High School Confidential
The eternal appeal of teen movies.
It's no fun being a highbrow if you don't sometimes swing low. I know an expert in 19th century English history who devours mystery novels by the shopping bag load, a prominent intellectual journalist who loves Bruce Willis shoot'em-ups, and a Slate editor who admits to being hooked on Felicity. In this context, I am prepared to admit an entertainment vice of my own: the teen flick. This is a genre that flourished in the mid-1980s, then fell into abeyance for a number of years, and is now, I am happy to report, experiencing a modest renaissance.
The new rash of teen movies seems heavily skewed toward quasi-remakes of the classics. The genre revived in 1995 with Clueless, which was based on Jane Austen's Emma. Cruel Intentions is the zillionth adaptation of the 18th century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. She's All That is loosely based on Pretty Woman, which was loosely based on My Fair Lady, which was based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Arriving at multiplexes in the next few months will be O, a version of Othello set against a backdrop of high-school sports, and 10 Things I Hate About You, an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew.
But it would be wrong to think of these films as classic comics for the Clearasil set. Most of them are movies that utilize classic plots as new ways to frame their exploration into what it's like to be an American teen-ager. At their best, these films immerse you once again in all the joys and anxieties of adolescence. To me, they are the quintessential good bad movies, because while seldom subtle or artful, they are capable of recreating a familiar and utterly compelling world.
Sixteen Candles is awful in some ways. A racist subplot revolves around a Chinese exchange student called Long Duk Dong. Yet the movie sets up the basic theme of Hughes' subsequent--and I would maintain all successful--teen movies, which is to overthrow the stereotypes that comprise the basis of adolescent identity. The basic insight of the Hughes films is that high school is built around a caste/class system, which is basically vicious and unfair. Like his subsequent movies, SixteenCandles is essentially a fantasy about throwing out this system: The excluded are included and the exclusionary are either enlightened or humbled. The geeks get to be cool, the cool kids get humbled, the druggies get smart, and the smart kids get stoned.
Hughes handled this theme in a more self-congratulatory and heavy-handed way in The Breakfast Club (1985). This was probably the most famous of the '80s teen flicks, launching as it did the careers of several of the "Brat Pack" actors--including Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, and Ally Sheedy. Five different types--a geek, a richie, a screw-up, a jock, and a sullen arty girl--are forced to spend a Saturday in detention considering who they are. This is my least favorite of the Hughes films, because it's a moral lesson with flashes of humor. Hughes' best films are romantic comedies informed by good values.
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What makes these teen flicks the ideal good bad movies? The first is the familiarity of the world they portray. Not everyone in America goes to a big public high school, but everyone goes to a high school governed by a hierarchy of popularity and cliques. Films set at college are never as universally recognizable, because people's experiences after high school are too different to generalize about. Universities, unlike high schools, are not unitary social structures. The second essential quality of these films is that they are all, basically, the same. The formula allows one to savor minor differences and adaptations.