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The best teen romance movies of all time

Revisit your youth with 16 of the best teen romance movies

Written by
Cath Clarke
Written by
Tom Huddleston
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No one ever experiences love later in life quite like they do as teenagers. Sure, when you get older you might be able to better discern real love from an intense crush, and have the skills to make it last longer a semester in high school, but romance never feels quite as exhilarating as it does during your teenage years. 

It’s no surprise that filmmakers frequently try to recreate those feelings onscreen. Of course, writing about adolescent emotions when you’re far removed from them isn’t easy, and it doesn’t always translate in a way that rings true. Every once in a while, though, a movie drills so precisely into the experience of young love it can make even the most ancient curmudgeon feel like a hopeless, hormonal romantic all over again. The following 16 movies are among those that got it right. 

Recommended:

😍 The 100 best romantic films of all-time
🤣 The 70 best romantic comedies of all-time
💔 The best breakup and heartbreak movies
👯 The 100 best teen movies of all-time

Best teen romantic films

Harold and Maude (1971)
  • Film
  • Comedy

Director: Hal Ashby

Cast: Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort

Best quote: 'Oh, Harold, that's wonderful. Go and love some more.'

Defining moment: In a field of daisies overlooking a vast military cemetery, Maude explains her philosophy of life.

Age shall not wither them
The hippy era was full of movies that attempted to confront square society, to shock viewers into some undefined form of action. How many of them are still effective today? But ‘Harold and Maude’, the gentle flipside of the revolutionary dream, is every bit as charming, affecting and surprising as it must have been on its first release. Partly this is because none of its themes have gone out of date: we still live in a world of empty privilege and rigid hierarchy, petty authority and relentless conformism. So the idea of a teenage boy (Cort) shacking up with a batty old woman (Gordon) is still a challenge to social norms. Best of all, ‘Harold and Maude’ is also still devastatingly romantic: a story of soulmates, in the most literal sense. TH 

Buy, rent or watch ‘Harold and Maude’

Badlands (1973)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Terrence Malick

Cast: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek

Best quote: ‘He wanted to die with me and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms.’

Defining moment: After killing her father, Holly and Kit burn down her childhood home, and her actual childhood along with it.

In the late 1950s, teenager Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, went on a killing spree, murdering 11 people across Nebraska and Wyoming before being apprehended. It was a major ‘loss of innocence’ moment for America: how could two of its own, raised in the heartland, do something so heinous, and at such a young age? The incident looms large in the country’s mythos, inspiring songs by Bruce Springsteen and Oliver Stone’s hyper-violent spectacle Natural Born Killers. It also forms the basis of Terrence Malick’s hypnotic and lyrical debut feature. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are Kit and Holly – not precise avatars for Starkweather and Fugate, but clearly inspired by them – who jumpstart their life of crime by killing Holly’s father (Warren Oates) then head for the Canadian border, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. But Malick, in what would become his signature, does not sensationalise their misdeeds, instead approaching them almost nonchalantly and not giving in to easy explanations. From Spacek’s flowery narration to the wondrous midwestern landscapes, it remains one of the most beguiling films from a director who’d eventually build a career from holding audiences in a trance. MS.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Badlands’

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  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Jacques Demy

Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo

Best quote: 'People only die of love in the movies.'

Defining moment: A sad, bittersweet meeting in the snow, two lovers seeing each other for the first time in years.

All things bright and beautiful
You'd need to have a sliver of ice lodged in your heart not to be moved by ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ – a musical that has even hardened musical-haters melting into puddles. Not that it’s a musical in the belt-‘em-out tradition. Instead, every word is sung rather than spoken as 17-year-old Geneviève (Deneuve) falls sweetly and madly in love with car mechanic Guy (Castelnuovo).

‘Umbrellas’ is one of the most ravishing films ever made, wrapped in candyfloss colours to match the blush of first love. When Guy is drafted to fight in Algeria, Geneviève is certain she will die of grief. But time passes and Geneviève doesn’t die. Love fades. And that’s the bittersweet message inside this exquisitely sugar coated pill. CC

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes

Best quote: 'A plague on both your houses! They have made worms’ meat of me.'

Defining moment: DiCaprio and Danes making loved-up eyes at each other through the glass and water of a fish tank.

From the Globe to the ghetto
Baz Luhrmann had some cast-iron source material to work with in the form of Shakespeare’s story – but the Australian writer-director took the playwright’s romantic tragedy to another place entirely with this ultra-modern reworking. At the same, he never lost sight of the essence of Shakespeare’s tale of two young lovers doomed from the first time they lay eyes on each other.

The moment that Romeo (DiCaprio, so young!) and Juliet (Danes, so young too!) meet at a wild fancy-dress party is pure bliss to watch, just as Luhrmann’s staging of the final death scene is almost impossible to bear. There are guns, hip-hop, open-topped cars and characters so larger-than-life that the whole thing now, in retrospect, feels like Tarantino directing a season-finale episode of ‘Dynasty’. It’s mad, musical and immensely moving. DC

Buy, rent or watch ‘William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet’

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Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
  • Film
  • Comedy

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray

Best quote: 'It's possible I may wet the bed, by the way.'

Defining moment: Sam and Suzy kiss an awkward kiss on the beach.

Children, behave
Romance isn't the first thing you expect from a Wes Anderson film, but in this delightful 1960s-set tale, the American auteur employs all his usual tricks – hip soundtrack, arch dialogue, super-careful production design – in the service of a story about the chaos and madness of young love.

Sam and Suzy are 12-year-olds on the run. Suzy is precocious and independent; Sam is nerdy and serious. They don't get very far, but a mile's a long way when you're 12, and danger is never far away. What's lovely is how seriously Anderson takes Sam and Suzy's adventure, while also laying on the humour and the irony. By the time the pair steal a smooch on a deserted beach, we're totally smitten. DC

Buy, rent or watch ‘Moonrise Kingdom’

  • Film

Director: Emile Ardolino

Cast: Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey

Best quote: 'Come on, ladies. God wouldn't have given you maracas if He didn't want you to shake 'em.'

Defining moment: Nobody puts Baby in a corner. When even Ryan Gosling has scored using your defining moment (in ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’), you know it’s a good ’un.

Sir Patrick of Swayz
She dreamt of studying the economics of underdeveloped countries and volunteering for the Peace Corps. He just wanted to dance the night away. Until one day she manhandles some watermelons into his backstage area (not a metaphor), and falls in love at first sight.

Filmed at the peak of Patrick Swayze’s handsomeness, with a healthy dollop of none-more-’80s style and a cracking jukebox full of irresistibly catchy numbers, a thousand clip shows would have us remember ‘Dirty Dancing’ as something of a minor classic. And, for once, they would be right on the money. CB

Buy, rent or watch ‘Dirty Dancing’

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  • Film
  • Drama

Directors: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise

Cast: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn

Best quote: 'There’s a place for us, somewhere…'

Defining moment: It’s as camp as Christmas, but Maria (Wood) singing ‘I Feel Pretty’ while anticipating her next date with Tony (Beymer) is a magical moment of romantic exuberance.

The song of the streets
Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ may have made all the tweeners’ hearts melt (and scored a higher place on this list), but the real hep chicks and finger-poppin’ daddies know which version of Shakespeare’s play is the real leader of the pack.

‘West Side Story’ is like no other musical: sure, it’s sappy (‘Mariaaaaaaaaaa’) and slightly ridiculous, but it’s also brazenly political (‘if you’re all white in A-me-ri-ca!’), sneakily self-mocking (‘Hey, I got a social disease!’) and ferociously, aggressively emotional: the operatic finale is a masterclass in three-hanky audience manipulation. Also, the film contains perhaps the single best song ever written for the musical theatre: ‘Somewhere’, the ultimate romantic ballad for trapped and dreaming lovers. TH

Buy, rent or watch ‘West Side Story’

  • Film
  • Fantasy

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder

Best quote: Kim: 'Hold me.' Edward: 'I can’t.'

Defining moment: Kim dances in the ‘snow’ Edward makes from an ice sculpture in sunny California.

Cuts you up
The scariest thing about Burton’s gothic fairy tale is reading the list of actors who were considered for the part of Edward, the man with scissors for hands created by a scientist. The studio insisted Burton meet Tom Cruise (who believed the story needed a ‘happier ending’). Michael Jackson badly wanted the part. Tom Hanks turned it down.

Finally, Burton got his way and cast Johnny Depp, who, like a Camden goth Charlie Chaplin, plays Edward with a dash of slapstick and sad-eyed loneliness (watch Edward’s scissor fingers twitch when he’s nervous). It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Depp and Burton, who’ve made seven films together since. Not such a happy ending for Depp and his co-star and then-girlfriend, Ryder. They split in 1993. CC

Buy, rent or watch ‘Edward Scissorhands’

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Show Me Love (1998)
  • Film

Director: Lukas Moodyson

Cast: Rebecca Liljeberg, Alexandra Dahlström, Erica Carlson

Best quote: 'We must be out of our damn minds. But we are so fucking cool.'

Defining moment: An impulsive snog in the back of a car as Foreigner’s ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ cranks up on the soundtrack.

I know you can show me

Romance and social transgression go hand in hand in Lukas Moodysson’s gorgeous and empathetic story of two high-school girls whose love affair scandalises the small Swedish town of Åmal. Concerns about distribution and awards probably explain why the original title – ‘Fucking Åmal’ – got changed to the cosier and less confrontational ‘Show Me Love’. But in no other area does Moodysson compromise: the emotions are raw, the romance giddy, the truths it exposes impossible to ignore. TH

Gregory's Girl (1981)
  • Film

Director: Bill Forsyth

Cast: John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Clare Grogan

Best quote: 'Hard work being in love, eh?'

Defining moment: Gregory (Sinclair) realises that the women in his life have all ganged up to get him into the ‘wrong’ girl’s clutches.

The beautiful game
Figuring out who we’re in love with is, of course, a key part of the romantic process. Too many films feature lightning-bolt moments, where the rightness of a match is obvious and irrevocable – cue happy ending. So it’s nice that there are a few movies out there saying, well, hang on a minute. Love at first sight is all very well, but isn’t that a rather shallow and reckless way to select a mate?

‘Gregory’s Girl’ starts with the lightning bolt – gangly Glaswegian Gregory spots leggy keepy-uppy expert Dorothy (Hepburn) – then patiently explains why, for someone as irrational and irregular as Gregory, that kind of perfect love probably won’t work. So why not try someone a little closer to home? The result is pragmatic, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less romantic. TH

Buy, rent or watch ‘Gregory's Girl’

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The Notebook (2004)
  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Nick Cassavetes

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams

Best quote: ‘I think our love can do anything we want it to.’

Defining moment: That rain-soaked kiss you see above.

Sparks' notes
At this point, there is no middle ground when it comes to The Notebook. No one thinks it’s ‘pretty good,’ ‘totally fine’ or ‘just okay.’ You either think it’s cringeworthy, manipulative treacle, or it’s the greatest love story ever told, and nothing any critic could possibly write would sway your opinion in the other direction. Thus, it ends up on a list like this mostly by default. If you’re talking about cinematic romance, no movie that engenders those kinds of polarising feelings can go without mentioning, no matter how we actually feel about it. And anyway, we wouldn’t want the diehards threatening to firebomb our offices if we left it off.

We will say this, though: put aside your adult cynicism for two hours, and it’s easy to see why The Notebook has continued to resonate with generations of (mostly) teenagers. For all its cliches, it’s the only adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel to really stick in the public imagination, and that’s because, more than most movies, it encapsulates the idealised vision of true love only kids who haven’t yet had their hearts broken believe in. It helps that stars Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams fully commit to their roles, he as the simple country boy, she the young heiress whose parents forbid her to date below her station. They believe in this star-crossed affair and all its twists, turns and tragedies, and so the audience does as well. And when you get right down to it, there’s nothing wrong with that. MS

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Notebook’

  • Film

Director: Elia Kazan

Cast: Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle

Best quote: 'My pride? My pride? I don't want my pride!'

Defining moment: The young lovers break from their frenzied necking as waters symbolically cascade in the background.

Youth in revolt
Rural Kansas, 1928, when ‘nice’ girls were supposed to hold out until the wedding night. Every fibre of her being is telling high-schooler Natalie Wood she wants alpha male Warren Beatty right now, but his oil magnate dad has decided she’s too ordinary for marriage. Welcome to a world before contraception, as acclaimed playwright William Inge’s Oscar-winning script puts in place a devastating conflict between fundamental human desires and layers of obfuscating social hypocrisy.

Both in their early twenties at the time, Beatty and Wood make a sensual couple, as director Kazan constructs a pristine vision of Americana, played against a coruscating narrative where yearning slides uncontrollably into hysteria. Wood’s startling performance deserved an Oscar but got only a nomination. TJ

Buy, rent or watch ‘Splendor in the Grass’

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  • Film
  • Comedy

Director: Jason Reitman

Cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera

Best quote: 'I still have your underwear.' 'I still have your virginity.'

Defining moment: Baby, schmaby: it’s all about Juno declaring her love for geeky Paulie Bleeker.

Que Cera, Cera
On release, first-time scriptwriter Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning unplanned teen pregnancy comedy ‘Juno’ was all-but obscured by one debate: was it a pro-lifer tract deceptively gussied up in indie clothing?

The film’s abortion issues are still up for debate; leaving that aside for a moment, what’s left is a sweetly funny romantic comedy about relationships both teen- and middle-aged, and love of many kinds: parental, romantic and platonic. And sure, the teen-speak might bear about as much resemblance to real teenage slang as the actors in ‘Grease’ did to actual teenagers, but Ellen Page and Michael Cera’s performances remain pitch perfect. CB

Buy, rent or watch ‘Juno’

  • Film

Director: Cameron Crowe

Cast: John Cusack, Ione Skye

Best quote: 'I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen.'

Defining moment: Y’know, the scene where John Mahoney curls into the fetal position in a bathtub is pretty underrated. Just kidding. It’s the one with the Peter Gabriel song. 

The Dobler Effect
He’s a new wave hipster with vague aspirations of becoming a professional kickboxer. She’s the school valedictorian with a great smile whose ambition has left her with no real friends. It’s a classic set-up for a mismatched young-adult romance, but Cameron Crowe packs his directorial debut with so many sharp insights and quirky details that it nearly stands outside the teen romcom genre, transcending even John Hughes and ending up closer to Annie Hall or its most obvious inspiration, The Graduate

Coming from one of the foremost chroniclers of restless youth, though, it exudes far more hormonal energy than either – and much less cynicism about boy-girl relationships. This is where the world fell in love with John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler, cinema’s most charming slacker, and Ione Skye is equally crushworthy as the overachieving-yet-underconfident Diane Court. (And a shoutout to Lili Taylor’s caustically lovesick Corey Flood, who certainly has her share of admirers as well.) No character is a pure archetype but complicated in the way real teens are – and while few actual teenagers in the ‘80s may have ever attempted to woo their crush by blasting a Peter Gabriel song out their window before Lloyd Dobler, certainly many took a shot after him. MS

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  • Film
  • Romance

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Cast: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar

Best quote: ‘But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!’

Defining moment: When Elio escapes the luxurious monotony of the Italian summer and gets intimate with a peach.

The fruits of young love
Based on the acclaimed novel by André Aciman and with an Oscar-winning screenplay written by James Ivory (yes, of Merchant Ivory heritage), ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is more than just a bittersweet meditation on the enduring impact of a summer romance.

Director Luca Guadagnino captures the confusion, simmering lust and crackling tension between precocious and thoughtful 17-year-old Elio (Chalamet) and the allure of the older, magnetic and dashingly handsome Oliver (Hammer). Elio’s obsessive nature and infantile arrogance, as well as his fraught desires, are captured so vividly that, regardless of whether or not you’ve ended up screwing a slightly older man in your parents’ summer house in northern Italy, it still feels oddly recognisable and nostalgic. The stirring monologue delivered by Elio’s father (Stuhlbarg) about the necessity of pain and heartbreak throbs with empathy, as does the film’s final scene of Elio sitting in front of the hearth weeping. It’s a gentle and devastating coming-of-age romance that’ll leaving you aching and ready to book a holiday to Italy. AK

Buy, rent or watch ‘Call Me By Your Name’

  • Film

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Cast: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson

Best quote: 'If I wasn't a girl... would you like me anyway?'

Defining moment: Eli crosses the threshold to show Oskar why she needs an invite.

My bloody valentine

Vampiric love stories needn’t involve brooding, sparkling bloodsuckers and entanglements with hunky werewolves. In this Scandinavian insta-classic, vampirism is effectively a metaphor for preteen loneliness, and the emotions are as warm as the landscape is icy. In a Swedish suburb, a 12-year-old outcast named Oskar forges a strong bond with a girl named Eli who doesn’t seem to have many other friends either, for reasons that are both similar and drastically different. Director Tomas Alfredson handles the young, burgeoning romance with great sensitivity and skill, turning in something like a moody John Hughes movie that just happens to feature a whole lot of dismemberings at its climax. Trust us, it’ll make your heart swell more than your skin crawl. MPS.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Let the Right One In’

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