High School Confidential

Culture and technology.
March 14 1999 3:30 AM

High School Confidential

The eternal appeal of teen movies.

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For some reason, teen flicks died out for a while after Heathers--perhaps because it took the conventions of the form as far as they could go. Then, following the success of Clueless, teen films started to trickle back. The trickle has suddenly become a torrent. The economics are easy enough to understand, lacking major stars, these movies are inexpensive to make and draw the ideal audiences: teens who are capable of seeing Titanic 17 times. She's All That was made for a $10 million budget and has already grossed nearly $60 million.

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What's different about the late 1990s' version? Teen films no longer glorify drug use, but other than that, very little. As the genre has expanded, it has broken into sub-genres. There's the black Heathers category , the most recent exercise being the reportedly awful Jawbreaker. There's the self-referential horror category as manifest in the Scream movies. There's a Masterpiece Theatre for juniors category that started with the delightful Baz Luhrmann version of Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

But the reigning champ is still the Hughesesque romance, the most recent example of which is She's All That. The heroine is an artist from a broken home whose father cleans swimming pools. The most perfect boy in her school, who dates the most popular bitch, makes a bet with his best friend that he can transform the ugly duckling into the prom queen. Of course, the perfect boy ends up ditching his snobby clique and falling in love with her. Even the racy Cruel Intentions, set among rich Upper East Side kids, is a spin on the old Hughes formula. The evil super-rich girl makes a diabolical bet with her stepbrother that he can't corrupt the new girl at school. The stepbrother falls for the good girl and the wicked stepsister is humiliated in front of everyone.

These films have been derided as "teensploitation," but I don't think the description is fair. Instead of pandering to the prejudices of teens, they offer a fantasy about a freer and happier adolescence. Their message is that there's life beyond high school, kids aren't bound by what adults want from them, how their peers think of them, or the ways in which they categorize themselves. All Hollywood films are exploitative to some extent. But I'd say a sweet, dumb movie such as She's All That is a lot less insulting to teen intelligence, and to the average adult one, than Patch Adams or Message in a Bottle.