In an era of cord cutting, and hand wringing over media revolutions, Millennials are still watching movies. What they flock to see on the big screen is indicative of how they are feeling at the moment, supporting films that accurately portray their values, sense of humor, and sometimes first world problems.
We recently asked them to tell us the movie that best represents their generation, as part of our ongoing biweekly survey of 1000 Millennials nationwide. The responses we received show some clear commonalities in theme: coming-of-age, the fight against society, and the release of inhibitions. But more subtle trends emerge the deeper we dig, like the appreciation for movies that explore complex and conflicting emotions, or the fact that respondents’ gender seemed to have little influence over the films they named. Almost all of those in the top ten were major box office successes, showing that it’s possible the movies Millennials feel most connected to are the ones they’re willing to pay to see.
You might be surprised to see The Breakfast Club ranked just outside the top 10 at number eleven on the list, and that Reality Bites, The Graduate, and Star Wars all made the top 50. While Xers might be aghast that “their” movies made a Millennial list, it’s important to remember that Millennials young and old are a VHS/DVD generation. They feel ownership over and kinship with media that was created before their time, thanks to the many, many ways they’ve been able to watch it all on replay. To them, whether it was released in the ‘70s, ‘80s, or ‘90s, if they’ve seen it and felt connected to it, it “belongs” to their generation as much as any other.
To better understand the top movies that they say best represent Millennials, we’ve taken a closer look at how they explain their affiliation to certain films, and hypothesize a bit on what makes them feel connected to these plots and characters:
1. Mean Girls
With so much changing so fast in Millennials’ worlds in the last decade, it’s a wonder that any movie could remain on top for this long, but kudos to Mean Girls for defying the odds. A certified teen classic,Mean Girls has remained a cultural cornerstone for Millennials and clearly still majorly resonates with the generation. There is no reference to social media in the film, Facebook wasn’t even open to high-schoolers in 2004, but the infamous Burn Book serves as the representation of something that any high school, or middle school, girl might experience. The plot strikes a chord with younger Millennials who view the film thanks to its universal themes of trying to fit in and “girl on girl crime.” And while its protagonists and storylines are female driven, for an 18-year-old male (who was in 3rd grade when the movie was released) to state that “Mean Girls is 100% relatable” speaks to its ability to transcend gender, providing a wider window into the teen experience in general. No movie has come in its wake that is more memorable in its depiction of high school, or more quotable.
For Neighbors to rank number two on the most popular list is most likely due to the fact that it’s still currently in theaters, and was released just over a month ago. But to explain its popularity solely on top-of-mind relevancy might overlook the comedy chops and thematic success of the movie. There’s more to it than just frat battles and pranks: the movie illustrates the push and pull between college and adult life, something that a majority of Millennials are facing as they reluctantly leave their college bubbles and become settled in the real world. The movie also stars two of the most representative Millennial males in Hollywood: Disney star turned serious actor (and resident hot guy) Zac Efron, and nerdy member of the off-beat Apatow comedy clique Seth Rogen. Surprisingly, Rose Byrne ends up taking the spotlight in this trio as the brains of the prank operations, making Neighbors a wall-balanced encapsulation of R-rated comedy for Millennial males and females.
3. The Social Network
Despite daily reports on the rising or falling popularity of Facebook among teens and other demographics, there is no doubt that this is the social network that changed the course of modern Millennial culture, and online activity around the worldSocial media is a daily part of most Millennials’ existence, and the background story of its development clearly resonated with this generation, who count Mark Zuckerberg as one of their defining figures. Older Millennials in particular are proud of their role as the first users of social media, those that paved the way for so much of what we know today. On top of that, the race to success, filled with intense trials and tribulations, is something that grads are currently navigating, especially as a growing subset of the generation is focusing their studies on tech and STEM.
4. Hunger Games
Dystopian and fantasy young adult novels turned big screen productions—Harry Potter, Twilight, Divergent—merge coming-of-age struggles with larger societal implications. Those that find real success are the stories that capture what’s on the hearts and minds of Millennials at that moment. Today’s Millennials often feel as though they are competing with each other for getting into college or positions in the job market, and are bound by society’s restrictions and economic ups and downs in the process. Hunger Games eloquently captured the darkness and triumph of a young female hero, and its cultural relevance has had ripple effects not just for Millennials, but across the world as a symbol of fighting for something better. The books and movies are about a struggle to survive, and heroine Katniss needs specific learned skills, not special powers, in order to come out on top, details that reflect the reality of the generation post 2008, as they themselves struggle to make it in a world less friendly than they had been promised.
5. The Hangover
Let’s be real: young people, regardless of generation, like to party. At the end of the day, most Millennials want to have fun and escape the pressures of what surrounds them. The Hangover is a clear standout in illustrating how far debauchery can go in one night, and movies with similar themes—The Wolf of Wall Street, 21 Jump Street, and Project X—were named often on their list of films that best represent their generation. Witnessing such wild behavior with no consequence is as much of an adrenaline rush as any blow ‘em up action film. Many Millennials are still documenting their craziest moments online, sometimes taking part in reckless behavior (or what looks like it) just for the Vine. Things like Spring Break, music festivals, and gap year excursions are being built on wild experiences, and movies like The Hangover are both pure entertainment and inspiration for a good time.