From redefining emojis and fashion trends to championing social change, Generation Z is making its way onscreen with powerful characters and storylines emphasizing the need to be seen and heard. Defined as the group born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z (as the youngest generation always does) tend to come under fire with criticism for its new ideologies and perspectives on life. Growing up in the digital era, Gen Zers can stream whatever, whenever, enticing movies and television to cater to them.
No matter what generation you come from, cinema of any kind can reach an audience of any kind and make them feel understood. With a growing emphasis of what’s on our screens isn’t always reality (social media), it’s crucial now more than ever for Gen Z to have shows and movies that portray the realism of their experience. These characters and their stories do just that.
‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’ (2022)
Bodies Bodies Bodies is another masterful installment in A24’s filmography as it crafts the perfect whodunnit film for Gen Z. A hurricane party goes very wrong once a harmless game turns bloody for a group of rich 20-somethings in a remote mansion. With engaging performances from the rising star leads, Bodies takes a satirical approach to Gen Z in depicting the tropes of the generation that seem to certain off-put members of older generations.
A brilliant portrayal of how social media and technology have significantly impacted the mindset of Gen Z, this horror film also tackles deeper insights into how this younger generation operates regarding things like politics and societal engagement. Bodies is still a solid horror/thriller that keeps you engaged from start to finish.
Dark and divisive, Gen Z audiences either believe Euphoria is an accurate depiction of their high school experience or drastically dramatizes the “average” American high school. The HBO Max hit is led by Emmy-winning starlet Zendaya as a group of teens navigates the waters and traumas of drugs, sex, love, loss, and identity.
For those that believe the series represents them, Euphoria features stories about discovering sexuality at a young age, toxic relationships of many kinds, and teen rage. Whichever character you identify with, there’s a little something for everyone. Lost a parent traumatically? There’s a character for that. Transitioning to a new identity from an old one? There are characters for that. Blunt (and graphic), there’s no sugar-coating regarding the truths of Euphoria and Gen Z is here for it.
‘The Hate U Give’ (2018)
Gen Z has bared witness to and led enough social justice movements to last a lifetime. The Hate U Give landed in the world’s hands shortly after the Black Lives Matter movement surfaced and gained more attention following the George Floyd protests. After Starr (Amandla Stenberg) witnesses her best friend killed by a police officer, she must discover her voice to fight for what’s right despite immense pressure from her community.
The film earned well-deserved praise from critics and audiences alike for providing the young adult film genre with an installation that doesn’t find its roots in teen romance. A conversation-starting story, The Hate U Give demands attention and allows a safe space for members of Gen Z to have that conversation.
‘Never Have I Ever’ (2020-2023)
Following the trials and tribulations of a first-generation Indian-American teen Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), Never Have I Ever accurately romanticizes the high school experience for Gen Z. Complete with love triangles, a traumatic experience, old-fashioned parents, and therapy, NHIE is a Netflix original born from the brilliant mind of creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher.
Devi’s determination to lose her virginity and sweep her trauma under the rug while appeasing her family and cultural expectations demonstrates society’s burden and pressure on its youth not to miss out but remain true to who they are. As we see over the course of the initial seasons, who you are at the beginning of one chapter is not who you are by the end of the next, a narrative Gen Z is constantly writing.
‘The Edge of Seventeen’ (2016)
A comedic reminder that being a teen isn’t always as romantic as other movies or shows make it out to be, The Edge of Seventeen is a realistic installment in the Gen Z canon. Life doesn’t seem to be getting better for high school student Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) when her best friend starts dating her brother. Her only small solace is in a friendship with her teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). Blunt but heartfelt, Mr. Bruner slowly becomes Nadine’s voice of reason during her most unstable moments.
A lesson in the evolution of friendship while trying to establish yourself in the wake of tragedy, The Edge of Seventeen places a deglamorized version of high school life in the lap of a generation that is only exposed to the glamorized version of life through social media. Quirky but lovable, Nadine is definitely a pivotal character for Gen Z to relate with.
‘Eighth Grade’ (2018)
Cringeworthy but so worth it, Eighth Grade flashes Gen Zers back to their early days of social media and the desire to fit in before it was okay to stand out. Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is just trying to survive her last week of eighth grade, struggling socially to keep her head above water with a YouTube channel that no one watches. Real and authentic, this film does everything but romanticize the transition between middle and high school, instead exploring the feats of not knowing who you are at that age and coping with insecurities.
Masterfully written and directed by Bo Burnham, whose 2021 lockdown special Inside provided TikTok and social media with dozens of audio bits for video content, Eighth Grade reaches more than just Gen Z with its awkward heroine. While Fisher is considered a member of Generation Z, her performance resonates with anyone trying to fit in during their preteen years.
‘Not Okay’ (2022)
Tapping into today’s desire for social media relevance, Not Okay pulls the classic “caught-in-a-lie” narrative and applies it to Gen Z’s modern lifestyle. Danni (Zoey Deutch) wanders through her career and social life. With no friends, no romantic relationships, and, most importantly to her, no followers, Danni fakes a social media-worthy trip to Paris to gain attention. Her plot unravels quickly when a deadly attack occurs during the “trip,” forcing Danni to pose as a surviving victim.
Proving that online clout isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, Not Okay speaks to Gen Z, heavily hitting on FOMO (fear of missing out) and imposter syndrome. As Danni falls down the messy spiral, this Hulu original induces the waves of anxiety we all acknowledge having.
‘Sex Education’ (2019-)
Expecting this story to rise to the occasion in the ’80s and ’90s was a recipe for an American Pie-style disaster. Catering to a generation accepting of the unromanticized sexual experience and discovery, Sex Education has enthralled its Netflix viewers for three seasons. Otis (Asa Butterfield) teams up with classmate Maeve (Emma Mackey) to run an underground sex therapy clinic at their school using the insider knowledge from Otis’s mother, sex therapist Jean (Gillian Anderson).
A hit with critics and audiences, Netflix once again has provided Gen Zers with a high school experience series not centered around the football team’s big game or fitting in with the popular kids. Sex Educationallows the outrageous and the empathetic to exist in the same room with a mature conversation about sex.
A film about accepting what is, what could be, and what wasn’t, Booksmart is a teen tale designed to shatter the “high school experience” expectations. Two best friends (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) attempt to cram in four years of missed opportunities into one night before their high school graduation. Olivia Wilde‘s directorial debut, Booksmart, received high praise from critics and fans alike.
Both Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) fall victim to FOMO (fear of missing out) when they realize they may have studied too hard and watched the “special moments” of high school pass them by. Any movie centralized around this fear in the teen genre is a sure-fire win with Gen Z in the age where if you’re not hustling for one experience or another, you’re missing out.
Flipping the teen prom genre on its head, Blockers is a movie not only for Gen Z but their parents. When they discover their girls are determined to lose their virginity on prom night, three parents (John Cena, Leslie Mann, and Ike Barinholtz) set out to stop them. Swapping the standard male-led teen sexual adventure for female-led characters, Blockers was well-received by critics and certified fresh, but audiences didn’t agree.
Leaning heavily on “progressive” parents who don’t understand their children but accept it’s a new generation, this film allows its teen protagonists to navigate their own story with confidence in not knowing the way. Blockers is crude and raunchy at times, but its heart is in the right place for an older Gen Z audience.
KEEP READING: Every A24 Coming-Of-Age Film Ranked