Turn-of-the-century teen flicks are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. For proof, take Iggy Azalea doing her finest Cher Horowitz in the video for “Fancy,” or the recent wave of reverential nostalgia that swept through media (us included) to mark the tenth anniversary of Mean Girls. But one young British film critic has taken his love for what he calls “the second golden age of teen movies” to glorious new heights. Charlie Lyne was at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival last week to present Beyond Clueless, an exhaustive, sharply written visual essay celebrating a genre too often dismissed by stodgy film theorists. The film, which came in second for Hot Docs’ Filmmaker-To-Filmmaker award, explores cult teen classics from Clueless (1995) to Mean Girls (2004) by breaking down their tried-and-tested antics: Game-changing house party drunkenness! School cafeteria hierarchies! Socially reprehensible sexual awakenings! Lyne and his team of derision-free Brits embrace Jawbreaker, Disturbing Behavior, The Rules of Attraction and 13 Going On 30 for all they can teach us about existential doubt, chastity-tossing etiquette and the upshot of unruly classroom conduct. Plus, the narration is handled with aplomb by quintessential teen witch Fairuza Balk (The Craft), who lends gravitas to lines like: “In a world where cliques rule, they’ll get nowhere on their own.”I caught up with the impassioned Lyne to talk about what he’s taken away from his 300+ film journey into a parallel universe of bright and bubbly cheerleaders, foreboding body transformations and Freddie Prinze Jr.
The Beyond Clueless screening at Hot Docs coincided with Mean Girls’ ten-year mark. At your South By Southwest premiere, you rejoiced in the 15th anniversary of The Rage: Carrie 2. Is it fair to assume there’ll always be some landmark teen movie anniversary to celebrate?
The good thing about getting the film out this year is that it’s the fifteenth anniversary of 1999, i.e. the peak of the bell curve of our era of teen movies. There were more teen movies released in 1999 than in any other year in history, many of which became what we now think of as teen movie classics: 10 Things I Hate About You, American Pie, Election, She’s All That, Never Been Kissed, But I’m A Cheerleader… It’s great because whenever we have a screening, it’s almost guaranteed to be on the anniversary of some big film.
Beyond Clueless chronicles what you define as the second major wave of American teen movies. Why not broaden the scope of your research beyond the United States?
We originally considered broadening it to include some British and European ones, but our reason for making the film was to create a world that you would unthinkingly go into and never be pulled out of. Ultimately, it just felt too jarring to occasionally get a glimpse of a British private school – the outfits, scenarios and voices are so different – so we felt it best to wholeheartedly adopt a certain place and stay inside it.
On the other hand, Beyond Clueless really runs the gamut in terms of genres and levels of quality – from widely praised Shakespearean tragedies (Romeo + Juliet) to overwhelmingly panned schmaltz (Bubble Boy). Why include films that were by most accounts narratively bankrupt misfires?
We tried to ignore considerations of quality wholeheartedly. Without naming any names, there are films in there that I love, others that I hate, some that were critically acclaimed across the board, others that you would struggle to find a single positive review of. More than with any other genre, that’s irrelevant for teen films. The teen films most of my friends are closest to aren’t the ones that were the most popular or the best reviewed. It’s the ones they had on VHS and saw eight times or the ones they taped off the TV and kept watching again and again.
Can you think of a film that was instrumental in your own teenage emancipation?
EuroTrip. It’s the kind of film that really hit me three times, each in a completely different but equally powerful way. It felt incredibly taboo, exciting and dangerous when I first saw it at 14. It felt very transgressive, which I think is a key teen movie thing. For certain people, it represents their first flirtation with something a bit illicit. A few years later, I started seeing it in a more nuanced way and thinking about how weird that a seemingly straightforward, fluffy movie has all this weird stuff going on beneath the surface. In researching this film, I had a final re-watch, and in the context of this wider body of work, the film remains really fascinating.
You train your lens on the 1995 to 2004 period, declaring it to be the “greatest decade in teen movie history.” What set this golden age apart from the genre’s previous peaks in popularity?
There are certain things that set this era apart from the ‘80s or the teen rebellion movies of the ‘50s, and it really has to do with variety. Teen movies in the ‘80s were a big financial and cultural phenomenon, but it seemed to be dominated by a few specific figures: the Brat Pack and John Hughes. People were waiting for the new movie by this person or featuring that actor, whereas in the ‘90s, it was much more scattershot. You have these films that stick out, like Clueless or Cruel Intentions, but it’s so wide and incredibly varied, which to me seems like the perfect distillation of the teen experience. Why wouldn’t teen movies reflect that teenage feeling that you could be anything – part of this or that clique, either incredibly romantic or countercultural, loads of different things.
You didn’t really delve into the teen films you consider to be “nearly perfect” – Clueless, Cruel Intentions, Mean Girls and 10 Things I Hate About You. Why didn’t these pillars merit further investigation?
We wondered what we could say about teen films that hadn’t already been said a million times. That’s surprisingly easy with this genre, as it’s really overlooked by the critical body. New reviews of teen movies tend to be quite flippant and throwaway. I spent a lot of the film thinking about it like therapy; we were trying to coax these movies into revealing something about themselves that they didn’t intend to. But that’s very hard to do with a film that knows itself as well as Clueless does, or is as perfectly constructed as Cruel Intentions. Because all you can really do then is repeat what happens and say it’s brilliant for obvious reasons. We were much more interested in moving further away from the highest point of the teen movie, where there was more to uncover, like with Idle Hands or Bubble Boy.
I felt a pang of nostalgia hit me at the sight of so many former queen bees and top-of-the-food-chain heartthrobs who’ve since been relegated to bit parts (Freddie Prinze Jr., Rebecca Gayheart, Andrew Keegan). Why do teen movie starlets so often struggle to graduate into successful adult careers?
A comedic actor who wants to be taken more seriously can dabble in drama while always having comedies to fall back on. But if you’re a teen actor, when you grow up, you need to be taken seriously playing adult parts, and you can’t fall back on playing teenagers! There’s nowhere to go. What’s been really lovely is that in the year it took us to make this film, a few people have completely re-emerged from obscurity. When we started making the film, Natasha Lyonne (But I’m A Cheerleader, American Pie) was barely visible – I wasn’t sure whether she was still acting. Now, she’s huge. Orange is the New Black is one of the biggest shows in the world, and she’s easily in the top ten most famous people in our movie! If you look at some of the people from the Brat Pack, they slightly fell into obscurity in the ‘90s but then went on to experience massive career reawakenings ten years later. Sometimes, a bit of a down period is necessary so people can accept these stars in their new skin.
Had you been an American teen coming of age on the big screen in the ‘90s, where would you have fallen along the clique continuum/social pecking order?
I always wonder because I have a half-sister who has just finished high school in Detroit, so she’s my window into the reality of American high school. We’ve had conversations about cliques, where she fits in and where I would fit in. The person I find myself hoping I would be is Laney Boggs [Ed’s Note: Rachael Leigh Cook’s character] from She’s All That, this stereotypical “angry artist” type. But that’s purely because I was one of the art kids at my high school in England, and it means a very different thing there. It’s not quite the same as standing in your overalls, throwing paint around and angrily rejecting the jocks and cheerleaders. It’s all a little bit more integrated. I’m sure I would struggle to find a natural fit in that world… Which is perhaps why I’m desperately trying to find my way into it now.