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An in-depth look at teen movies
posted by Paul on 2/13/01

Teen movies. For some, the mere mention will evoke feelings of nausea. For others, screams of delight followed by wistful reminiscing about the last great movie they saw - likely some soppy romance between two implausibly attractive " actors " . One of the most reviled genres in Hollywood today, sage critics see it as nothing more than a cynical marketing exercise - a cheap way to cash-in. But teen movies are churned out at an alarming degree, and nary a week goes by without the box-office being bombarded by another fresh face. It's a genre which comes in waves - either wildy successful or virtually non-existent - but we're in the midst of a crest right now. A crest which has seen countless new stars come to the fore. While the likes of Chris Klein and Joshua Jackson may not be around in ten years, they'll have made their fortunes within the next three years. And that's all that matters. Because the teen movie wave leaves few survivors.

So, with teen movies being so richly in vogue, it's time to put this genre under some serious scrutiny.

Brief history of the teen movie.

The Teen Movie has been prevalent and popular since the 1950's - that post-war era of re-invention. Movies such as " The Wild One " and " Rebel without a Cause " catered to disillusioned youths wanting to rebel. They didn't have the noticeable trademarks of modern day teen movies, but the message was the same: youths are misunderstood, and adults are out of touch. Juvenile movies such as " Porky's ", " Risky Business " and " Bachelor Party " captured the rebellion of youth and the freedom of non-parental contact. It also gave us Tom Cruise dancing around in Y-Fronts, but so did " Magnolia ", and that's considered a classic. In the mid-eighties, John Hughes, the man most credit for the re-birth of teen movies, would popularize the " infinite youth " concept. In movies such as " Sixteen Candles ", " Ferris Bueller's Day Off " and " The Breakfast Club ", Hughes was sympathetic to the teenage perspective, while always putting the adults in a relatively ( or blatantly ) negative light. There were no shades of grey here, and the scenario was very much " Us Vs Them ". Of course, many real-life teens experienced this every day, waging that war with the other generation. This inter-generational conflict runs through many teen movies - the teens portrayed as individual, the parents cold, pushy and robotic.

The John Hughes style of teen movie was light, breezy, formulaic, but above all, very profitable. What distinguished it was Hughe's trademark of depicting that awkward stage of puberty, blending it with social commentary, generally excising ethnicities ( generally, diverstity only existed in these movies to provide white America with a cheap laugh ). Poor kids, rich kids and " uncool " kids mixing together, and the dynamic that creates. " The Breakfast Club " is still widely viewed as a classic, and a guilty pleasure, transcending age barriers and echoing out as much to this generation as much as to the last. " Ferris Bueller " is still remembered fondly, and that movie ( as well as " Wargames " ) set Matthew Broderick on his quest for success. Hughes helped make Broderick, Estevez, Sheedy, Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall synomynous with the genre which spawned them. And while that certainly propelled Broderick to more varied projects, it mired the others in an endless stream of type-cast roles.

Like most fads, the teen movie began to fizzle out. An assembly line of bargain basement rip-offs didn't prolong the shelf life, but movies such as " Say Anything " and " Heathers " helped bring some originality back to the genre. In reality, much like those miniature robots, teen movies began to die with the eighties. Some were made, but it was sparing, unsuccessful and obvious that the spark was gone.

Richard Linklater's " Dazed and Confused ", a well-received retro movie ( think an acidic " American Graffiti " ) put a fresh spin on teenage " coming of age ". This independent featured such as future stars as Ben Affleck, Matthew Mc Connaughey and Joey Lauren Adams ( seemingly before the helium took control of her voicebox ). Whilst not making a huge profit at the box-office, it remains a cult classic with an enormous following. It wasn't until 1995 that the teen genre got the proverbial kick in the ass - hard and fast. " Clueless " made a name out of the limited Alicia Silverstone, and was critically praised for its snappy dialogue, smart plot and overall breeziness. Satire at its MTV best. It was made by Amy Heckerling, who directed eightie's teen favorite " Fast Times at Ridgemont High " and helped spawn a short-lived TV show, giving rise to anemic imitations like " Bring it On " and " Girl ".

What really re-started the whole teen trend was the incredible success of " Scream ". Written by self-confessed John Hughes fanatic, Kevin Williamson, " Scream " helped revive two dying genres - teen and horror. " Scream " stood out from the pack for its ironic dialogue, plot and knowing young cast, delivering hip one-liners like they were squeezed from the womb of Quentin Tarantino. So, " I Know What You Did Last Summer " was followed by " I Still Know What You Did Last Summer " and, presumably, " I Really Know What You Did Two Summers Ago, but let's stretch this franchise to ten inferior sequels ". The proliferation of teen movies brought fresh faces such as Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar and ( wait, as I pound my keypad ) Freddie Prinze Jr. No-one said they could act ( I hope ), but they were fresh faces who worked for next to nothing, and didn't let their as yet undeveloped megalomania sink their productions.

Like circus monkeys with twice the egos, half the talent and ten times the self-delusion.

And so began an unending barrage of teen movies. Some good, some atrocious, some even worse than that. Genres within a genre. You had your ironic, " OMG I so like know I'm in a movie and will prove so by delivering cleverly written lines in a monotone " vehicles ( " Scream " , " Urban Legend " ), your " I'm an outsider who will be accepted by the third act " travesties ( " Never Been Kissed ", " The Faculty ", " Loser " ), the " gross-outs " ( " American Pie ", " Road Trip " ) and your typical Freddie Prinze Jr " he's sweet and sensitive, but why doesn't his expression change? " snoozefests.

Love, bonding, horror and irony all wrapped up in one cynical genre.

And I thought the horror was that people were actually greenlighting this drivel. The actual horror is that these movies usually end up doing incredible business, often debuting at the top of the box-office. Look at these figures:

" SHE'S ALL THAT" - $63m gross
" Bring It On " - $68m gross
" Can't Hardly Wait " - $25m gross
" Urban Legend " - $38m gross
" American Pie " - $101m gross.

There's your general trend. Some teen movies, like " Loser ", barely make a profit, but most cost little more than $10 million to make and recoup at least twice that. Since Hollywood is all about the bottom line, assembly-line film-making, which guarantees a decent profit, doesn't compromise anyone's integrity. After all, when you consider that producers are more than willing to pay a guy like Schwarzenegger $25m a movie, it's easy to understand why the teen movie is such a strong commodity.

Answering the riddle

Why are teen movies still made and what makes them so popular? Who is responsible for this disgusting slew of rip-offs and generic, by-the-number plots? Do teen movies have any redeeming features? If a tree fell on Freddie Prinze Jr, would anyone care? Is Freddie Prinze Jr actually a tree?

The first question has an obvious answer. Teen movies are made because they still recoup a lot of money, whilst costing ( relatively ) little to produce and market. And they're still popular because they play to impressionable kids - playing on their fears, dreams, doubts and insecurities. Marketers know that, for most, adolesence is/was a lonely time. A time when you doubt yourself, question your qualities and start to make new friends, lose old ones and wonder if you have a worthwhile place in the world. Many people still have lingering insecurities harbored since adolesence, and Hollywood film-makers tend to be the geekiest people on the planet, so surely they must be adequate purveyors of teen angst. Fact is, they'd know about the trials, tribulations and nightmares of teenage life better than most.

Here's where Hollywood wields its cynical power, where the old teen formula comes into play, where a tried and tested ingredients are applied to make huge amounts of money. It's teen movie cooking: THE HOLLYWOOD WAY.

Ingredient One: Misunderstood Protagonist ( s )

Logic: At some point in life, everyone has felt insecure, isolated or misunderstood.

Hollywood Logic: Let's manipulate these pimply dorks into thinking our movie offers something to which they can relate. Translation: Their money is ours!!

Example of this ingredient..

" Loser "

Jason Biggs plays a loser. He's really a nice guy - smart, good-natured and witty. Of course, everyone only realizes that after the third act. The first two acts are spent ridiculing his taste in clothes and general dorkishness. In the end, he falls in love with Mena Suvari. Does she serve any other function in these movies?

Ingredient Two: Bonding

Logic: Every teen movie must have bonding, no matter how weakly written and shoddily executed.

Hollywood Logic: Bonding movies make a lot of money. Make sure there is some fake bonding in the script. We want our damn numbers. Now!!

Example of this ingredient..

" American Pie "

Vacuous Chris Klein and nerdy Jason Biggs can't stop thinking and talking about getting laid, eventually realizing that life's not about getting laid; it's with whom you get laid that counts. What a mind-blowingly original observation.

Ingredient Three: Implausibly good-looking cast members

Logic: No-one wants to spend ninety minutes of their life staring at close-ups of ugly people. If they wanted to do that, they'd stay at home.

Hollywood Logic: Ugly people have no place in our movies, unless we want to make crude jokes at their expense. This completely negates the fact that we're ugly people - inside and out -, but we're not big on irony.

Example of this ingredient..

" I Know What You Did Last Summer "

Starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, her breasts, babyfaced Ryan Philippe, blankfaced Freddie, and the red-hot Sarah Michelle Gellar ( if by " red-hot ", you mean she's a regular in this sort of pap ).

Ingredient Four: Jocks, geeks, losers and freaks. Oh, and the obligatory stud and babe.

Logic: Every college in the world has these thinly veiled cariacatures parading their corridors. But what are they?

Jock - guy who drinks a lot, is very popular with the opposite sex and is typically shallow. Brainless, brawny, cool and cocky. See Trip Mc Neely in " Can't Hardly Wait ".

Geek - Wears glasses and/or has ginger hair. Awkward disposition. Obsessed with studying - usually science and maths. Has to love computers and Sci-Fi. Not popular with the opposite sex. Ridiculed endlessly. See Brian in " The Breakfast Club ".

Freak - free spirit. Aloof. Individual. Probably into obscure music, and his/her weird gothic attire will reflect this. Not at all social. Critical of jocks. See Alison in " The Breakfast Club ".

Stud - good-looking guy, over whom every girl absolutely, unequivocally fawns. Usually a notch above the Jock, in that he isn't necessarily dumb, and can often be quite deep.

Babe - Does this need an explanation? See Katie Holmes in practically anything.

Hollywood Logic: Text-book characters give us the opportunity to create formulaic movies, not requiring us to give viewers a fresh perspective. Hey, it's all money. Why should we be original?

Example of this ingredient

" Can't Hardly Wait "

A movie featuring every stereotype imaginable. These " characters " don't breathe, they merely exist.


High School / College

You'd be hard-pressed to find a teen movie that didn't feature some sort of learning establishment. This completely ignores the fact that

1 ) many teens drop out of school.

2) some teens can't go to school.

3) many teenage girls are pregnant at an early age.

4) not everything in life revolves around school!!!

That is a minor gripe, since I have to remind myself that the females of the teen movie world are only concerned with: their hair, their make-up, their popularity, and still having time to pass their oh-so-important exams. And I can't help but be amused by the schools in the teen movie world. For one, the teachers only seem to teach writing, English and self-improvement ( very deep, those teachers ). For two, the students seem to have free reign over the whole campus. Case in point: " The Breakfast Club " gang were able to explore the school, while Bender even managed to shoot a few hoops ( basketballs just happened to be readily available ).

Life after the Teen Movie

Hey, look on the bright side. Not all about career burnout and long stays at the Betty Ford clinic. While most teen movie stars never transcend type-casting hell, some luminaries have carved great careers for themselves. If you had said twenty years ago that Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise would be two of the biggest movie stars in screen history, winning a stack of awards along the way, you would have been laughed out of the vicinity and never been allowed back. But appearing in two popular teen movies didn't stall their progress. And don't forget that Coppola's " The Outsiders " ( 1983 ) featured a veritable " who's who " of future stars - and the karate kid!

It can be done.

The closing credits

Unlike most of their protagonists, it rarely ends " happily ever after " for teen movie alumni. It's a stigma many have to carry around, and few can shake. A curse. A mistake. One out of which few manage to break. Which is unfortunate, because there are actually many talented people working in that genre. It's just the elitist attitude of Hollywood critics. The lack of imagination of film-makers. The stereotypes associated with teen movies:

1) they're dumb.

2) they're unimaginative.

3) all you need is a pretty face.

And that is generally true. But it'd be most unfair if I didn't tip my hat to original efforts like " Election ", " 10 Things I Hate About You " and " Final Destination " - movies which prove that teen movies can offer creative outlooks. So scarce are those efforts, that the teen movie , while offering a fun diversion, must be considered unoriginal by design. But what does it matter? As long as teen audiences, with no concept of " irony ", " cynicism " or " this movie is a rehash. That'll be $9 " continue to flock to the auditoriums to see the latest Hollywood blondes, teen movies will continue to be made.

And it's likely that the Hewitts, Gellars and Larters will drop off the radar scale within the next few years, but not before making a string of horrible movies and proving that beauty can only take you so far.