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'Beyond Clueless' Reveals the Secrets to All Your Favourite Teen Movies

We spoke to director Charlie Lyne about his new documentary on the art form that is the teen film.

Amelia Abraham

Amelia Abraham

A still from Beyond Clueless.

If you were a teenager in the late 90s or early 2000s, I challenge you to convince me that American Pie didn’t teach you at least some of what you know about sex. Back then, teen movies were a window to a fantasyland of so-called America, and in it, hot girls walked slow-mo down corridors, boys all looked like Paul Walker, and everyone bunked off class to hang out at the beach.

No one understands the lurid appeal of the teen movie better than filmmaker (and occasional VICE writer) Charlie Lyne, and in his new documentary Beyond Clueless, he explains exactly how films like She’s All That helped us come of age. With footage from literally hundreds of cult classics, it’s like the film equivalent of a Teen Movie Reader, and will make you wish you went to an American High School instead of a crappy suburban comprehensive all over again.

We called up director Charlie Lyne and had a chat with him about making the film, his favourite teen movies, and why he thinks teen movie tropes continue to work, time and time again.

VICE: For any teen movie fan, Beyond Clueless is a great nostalgia trip, but what does it offer to a teen film audience that’s new?
Charlie Lyne:
Watching Beyond Clueless is the equivalent of watching 300 teen movies simultaneously, so whatever you make of it, it’s inarguably a timesaver. It also has a really great soundtrack by Summer Camp, so if you’re not enjoying the movie you can always just close your eyes and listen to that.

The film has some amazing edit sequences drawing together clips from different teen movies. My particular favourites are the pool sequence and the ejaculation sequence. Did you edit it?  
Yeah, I edited the movie myself over the course of about a year. I had roughly 450 hours of material to choose from, so picking just the right shot of Freddie Prinze Jr to illustrate each emotional climax was no mean feat.

Still from The Craft. Fairuza Balk pictured right. 

How did Fairuza Balk from The Craft come on board as your narrator? And what do you think she brings to Beyond Clueless?
Fairuza runs a candle-making business in her spare time, so I actually got in touch with her through that. Her voice is absolutely tailor-made for a film like this – you’re never quite sure whether it’s an insider or outsider perspective that you’re hearing. And her candles are brilliant.

The film focuses on the shared tropes of teen films, and really drives home how similar some of these films are. Are you more interested in the similarities, or the films that break away?
The teen movies that break the mould in certain respects are usually the same ones that very carefully toe the line in other areas. That’s how they get away with it. A film like Idle Hands is only able to explore big, ambitious themes like sexual anxiety because it plays it safe in so many other ways. The teen genre is basically one big Trojan horse for some of the most challenging ideas ever committed to celluloid.

Hundreds, even thousands, of teen movies must have been made from the mid-90s to the mid-00s. Why was there such a boom?
In the 1980s, the teen genre was ruled over by a small handful of unimpeachable kingpins, John Hughes being the definitive example. By contrast, the 1990s teen boom was characterised by smaller films, with smaller budgets and less experienced writers and directors at the helm. These stranger, more idiosyncratic teen movies unsurprisingly struck a chord with teenagers who couldn’t see themselves in any of The Breakfast Club’s designated character types.

Still from The Girl Next Door, which features in Beyond Clueless.

Why do you think teen films have so much resonance?
It’s the only genre that is defined by the age of its audience, which is kind of sinister when you really start to think about it. These films are declaring in advance that they want to be seen by people who are at the most impressionable stage of their lives, so it’s no wonder they have such influence. So would The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel if it marketed itself exclusively towards 15-year-olds.

How did you draw a line when it came to selecting films that fall within the genre? There’s some films like American History X or The Dreamers, which you could argue for or against as teen movies…
My only rule was that each film – or the specific subplot of the film that I was interested in – had to capture some sense of adolescence, or some suggestion of the transition from child to adult. I’m not so interested in the specific ages of the characters, or the actors playing them.

I was interested that you chose to include a lot of films that I’d call “horror” films before “teen” films; why do the two so often overlap?
The teen genre isn’t really a genre. It’s an umbrella term that covers comedies, rom-coms, horror films, dramas and a million other kinds of movies. Horror elements crop up especially often because one of the few things that most teenagers agree on is that adolescence can be pretty horrific.

The most common way it rears its head is a parallel for either puberty or menstruation. My favourite is always Ginger Snaps and the subsequent increasingly bizarre sequels and these incredibly elaborate feature-length metaphors for menstruation… It’s compared with becoming a werewolf, which is so brilliantly unsubtle. They say throughout, you know, “I’m growing loads of hair! There’s blood everywhere. I don’t know what’s going on with the way I feel each month!” and then the answer being time and time again, it’s like, “Oh, it’s because I’m a werewolf.”

I think there’s something nice about the wholeheartedly overblown metaphors like that. And there’s no shortage in that genre.

Freddie Prinze Jr in a still from She's All That

There are films like Todd Solondz’ Storytelling and Greg Araki’s Doom Generation in there, and you’ve said that people have tried to dispute this, probably because the films have “respected directors”. I kind of agree, in a way – not to leap to the defence of those filmmakers, but because I kind of think of teen films as guilty pleasures.
A lot of people have a pretty snobby definition of teen movies, which excludes anything that they consider to be artistically valid. The movie I get picked up on more than any other is Rushmore, which is a film about a teenager, set almost entirely at a school. But because it’s Wes Anderson, people put it on a pedestal, and refuse to recognise it as a teen movie.

Obviously America produces a lot more films than Britain generally, but there’s something quintessentially American about the teen movie, right? You seemed to mostly choose American films, and you used an American voiceover. Why is this?
I certainly did, and that’s ultimately what Beyond Clueless is about: interrogating a world in which I feel completely at home, despite its otherness. Although I don’t think there’s anything quintessentially American about teen movies. There are certainly other countries that produce more of them. But America is especially adept at exporting its teen movies around the world, and as a result, it’s hard to grow up in Britain or anywhere else and not become familiar with the very distinctive traits of American teen cinema.

Can we talk conspiracies for a second – you seem to suggest Scotty in Euro Trip is gay! I guess I missed that at the time. What other subliminal messages did I miss?
The psychosexual clusterfuck that is the 2006 body-swap comedy It’s a Boy Girl Thing would have taken our entire 90-minute runtime to unravel, so we decided to leave it be.

Still from Gregg Araki's Nowhere. Photo via.

Beyond Clueless premieres at a teen movie festival that’s coming up in August at the BFI. What else should we check out at the festival?
I tend to gravitate towards the films that I grew up with. Stuff like Gregg Araki’s Nowhere and Harmony Korine’s Kids are immediately sticking out, not least because they both appear in Beyond Clueless and because I know from experience how incredibly hard they are to screen in the UK. It’s quite perilous putting on a movie film festival actually, it’s hard not to go down the route of the teen movies that the Prince Charles [cinema] resurrects every single week, anyway.

You’re also a film reviewer, working for the Guardian and, in the past, us. What’s it been like to be on the other end of film criticism, as the filmmaker?
It’s been great. As a filmmaker, I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than reading a carefully considered appraisal of your work from somebody who’s actually sat down and given it their full attention. It doesn’t really matter whether they like it or not – some of our best reviews have been utterly brutal.

And finally, who is the greatest teen high school queen of them all?
I’ve never actually seen it, but I hear good things about Rose McGowan in Encino Man.

Thanks, Charlie.

@millyabraham

Teenage Kicks, a season of films dedicated to teens on screen, runs at BFI Southbank throughout August. The season includes the London Premiere of Beyond Clueless with a live score performed by Summer Camp on Friday 8 August.

More on teen movies: 

How Heathers Changed Teen Movies Forever

We Watched All Ten Halloween Films in One Day

Happy Tenth Birthday Mean Girls, You Taught Me How To Eye Roll