The New School

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

The first meaningful dialogue between these new on-screen generations might come this summer with Kevin Williamson's Teaching Mrs. Tingle, in which genre star Katie Holmes plays a student who kidnaps her teacher and then gets to know her. (The film was originally titled Killing Mrs. Tingle, but it was toned down in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre.) Or perhaps with American Pie, which promises a revival of the early-'80s fascination with poppin' a cherry (Fast Times, Losin' It, Risky Business) couched in a healthy father-son relationship. If only the parents from last year's Disturbing Behavior, who signed their kids up for mind-control so they would behave, had seen more of these new films. Neurological experiments aren't necessary: These kids are angels.

Lesson Four: Live clean, wait for true love, and party.
The cast of the New Teen Cinema is squeaky-clean, perky, and motivated--to be squeaky-clean, perky, and motivated. Kat in 10 Things..., though rebellious and wild, won't date smokers and practices abstinence. Van Der Beek's Moxon turns away a cheerleader who throws herself at him wearing only three dollops of whipped cream. And the biggest conflict for Freddie Prinze Jr.'s Zach in She's All That is whether to go to Harvard or Dartmouth.

The moral center of this new culture might as well be uptight virgin types Dawson Leery or Felicity Porter (yes, Felicity's done it, but she feels really bad about it). And the obscene sexual antics of Cruel Intentions are so over-the-top, so humorously unfathomable, that they simply serve as parodies of adult behavior; the movie's anti-screwing around. The lesson yelled over the constant be-yourself-and-you-shall-prevail messages is that you should only be happy with your one true love. Although real-life high school romances are usually doomed after graduation, the films find closure and meaning when couples hook up by the time prom rolls around.

The raciest of these films so far, Doug Liman's Go, plays around the edges of sex and drugs, lacing the lives of errant teens and twentysomethings with the stuff, just as in real life. Yes, one character (Simon) does get it on with two bridesmaids at the same time and then gropes some strippers, but he's the anomaly. He gets punished too, shot in the arm. There's a great, telling moment when Katie Holmes' flighty Claire is being held as collateral by a likably scuzzy drug dealer. She's nervous as he just stares at her, but any tension that something bad might happen fizzles when he begins needling her: "Are you a virgin? Answer the question, Claire."

It sounds harsh and probing, almost criminal, but he's only quoting a movie to her, replaying the scene from The Breakfast Club in which Judd Nelson's stoner asks Molly Ringwald's prom queen the same question, over and over again, in specific and embarrassing detail. In the original film, as written by John Hughes, it's painful, sexy, and disturbing. In Go, the words simply diffuse a tense situation: I'm playing with you. Joking. Quoting a movie we both like. See? Pain is postmodern in the new high school, therefore painless.

Lesson Five: Stereotypes are OK, so long as you don't take them (or anything) seriously.

One of the best moments from the New Teen Cinema comes at the beginning of 10 Things... as a know-it-all gives the new kid a tour of the school, pointing out the cliques familiar from both life and Hollywood. The beautiful people, the geeks and Goths, the white Rastafarians, etc. In a blatant and obvious finger to the whole concept of stereotypes, there's a band of cowboys on the suburban Seattle campus, defining their own world with big hats and lassos and cans of beans. These surreal cowpokes underscore the arbitrary meaninglessness of social divisions while recognizing that they are a reality. In the new cinematic high school, you can fit into some group or another, no matter how wacky or fucked-up you are. Again, what the Trench Coat Mafia lacked was perspective on their situation, recognition that they might as well declare themselves cowboys or astronauts, that these little "groups" are arbitrary and signify nothing.

Of course, the dramatic core of any good teen romance, from Romeo and Juliet to Grease, is a hot class-conflict love affair. Cliques are therefore necessary, but the new films make the division between classes less a monetary issue and more a factor of personality. All borders between social circles are transparent, and with enough self-confidence, you can leap over them. Kat straddles the worlds of popular girls, lesbian nightclubbers, and motorheads. The brooding, artistic weirdo Laney in She's All That almost becomes prom queen. Seth Green's hip-hopper wannabe in Can't Hardly Wait somehow makes the white kid empathetic.

The classic stereotypes of jocks and nerds and prom kings have survived, though each in a more acceptable, watered-down version. Geeks are kind of hip. Math chicks are cute. Jocks can be smart. (Beefy boys Van Der Beek in Varsity Blues and Tobias Mehler in Disturbing Behavior both carry around a copy of Slaughterhouse Five.) A few new stereotypes have been added to the mix too: Hot lesbians (Election, 10 Things...). White kids who want to be black (Go, Can't Hardly Wait, 10 Things...). Gay kids who flaunt it (Go, Cruel Intentions). But, as always, being popular makes you shallow, being awkward makes you weak, being smart makes you a total dork, being an unfairly maligned outcast makes you a hero. Same as before, same as always.

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