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.
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.
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.