The reason for the latest surge of teen movies is an obvious one: money. Right now, teenagers are Hollywood’s favorite demographic. This sizable group has enough disposable income to go to the movies and, perhaps more importantly, the desire to do so on a regular basis.
Although producers stood up and took notice with the surprise success of Scream, it was the teen impact on Titanic that was perhaps most telling. Adolescent girls, who saw the film multiple times, helped boost it to the top of the box office heap.
Teenage boys were a regular target audience for action movies, sophomoric comedies and soft-core sexploitation, but their female counterparts had been all but ignored. Following the money – and Hollywood always does – quite a few executives took notice of this virtually untapped and potentially very lucrative audience.
So the trend became niche programming, whereby instead of a few high-risk megaproductions, more smaller budget movies aimed to a specific audience were produced. The once-moribund genre of teen movies was reborn, but with a twist. This time around, they’re geared to be more female-friendly.
But economics aside, what are the aesthetic motivations behind this resurgence? After watching quite a few teen movies, a few patterns emerge.
Theory No. 1: High school is a traumatic experience because just at the time adolescents are going through massive and unnerving physical changes, they’re simultaneously being indoctrinated into the adult social order through four years of emotional boot camp.
Every high school is different, but there are commonalities to the experience that can reverberate throughout a lifetime. For example, a great deal of Never Been Kissed, from the idealized newsroom to the generic cliques of its high school, doesn’t ring true. But its story, of an über-nerd who’s given a second chance to figure out what kind of adult she will be, hits a raw nerve.
Even before the current teen boom, Grosse Pointe Blank and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion – released almost simultaneously – dealt with the intense emotional repercussions of this period and the pressure involved in re-encountering not just a peer group but unfulfilled expectations a decade after graduation.
So why is the idea that high school serves as a time when individuals begin to establish a pattern for their lives nearly absent from the current batch of teen movies? A quick answer is that the perceived audience for these films is interested in today and not tomorrow. But something else might be at work.
Theory No. 2: Information overload has transformed entertainment into a postmodern mishmash which no longer finds inspiration in real-life experiences but feeds on itself, resulting in productions loaded with self-referential irony and increasingly devoid of genuine feeling.
To watch the current batch of teen movies is to encounter an intense feeling of déjà vu, and not simply because of familiarity with the high school experience.
Jawbreaker is a hodgepodge of subtextual references, but its hard candy shell and bile-flavored center derives from Heathers, still one of the best surreal black comedies ever made about high school.
Varsity Blues is All the Right Moves with its blue-collar storyline, where a football scholarship means a life outside the uncertain future of factory work, replaced by a bored small-town hero heading for the Ivy League.
The hit She’s All That is a fairy tale filtered through the sensibility of teen movie king John Hughes and then pared down to its essentials for an MTV attention span – while the slower-paced Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, in which four high school graduates contemplate life beyond their tiny community, didn’t even get released in most cities.
Any story, no matter how old or revered, has become fair game for transformation into a teen movie: Les Liaisons Dangereuses into Cruel Intentions; Taming of the Shrew into 10 Things I Hate About You – unfortunately, these recent reworkings don’t have the wit of the Jane Austen-inspired Clueless.
But is merely being derivative the reason these teen movies are so sanitized?
Theory No. 3: Teenagers, like most movie audiences, want to see an idealized version of their lives, and the adult media, still reeling over high school violence like the shootings in Colorado and Georgia, are more than willing to skirt anything controversial and instead provide comforting escapism.
Even though they are very much movies of their time, Carrie and Fast Times at Ridgemont High still hold up as excellent examples of mainstream releases trying to tap into the conflicted, messy nature of adolescence. They’re templates for the current batch of teen movies – horror and high school divisions respectively – but the fact is, neither film is safe or tidy enough to get made in the current Hollywood environment.
Few films like Dazed and Confused (with its high school hazing and massive drug and alcohol ingesting) or the darker River’s Edge (full of scary, apathetic burnouts) are in the works. Even movies dealing with standardissue teenage rebellion, like those based on S.E. Hinton’s young adult novels (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Tex), aren’t part of the current revival.
Ironically, in the 1990s, when almost every subject is open to public discussion, the boundaries for teen movies have grown narrower.
Theory No. 4: Since making a film to please a large, nonhomogenous audience just results in bland and generic work, the better teen movies focus more on individual stories and specific experiences, thereby reflecting the variety of American teenage life, which isn’t uniformly white, straight or affluent.
Films set in cloistered environments such as private all-boys schools, whether Catholic (The Chocolate War), prep (Dead Poets Society) or military (Taps), have dealt intelligently with the pressures of conformity. School Ties went a step further to reveal the carefully cloaked prejudices of future power brokers.
The specific pressures put on girls, especially concerning their burgeoning sexuality, haven’t been dealt with much in mainstream films, but have found expression recently in excellent independents like All Over Me, Slums of Beverly Hills and A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.
Two truly idiosyncratic recent releases, Rushmore and Election, dive headfirst into morally complex stories featuring imperfect protagonists, and point to the possibilities of the genre. But with few exceptions, it’s doubtful that this current crop of teen movies will have much of a shelf life beyond their immediate success.
One thing’s for certain, teen movies aren’t going away any time soon: Another batch is slated for release this summer – including Drop Dead Gorgeous, a comedy about a small-town teen beauty contest with Kirstie Alley, Kirsten Dunst and Denise Richards in July. But within that mixture of art and commerce which results in movies, there’s always the possibility for a few happy accidents.Serena Donadoni is a film reviewer for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]