The brains behind a new film celebrating the pleasures of teen cinema takes us through his favourite genre clichés
When you start to deconstruct movies, it’s easy to overlook their simpler, more intuitive pleasures. That’s not something I wanted do in Beyond Clueless, my new film about teen cinema – touring around the UK this month – that puts such 90s and 00s classics as I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and She’s All That (1999) under the microscope in an effort to reveal what's really going on beneath the surface of the genre. Teen movies tend to be shamelessly overwrought and all the better for it, so in making Beyond Clueless, I tried to embrace these films' stylistic and emotional excesses, rather than holding them at arm’s length.
The following are pages from a ‘lookbook’ I made while developing the film. It was my attempt to capture the spirit of the teen movie, and hopefully, the spirit of Beyond Clueless.
I firmly believe that The Craft (1996) is the ultimate movie about high-school social strata, so its presence in Beyond Clueless is crucial. Not only does it feature heavily in the film’s opening sequence, but its breakout star, Fairuza Balk, is also our narrator. The scene that adorns this cover — in which Robin Tunney fires a warning shot in the form of a bolt of lightning — might just be my favourite teen-movie moment ever.
No cinematic space is better suited to character exposition than the high school corridor. Home to a million slow-motion stud walks and flirtatious looks from behind the doors of graffiti-daubed lockers, it’s where the teen genre sets its scene.
Bubble Boy (2001) might seem an unlikely candidate for teen movie deification, but only if you’ve yet to give yourself over to its strange and beguiling world. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jimmy, an overprotected adolescent who sets out on a voyage of discovery after the terrifying reality of puberty sets in, and it’s a performance that easily ranks alongside his more critically respected turns in Zodiac (2007) and Nightcrawler (2014).
Teen movies would be nothing without a set of shared tropes tying them to the same peculiar universe — one in which social outcasts become queen bees overnight, and all black men are Sean Patrick Thomas. My favourite recurring device is what TV Tropes calls the ‘Two-Person Pool Party’ — a late-night meeting of two teenage lovebirds in a glimmering moonlit swimming pool.
Is any film more universally misremembered than Varsity Blues (1999)? The film’s most famous scene — in which Ali Larter dons a whipped cream bikini and tries to cop off with James Van Der Beek — is hailed as an iconic sex scene, despite the fact that she breaks down halfway through the sequence and winds up crying into a towel. A perfect distillation of sex in teen movies, come to think of it.
I love the perennial teen-movie trope of the hilariously flawed sex ed lesson, that reveals the faculty of a school to be even more clueless about sexuality than the students (there’s a great one in Whatever It Takes (2000)). Teenagers might be naive, but they’re not stupid, and the best teen movies understand this.
I won’t spoil the meaning of 6A4EVR for anyone who isn’t familiar with the reference, but I will say that it comes from one of the weirdest Hollywood teen movies ever made. All will be revealed in Beyond Clueless.
Angst is the lingua franca of teen movies — an emotional baseline from which a million different characters and storylines can be built. And whether it manifests itself as a brooding videotape confessional or a vandalised multiple-choice exam (as in the two images juxtaposed on this page), its intensity is never in question.
Beyond Clueless is on tour across the UK from January 12. Full details at beyondclueless.co.uk