High School Confidential

Culture and technology.
March 14 1999 3:30 AM

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.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

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.

16 The first teen movies were made in the 1950s, but the genre was largely codified by screenwriter, director, and producer John Hughes, who drew on his experiences at a large suburban Chicago high school in the 1960s in a series of movies made in the 1980s. The first film Hughes directed was the romantic comedy Sixteen Candles (1984). Molly Ringwald plays a quirky, intelligent sophomore who wakes up to discover that everyone in her family has forgotten her birthday. Insult is piled on injury as she confronts her so-called life. In the clip available at right, she faces the daily indignity of the school bus. The plot winds and unwinds a mismatch of affections. The freshman geek with braces, Anthony Michael Hall, has crush on Ringwald. Ringwald has a crush on a cute senior who is dating the feathered blond prom queen. The film has all the commonplaces of the genre--the party that utterly trashes someone's parents' house, the voyeuristic visit to the girl's locker room, the guys betting about getting laid, and the happy comic resolution: The geek beds the prom queen, Ringwald lands the cute senior.

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.

H appily, Some he returned to form in 1986 with Pretty in Pink, which was stylistically the best of the lot. This time Ringwald plays a sweet girl from the wrong side of the tracks who has to choose between the richie, played by Andrew McCarthy, and her loyal pal Duckie, played by Jon Cryer. Pretty in Pink is tragically marred by the wrong ending: Ringwald walks into the sunset with the preppie rich kid. But Hughes must have realized his mistake, because the next year he essentially rewrote it as Some Kind of Wonderful. The quirky and talented poor kid, played by Eric Stoltz, has a crush on the prom queen, which breaks the heart of the orphan girl (!) who has been secretly infatuated with him for years. Check out the clip available at right for the scene in which Stoltz makes the right choice.

Say The male Molly Ringwald was John Cusack, who started his career with a minor role in Sixteen Candles. The second coming of John Hughes was the writer and director Cameron Crowe, who cast Cusack in Say Anything..., a funnier and more touching John Hughes movie than Hughes ever made. Cusack plays the funny kid from a broken home who crushes on the A-student valedictorian played by Ione Skye. In the clip available at right, Cusack answers her dad's question about what he plans to do with his life after high school.

A t the Heathers end of the 1980s, teen films took a darker turn with the black comedy Heathers. The three popular girls, who all have the same name, take up Veronica (Winona Ryder), who can't resist the offer of inclusion but detests their values (they make her ignore her old friends and play cruel practical jokes on losers). Only this time, instead of humiliating the jocks and cheerleaders, Ryder and her boyfriend, played by Christian Slater, kill them. View the clip available at left to see them off the first Heather. As black as it is, Heathers has the same theme as the Ringwald/Cusack movies. It's a fantasy about high school as a kind rather than a cruel place. Ryder realizes that murder is not the right approach and offers to spend prom night with the fat girl everyone abuses.

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.

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