The New School

Everything I need to know about the modern American teen I learned by going to the movies

Good morning, children, and welcome back to class. You may have noticed that a new student has joined us. Or, actually, quite a few new students. About 60 million, to take a quick guess. Say hi, everybody. Now, they might look familiar, they might look a little like the teenagers you've been going to school with all these years, the ones you used to see in teen movies, but they're different. Better. Stronger. Faster. Richer. In fact, they brought a note from home saying that they have permission to kick your ass and take over the place.

Oh, and if you haven't noticed, the school has moved too. It's been repainted and rewired, the cliques and cliches rearranged, the teachers lobotomized, the cafeteria expanded. It's their school now, so please pass your locker keys to the front of the room. They know there's not a demographic on earth with more potential right now than the American teenager--those about to outnumber Baby Boomers, approaching with their giant wads of disposable income. So whatever they want, whatever they buy, whatever they know...goes.

Today's lesson, then, is this: The forces of mainstream consumer culture have begun an all-out campaign to win the minds and loyalty of today's emerging, swelling body of teenagers, publishing miniature versions of their magazines (Teen People, Teen Newsweek, Teen Cosmo) and creating TV shows that have finally gotten under their skin (Dawson's Creek, Daria, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

But nowhere is this takeover more obvious and complete than at the corner megaplex, where a new breed of film has arrived--peppy pop cinema with a low price tag and easy success. And with films such as Varsity Blues (which cost $16 million) and She's All That ($10 million) grossing around $60 million each, there's much, much more on the way. The public exploration of high school at the end of the 20th century will continue this summer and into the fall and on and on, and with it, the solidification of a new genre: the New Teen Cinema.

Spend some time in the halls of this shiny fictionalized school, and you'll see students living a life so self-assured, so complete, so funny and tightly scripted that you'll wonder why anyone would want to hurt their classmates. These kids inhabit sunny semi-urban lands with no adults and no irony and lots of encouragement to just be themselves. The school where they dwell was erected not by teens, but for them, mostly by aging GenX-ers who grew up on the emotional class-conflict comedies of John Hughes and the mindless sex romps of late-night Cinemax. They've created this school for their younger brothers and sisters, and now plan a total recolonization of American mass culture, attempting to recast history into a mold polished and styled for the Next Wave of Human Beings.

Throughout the summer, themes and moods of this New Teen Cinema will continue to play in heavy rotation like eight-dollar pop songs: there one minute, gone the next, replaced by something almost exactly the same--but new! The movies feature hit bands, tie-in soundtracks, fresh faces you may have seen on TV or commercials, and sly references to one another. Synergy! Cross-marketing! Fun! To describe this as a movement, an aesthetic, a cohesive scene involved with these films would be a lie. It's all pop. Bits and pieces to get us through the next artistic breakthrough, the next Nirvana or Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Beatles. Whatever force can take hold of 60 million minds and shepherd them into their own self-defining moments.

Until then, the lessons are clear: Twentysomethings are old, adults suck, moments are short, and life belongs to those who can milk each day for the most. The stories adopt the fashion-and-chastity vibe from Clueless (1995) rather than the raunchy realism of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1980); the age-old don't-come-a-knocking atmosphere of the classic teen romp has been replaced by a clean moral code.

All the great stories, all the great dramas and mysteries of life, everything that Boomers railed against in the 1960s and GenX-ers complained about never having, it now belongs to these new young creatures. And all of it right now too. Their lessons move quickly, so write fast. Break out the Nike-branded Trapper Keepers and take a few notes on what the new school has to teach us.

Lesson One: It's OK to be an outcast. Everyone will eventually figure you out, love you, and realize that you were right all along.

None of the laws of the New Teen Cinema applies across the board, but the major themes stand out like the albino kid in gym class. Chief among them is the role of the outcast, the rebel, the nerd, the weirdo, a character who has traditionally been the hero of teen movies. From Rebel Without a Cause to Grease to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the passionate kid with a vision is always eccentric and troubled. And in high school, as everyone knows, eccentric kids are to be mocked and ridiculed, taunted and teased. So add to their world a few dumb jocks and prissy debutantes, and you've got instant drama and conflict.

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