's will that her evil stepmother had hidden from her); Center Stage (a struggling dancer shines as the star of a modern ballet); Center Stage: Turn It Up (a dancer who was rejected from a prestigious ballet school wins an important role); Lemonade Mouth (a group of underdogs form a band that becomes extremely popular); Fred: The Movie (a weird, social outcast becomes popular after video-taping a fake party); Sleepover (a group of unpopular girls beat the popular girls in a scavenger hunt); Sydney White (the leader of a group of dorks beats a sorority girl for school president).
    Beastly
  • The Karmic Revenge - A popular kid becomes unpopular (or ugly, poor, etc.) as punishment for their past crappy behavior (often happens simultaneously as The Karmic Reward). If they redeem themselves, it's a Morality Tale.
Examples: A Cinderella Story (the wicked stepmother and stepsisters get their's in the end); Beastly (an attractive teen loses his good looks due to a curse); Sydney White (a wicked sorority girl has her world turned upside down by newcomer Sydney White).
  • Be Careful What You Wish For - (A type of Morality Tale). Sometimes what you think you want, isn't all it's cracked up to be.  This can be popularity, fame, a date with your super hot crush, etc. This often starts out with us thinking it's a Karmic Reward but then changes.
Wizards of Waverly Place: The MovieExamples: 13 Going On 30 (a 13-year-old wishes to be 30, but then doesn't like her 30-year-old self); 16 Wishes (a girl wishes to be treated like an adult, a wish that backfires); Minutemen (three boys travel back in time, but their time machine creates a black hole); Read It and Weep (a girl becomes a famous author but fame isn't all she thought it would be); Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie (a teenage wizard accidentally casts a spell that her parents never met).

  • Riches to Rags - (A type of Morality Tale) - Someone rich, powerful, famous, popular, etc. loses it all and has to face life as a "normal" person. They learn to be less greedy/selfish/spoiled or they learn to give back. Usually after this change of heart they are rewarded with the return of their previous fame/fortune (unless it's a case of Karmic Revenge, in which they're stuck to suffer forever). 
Sharpay's Fabulous AdventureExample: Camp Rock (a spoiled teen idol must rough it at a summer camp); Cow Belles (spoiled sisters must work at their father's dairy); Just My Luck (a very lucky woman is struck with some bad luck); Maid to Order (a spoiled girl's fairy godmother takes away her money); Material Girls (spoiled sisters must cope when their assets are frozen); Princess Protection Program (a princess must hide out in a small town); Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure (Sharpay must make it in the big city on her own); Uptown Girls (a spoiled heiress loses all her money and must get a job as a nanny).


  • It's Okay To Be Who You Are - (A type of Morality Tale). The main character realizes that they didn't have to change themselves to be happy/liked. They should've just had some more self-esteem. In these, the unpopular kid usually wins the love and affection of a popular kid who liked them for who they really are. Either that or they discover that they were wasting their time crushing on the popular guy when they should've been with their best friend all along. 
SleepoverExamples: 13 Going On 30 (a girl longs to be popular, but realizes that she was better off with her "loser" best friend); Camp Rock (a girl lies that her parents are wealthy in order to fit in); Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (a girl tells far-fetched lies about her life); Hatching Pete (a shy guy secretly acts as the school mascot); Lemonade Mouth (a group of misfits form a band); Picture This! (an unpopular girl wins the heart of her popular crush); Sixteen Candles (an unpopular girl wins the heart of her popular crush); Sleepover (an unpopular girl wins the heart of her popular crush).
    16 Wishes
  • Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover - (A type of Morality Tale, the counterpart to It's Okay To Be Who You Are). That dorky/awkward/unpopular kid that you never looked twice at, is actually a really cool or is a good person. That self-centered popular quarterback actually has a heart of gold and just gives into peer pressure. That beautiful, perfect cheerleader you have a crush on is actually a vapid, shallow bitch. Whatever the case, the "lesson" is that you should get to know someone before you decide what they're all about. 

Examples: 16 Wishes (a girl realizes that her biggest rival acts the way she does only because she stole her best friend years ago); Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam (a fancy new camp competes with Camp Rock, but turns out not to be as great as it seems); High School Musical (members of various cliques secretly want to do other things).
  • It's Okay To Try New Things - (Often paired with It's Okay To Be Who You Are and/or Don't Judge A Book By Its Cover). Maybe you're a jock who really wants to sing and dance! Maybe you're a cheerleader who secretly writes poetry. Whatever the case, you're afraid of branching out for fear of what your friends might say or for fear of failing. The "lesson" in this Morality Tale, is go for it!
High School Musical (Encore Edition)Examples: Ella Enchanted (an elf wants to abolish the law that all elves must be performers and become a lawyer). High School Musical (basketball player Troy and smart-girl Gabriella audition for the school musical); Jump In! (a boxer joins a double-dutch jump rope team); Lemonade Mouth (a shy outcast becomes the lead singer for a new band); Spectacular! (a rock singer joins a show choir); Step Up (a street dancer tries to join a prestigious arts school).


  • You Should've Been With Your Best Friend All Along - So maybe you had a crush on the hot, popular jock/cheerleader... but they keep turning you down. Or maybe you get who you wanted and realize they were kind of a jerk. There's someone who was perfect for you all along and secretly in love with you the whole time... you just never noticed. It's your best friend! (This trope is so popular in movies, there was even a Hannah Montana song about it.)
Some Kind of Wonderful (Special Collector's Edition)Examples: 13 Going On 30 (a 13-year-old girl wakes up at age 30 and discovers that her best friend is marrying someone else); Pretty In Pink (a girl dates a rich guy, despite the fact that her best friend loves her); Princess Protection Program (the main character chooses her best friend who always loved her, over her crush); Read It and Weep (the main character chooses her best friend who always loved her, over her crush); She's The Man (a girl disguised as her own twin brother falls in love with her male roommate); Sky High (a teen superhero's best friend was the right girl for him all along); Some Kind of Wonderful (an artist longs for a popular girl, but his tomboy best friend secretly loves him).
  • When Your Idols Let You Down - (A variation of Don't Judge A Book By Its Cover). That dreamy rockstar or actor you had a huge crush on or wished was your best friend? They're actually a fraud... or they're a selfish jerk. The lesson to this Morality Tale is that just because someone is famous, doesn't mean they're a good person. Sometimes they redeem themselves, sometimes they don't. It depends on which movie you're watching... 

Center Stage (Special Edition)Examples: Camp Rock (a self-centered teen idol becomes friends with a girl at a music camp); Center Stage (a ballet student falls for the womanizing star of the ballet company); Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (a girl meets her favorite musician but he turns out to be a drunk); Now You See It (a master magician turns out to be a sorcerer trying to steal a young magician's powers); Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure (Sharpay works for a famous actress who is just using her); Starstruck (a girl is stuck spending the day with a shallow, spoiled singer); Taking 5 (two girls kidnap the members of their favorite boy band).
  • Your Crush is Really a Jerk - (Another varition of Don't Judge A Book By Its Cover). The same as When Your Idols Let You Down, only the object of your affection isn't famous. This can be an actual crush or a boyfriend or girlfriend that wasn't who you thought they were. 
Sky High (Widescreen Edition)Examples: 10 Things I Hate About You (a girl realizes the popular guy she's trying to date is actually a jerk); Bring It On (a cheerleader's boyfriend is actually a jerk); Princess Protection Program (a girl realizes her long-time crush is a jerk); Halloweentown II: Kalabar's Revenge (a teenage witch discovers that her new cute neighbor is really the son of the evil Kalabar); Sky High (a teen superhero dates a popular girl who turns out to be a super villain); Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (Wendy realizes that her boyfriend is a self-centered jerk).
    10 Things I Hate About You
  • The Jerk Ends Up As Your Crush - The opposite of Your Crush is Really a Jerk, this is a classic example of Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover. The stuck-up quarterback or loner bad boy, is actually an awesome person who you ultimately fall for in the end. (A variation of this is the I Love You/I Hate You trope.)
Examples: 10 Things I Hate About You (a bad boy convinces a girl to go out with him); A Cinderella Story (the popular football star ends up being a good guy who is just afraid); Spectacular! (a teen gives up his chance at a record deal to help his show choir); Sydney White (Sydney mistakenly thinks that her fraternity boyfriend double crossed her).
    Hatching Pete Movie Poster (11 x 17 Inches - 28cm x 44cm) (2009) Style A -(Jason Dolley)(Mitchel Musso)(Tiffany Thornton)(Josie Loren)(Sean O'Bryan)
  • A Case of Mistaken Identity - When there's a crazy, confusing mix-up in which someone is believed to be someone they aren't. This can be intentional or accidental spell. Hijinks almost always ensue.
Examples: A Cinderella Story (a boy and girl don't realize the identities of their online penpals); The Best Player (a video game player pretends to be the blind date of his biggest competitor's mother); Freaky Friday (a mother and daughter mysteriously switch bodies); Hatching Pete (a teenage boy takes his friend's place at the school mascot); Princess Protection Program (the main character disguises herself as the princess she is trying to protect).
  • Disguised In Drag - One of the more ridiculous examples of A Case of Mistaken Identity, someone dresses up as a member of the opposite gender as a disguise (often to infiltrate some gendered-activity, like a slumber party or a sorority). Surprisingly, no one ever realizes that they are obviously in drag, even when their real self shows up later on in the movie.
She's the Man (Widescreen Edition)Examples: Just One of the Guys (a girl enrolls at a new high school as a boy to win a journalism contest); Ladybugs (a boy poses as a girl in order to help a losing soccer team improve); Motorcrossed (a girl poses as her brother in a motorcross race after he breaks his leg); She's The Man (a girl disguises herself as her own twin brother so she can play on the boys soccer team); Sorority Boys (three frat boys dress as women in order to join a sorority).


  • I've Got A Doppleganger! - Often this is the cause of  a Case of Mistaken Identity. Somehow there's another person out there who looks exactly like you, that you never knew about. Sometimes this person is related to you (which makes it only slightly more plausible, but still very unlikely).
Monte CarloExamples: Monte Carlo (a normal teenage girl passes herself off as a British heiress who she looks exactly like); Model Behavior (an unpopular girl trades places with a famous model who no one has noticed that she looks exactly like); Seventeen Again (a woman is turned 17 again and just happens to look exactly like her 17-year-old granddaughter); The Parent Trap (identical twins separated as babies by their parents' divorce meet at summer camp), Twitches (identical twin witches separated as babies meet in a clothing store).
  • Something Magical Is Happening! - Something supernatural is going on... crazy things are happening. Maybe you're really a witch and you never knew it. Maybe there's a ghost involved. Maybe someone put a spell or curse on you. Everything you thought you knew about the world is turned upside down and you must suspend your disbelief. 
Twitches - Betwitched EditionExamples: 13 Going On 30 (a 13-year-old girl's wish to be 30 comes true); 16 Wishes (a girl gets to make 16 wishes on her 16th birthday); 17 Again (a man wakes up as his 17-year-old self); Freaky Friday (a mother and daughter mysteriously trade bodies); Halloweentown (a girl discovers that her mother and grandmother are witches); Now You See It (a teenage magician learns that he is really a sorcerer); Twitches and Twitches Too (twins separated at birth discover that they're witches); Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (a spoiled girl must prevent evil spirits from destroying the world).
  • Look What Science Can Do! - The non-supernatural alternative to Something Magical Is Happening. Usually the science doesn't actually make any sense, but it at least pretends to be a more realistic solution to the crazy things happening than just "magic".
MinutemenExamples: Clockstoppers (three teens get a hold of a watch that allows them to stop time); Minutemen (three social outcasts invent a time machine); Seventeen Again (a boy creates an anti-aging soap that turns both of his grandparents back into teenagers); The Suite Life Movie (twin brothers become the subjects of an evil scientist's experiment); Weird Science (two nerdy guys create a woman using their computer).
  • Sibling Rivalry - All brothers and sisters fight, right? Sometimes it can cause problems. Sometimes you've got to get over yourself and learn to get along and work together in order to save the day.

Cow BellesExamples: 10 Things I Hate About You (a popular girl fights with her strong-minded sister); A Cinderella Story and Another Cinderella Story and Ella Enchanted (the lead character must deal with her evil step-sisters); Cow Belles (spoiled sisters fight over how to save their father's business); Den Brother (a teenage boy poses as the den mother to his little sister's Bumble Bee troop); Suite Life Movie (twin brothers fight due to their differences); Twitches and Twitches Too (twins who were separated at birth must adjust to life together, as witches); Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie (three wizard siblings must work together to undo an accidental).
  • Best Friends Fighting - Unlike Sibling Rivalry, best friends aren't supposed to fight... But sometimes they do and it causes a problem. Sometimes you realize that your best friend isn't exactly who you thought they were... or sometimes you're the problem and you've got to learn to treat your friends better (Morality Tale). 
The Cheetah Girls: One World (Extended Music Edition)Example: Cheetah Girls: One World (three friends in a pop group fight over who will get the lead in a Bollywood musical); Ella Enchanted (a girl who is under a spell, must tell her best friend that she never wants to see her again); High School Musical 3: Senior Year (the friendship of two basketball players is tested when one of them decides to go to another college); Taking 5 (two best friends fight over one of the members of a pop group); Step Up (a street dancer's friends do not understand his decision to go to a prestigious arts school).
    Step Up (Widescreen Edition)
  • Opposites Attract - Two totally different people (opposites) fall in love, against all odds.
Examples: Bring It On (a popular cheerleader falls for the loner brother of her friend); Just My Luck (a lucky girl and unlucky guy trade luck and then fall in love); Step Up and Step Up 2 The Streets (a troubled street dancer and a classically trained dancer dance together and fall in love).
  • I Love You/I Hate You - (A variation of Opposites Attract). Two totally different people (opposites) fight and hate each other... until they fall in love!
Jump In!Examples: 10 Things I Hate About You (a strong-minded girl is first put off by the bad boy trying to date her, but later falls for him); Cow Belles (the rich daughter of a dairy owner bumps heads with the son of a dairy farmer); Jump In! (a boxer and his jump-roping neighbor fight, but then join the same double-dutch team); Spectacular! (a straight-laced showchoir singer and a self-centered rocker perform together).








    Pretty in Pink (Everything's Duckie Edition)
  • The Romeo & Juliet Effect - (A variation of Opposites Attract). Two people from different families, cliques or social circles fall in love despite the fact that their friends or families are against it.
Examples: Ella Enchanted (a strong-minded peasant and a prince fall in love); High School Musical (a jock and a smart girl want to sing and dance together, but their friends try to keep them apart); Pretty In Pink (a poor girl and rich guy try to date, but their friends don't approve).
  • Time For a Song! - In a musical film or a movie about musicians, it's expected that one of the characters will burst into song. In a non-musical film, when the lead actor or actress is also a talented singer, they will often write in a random excuse for a song. (This is most prevalent in the Disney movies, where they love stars who can do it all.)
Confessions of a Teenage Drama QueenExamples: 10 Things I Hate About You (a teenage boy serenades a girl on the bleachers at school); Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (the main character stars in the school musical); Ella Enchanted (Ella must sing for a wedding of giants); Picture This! (the main character must win a battle of the bands in order to get money to get her car back).

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