Teen films, when watched as a teenager, become a part of us. We define ourselves through the worlds we see on screen, emulate the characters we fall in love with, build our wardrobes around the clothes they wear, and listen to the music they talk about. Every generation has their own canon of teen flicks. Are you a product of the John Hughes classics? Can you quote Heathers? Did Chronicle totally blow your mind? Beyond Clueless, the debut doc by film critic Charlie Lyne, explores the movies that shaped his own teen experience. He's taken one of the most prolific decades in Hollywood teen history: 1994 to 2004. Using clips from movies made over that period he’s crafted a visual essay that explores the world of the teen movie. It's soundtracked by a band called Summer Camp, which I happen to be one half of. Working on this film was an utter joy. We already draw heavily on the awkward but nostalgically romantic days of youth in our music—put it this way: Jordan Catalano has a lot to answer for. Despite no longer being teenagers we still feel enthralled by that weird time in everyone's life, when everything matters so much, but equally nothing really matters at all. Exploring the testing ground of adulthood is very much our MO. We loved being so close to the films we'd grown up watching, every day falling further and further into that world of tropes, cliques and clichés. A place where it's always sunny, everyone is beautiful, and witches are real.
The film has changed a lot since we first talked about it two years ago. I was expecting a lot of hilarious “Hey did you know Alicia Silverstone feeds her baby straight from her mouth now?!” type moments, but all that changed when Charlie sent us the first edits of the film. Beyond Clueless is a piece of art; it moves elegantly through a realm we all know and love so well, giving it gravitas and beauty. By cutting together everything from Mean Girls to Eurotrip to Ginger Snaps, he has made a classic of his very own. And reading his thesis on this era of prolific teen culture is Nancy from The Craft—Fairuza Balk!
I kind of hate this guy.
Anyway, I made Charlie sit down with me so I could find out exactly why so many of us are dressing like Cher Horowitz these days.
Elizabeth Sankey: We were obviously very pleased do to the soundtrack for the film, and loved every second, but I have to ask, why didn't you want music more like that featured in the teen movies of the era, pop punk classics from Save Ferris and Mighty Mighty Bosstones?
Charlie Lyne: In my mind, the soundtrack—like the film—had to fulfill two very specific criteria: it had to evoke the hyper-sensory, overwrought world of the teen movie, but it also had to take a step back and hint at the dissonance beneath the surface of that world. Mighty Mighty Bosstones might have risen to the first task, but I doubt they would have got far with the second. Your music, on the other hand, had proven itself so adept at creating a self-contained universe and then prodding it until it revealed its seamy underbelly.
I need to ask you about clothes. I feel like we used to get our style inspiration from movies like Empire Records and Clueless, now teenagers get it from Tumblr.
I wonder whether, on some level, the knowledge that teenagers are likely to imitate what they see in films gives some filmmakers a license to do whatever they want, thinking, "Well, this might not be accurate now, but by the time the film hits DVD, it will have influenced enough 15-year-olds that it'll start to look accurate." Teen movies are certainly a vicious—or virtuous—circle, informing teen culture as much as they're informed by teen culture. Though, like you say, that's probably less and less true now that sites like Tumblr are offering teenagers a million different definitions of what it means to be an adolescent.
And definitions from so many different eras, we're all wearing plaid two pieces now because of Clueless, but in reality in 1994 no one was dressing like that. I find it hard to tell if I was the way I was because of the films I watched, or if the films I watched were like that because that's how teenagers were. These films are so influential, especially in terms of style and fashion. Was there anything you emulated as a teen that you'd seen in a film?
The era of teen movies I grew up with was actually quite a distinct moment where all male protagonists became slightly laughable and not really aspirational in the same way. You're not gonna want to dress like Jim from American Pie. It felt like at that instant they were trying to express teenage boys anxieties rather than give them a role model, there was no Christian Slater from Pump Up The Volume of the late 90s that I can think of.
Fairuza Balk narrated the film and you directed the recording yourself in LA. How did you feel on the plane on the way over?
Terrified. Although my fear was mostly to do with what recording the narration with Fairuza meant, which was that the words were then set in stone. So any fear I had about meeting her, or being professional, was so overpowered by my fear of there being a single line that I didn't want in there.
But in the 10 seconds before you met her when you saw her walking towards you...
It was weird. Also she looks exactly the same. I'm sure I affected something like a professional filmmaker tone, but she could probably tell I was quite excited. ot least because I was bearing the baggage of yours and everyone else's excitement, so I was like the excitement ambassador. Hattie [Stewart, who created the titles for the film] had made me take the incredible illustration she did of Fairuza and I'd gone out the day before and got it framed. Fairuza was really sweet about it and, as you would be, really pleased. n fact last I heard from her she was trying to get it put onto T-shirts. I may have seemed slightly like a distressed mega-fan in that moment. I gave her your albums as well, didn't I? Everyone gave me some stuff to give her.
So she turns up for a voiceover record and…
And suddenly she leaves with a goodie bag. I don't know if she ever listened to your albums or anything.
Probably didn't. Probably gave them straight to the charity shop.
Yeah those LA charity shops.
OMG it's Fairuza Balk! She of 'The Craft' and 'Almost Famous' and 'Return to Oz'!
Everybody has the films they loved as a teen and in many ways we build our persona around those films. They're as much a part of our teenage years and history as actually being a teenager.
I remember the films that at the time I thought told me what the world was, but now I realize they say far more about me because of how I perceived them. I vividly remember watching The Girl Next Door when I was 14 and that being very exciting for all manner of reasons, but not least in an aspirational way, “I'm like that guy: sexually anxious and unsure of myself. Maybe someone is going to come along and whisk me off my feet and show me the whole wide world!” Now I watch that film and I find it very creepy and misogynistic. But the fact you watch them so unthinkingly at the time makes them all the more powerful and all the more scary to look back at.
A lot of pop culture from the era you cover in the film hasn't dated well because everyone is white, everyone is straight, and if you’re gay it's tough and it defines you, there's never anyone trans, or it would be dealt with in a very odd way, such as in It's A Boy Girl Thing.
I like the idea of reading It's A Boy Girl Thing as a trans story It's so undeniable that the teen genre has massive problems with all of those elements. We've had people who seem to read Beyond Clueless as sexist or racist or homophobic and it's a hard thing to argue about. We do feature lots of instances of sexism, homophobia, and I suppose by implication racism because any racial variation is so absent from these movies. And because we don't explicitly condemn those issues people, perhaps fairly, think it's missing it's remit somewhat. I remember having conversations with you about this. I was very concerned that people would read it like that for those reasons. And yet still I was always really reluctant to tackle it head on because it felt like it was too much of a sacrifice to the ethos of the whole film, which was always to stay completely within the world of these movies and question them by implication rather than explicitly.
But I think you can watch those films and love them but still know that they're incredibly flawed. I look back on the person I was when I watched them and I was living in a very quiet, suburban, closeted world.
The other day in a Q&A someone said they didn't like the film She's The Man because it was a quite homophobic film, and the homophobia was not from the original Shakespearean source material, which is the play Twelfth Night. But don't you think it's authentic that this story transposed to an American college in 2006 would result in some sort of homophobia being drawn out, and it's more whether you feel like the film endorses that or not? I remember being at school in south London, and one or two kids openly saying they were gay, and that not being a big deal. But still “gay” to mean bad was everywhere. I'm sure I said it and I wonder if that has died out now. If it hasn't it does feel like it's logical for these films to depict that backdrop, and hopefully interrogate it, but I don't know whether it's the job of these films to set an example by portraying an idealized world where these things don't exist.
Totally. When I saw 21 Jump Street, a film which isn't in Beyond Clueless since it came out very recently—Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill go back to high school and are expecting to find the cliques they knew – but instead people are comfortable being openly gay, and the jocks work hard and are into environmental issues. I found myself perversely feeling sad that the world I had seen portrayed in teen films didn't exist any more.
But in 21 Jump Street we see that cliques are still there, but just that they've changed. I love a teen movie that throws out all the stuff that has preceded it and still presents a fraught world that's not idealized at all. How brilliant to say, “You know what, homosexual anxiety is not the big issue for today's teenagers, it was 20 years ago and you can take your precious canonized John Hughes films without a single gay character in them, and send them back where they came from because we have this now.”
Do you like John Hughes films?
Yeah, but if I had a teenage son or daughter I wouldn't give them the John Hughes films.
Because of the values they represent?!
I'm a very laissez-faire parent, I'll give them whatever they want! But so many people who grew up on those John Hughes films have told me, “Oh I showed my 13-year-old-son The Breakfast Club and now he agrees with me that The Breakfast Club is the best teen movie that has ever been made.” I just think that's not what your teen son probably needs to see, show him something new, show him Chronicle, show him The Fault In Our Stars. Even John Hughes spoke about those movies being for teenagers.
He was the first director to do that.
e wouldn't have wanted them turned into untouchable symbols that have to be bestowed upon every generation. Teen movies should have a shelf life. In Pitch Perfect—and I like that film a lot—there's a scene where the male lead love interest sits Anna Kendrick down and makes her watch The Breakfast Club and says without a hint of irony, “Oh it's just so beautiful and sad at the same time” and it's like, who are you talking on behalf of? This is not something that I hazard your average 19-year-old boy in America obsesses over.
I was incredulous the first time I saw The Breakfast Club, I saw it with a gang of people, and they were all so moved by it, and I thought it was dripping in sanctimonious saccharine sentiment I didn't feel like it represented me. But it represents every teenager! As long as they're white and straight and belonging to one of five cliques.
And beautiful. And if they're not beautiful then they get a FUCKING MAKEOVER. But I watched the rest of his films a couple of years later when I wasn't a teenager any more and loved them because they reminded me of that age. But teen films aren't supposed to be respected by adults and watched in art-house cinemas.
On release, John Hughes films were brilliant teen movies for teenagers and had all the hallmarks of that, right down to the outraged articles at the time saying, “They smoke marijuana, we must ban this sick film.” But like a lot of teen movies they have mutated into something which will only really mean much to adults, which is kind of the way it should be. Otherwise we should just stop now: all the teen movies that ever need be made have been made and we can just show teenagers those.
Elizabeth and Charlie performing Britney's "Everytime" together. In public.
It's funny how teen movies educate teenagers more so than anything else. I remember watching The Craft secretly before I was allowed to, and seeing an attempted rape, long before I even knew what rape was. The amazing thing about teen films is that as long as you stick to the format—make sure you have the prom at the end—and you can kind of depict anything and go anywhere with it.
Yeah, which makes seeing a bolt from the blue, like that attempted rape, a visceral act of violence, so much more powerful at that age because you feel like you're safe. You're still talking about it 15 years later, so it clearly had the desired effect.
I feel like the teen movie world changed because of events like Columbine and 9/11, do you agree?
I think you're right that world events had an impact. Normally they are so beyond the scope of teen movies because the genre is so insular and self-contained, but something like Columbine, alongside maybe the death of Kurt Cobain, and a very small number of other events, actually permeated the skin of that genre and really affected the way these movies work. I was wondering recently whether the current campus rape crisis—a major story that principally affects teenagers or people who are just out of their teenage years—might start to leave its mark on all these films. Especially because they flirt with lots of elements of rape culture. Now that this has become such an epidemic and such a publicly facing problem, maybe we'll start to see that bleed into these movies, start to see them address it.
Definitely. I also wonder how feminism will also affect the teen film, since it is currently so huge especially amongst teenage girls. Which it wasn't at all in 1999.
Although I think it's a film that has a lot of problems, Easy A is amazingly good at recognizing the confidence of feminist ideas in teenage communities now. While it feels slightly old hat in the way it approaches certain things, had that been made 10 years earlier I think it would not have been remotely as outspoken as it was in talking about slut shaming and sexual agency. That felt massive, and it was so successful with teenagers. It felt like a turning point. It came out in 2009, compare that to a film like 100 Girls which came out in 2000 and no one has seen...
It sounds great.
Sounds brilliant right? Yeah it's about 100 girls who bandy together to overturn the patriarchy. No it's not. It's about a teenage boy who has sex with a girl in an elevator when the lights are off and then must work out who of 100 girls in a sorority it was. But the weird backbone of this film is an expressly anti-feminist campaign on the part of the male protagonist, ending with him exposing this ridiculous straw feminist character, who is the professor in charge of women's studies at the university, as a misandrist idiot trying to corrupt all the women at the school. It feels like a precursor to the men's rights rhetoric of today. He makes a big speech about how we don't need feminism, we need something that fights for all people to be equal. And that was fine in 2000, but now I think that would feel absurd to most teenagers.
Team Beyond Clueless, left, Jeremy and Elizabeth of Summer Camp, right.
I've been so overwhelmed by the reaction to Beyond Clueless—people have been turning up to the screenings in tartan, letterman jackets and other teen film garb. A lot of the audiences seem to be people who loved the films when they came out, and perhaps watched them on their own, or in their bedrooms with just a few friends, but now they're sitting in an audience with other people who loved those films, all sharing the experience.
Yeah. Teen movies are very populist but they also feel incredibly intimate which I think is a very rare thing. I can't think of many things that are totally mass market and meant for huge swathes of people but still encourage and inspire these really deep personal bonds. You can feel like a film that was number one at the box office was made just for you. Which is kind of amazing. There's something very enthralling but strange to gather people together in a shared space to watch Beyond Clueless, it does feel like you're almost breaking some cardinal rule by taking them out of an intimate space and putting them in a cinema, but at the same time it feels like a revelation each time to see 200 people sitting together watching it. Part of me wants to grab each one of them and work out why on earth they're here. What do they hope to gain from sitting and watching the film? I imagine for a lot of them I think it would the same answer: "I thought I was the only one who liked Idle Hands this much."
Elizabeth Sankey is one of the funniest people we know and she makes great music. Ugh. We kind of hate her. But she's on Twitter.