When I was young my mother would take me to the local theater for the free weekly movie. I watched everything they showed, sobbing through Peter Pan, laughing through Shrek 2, openly weeping at the death of Mufasa. It was my mom’s love of cinematic tales that really sparked my interest in film.
Today, after years as a self-professed movie-lover, I’ve developed quite a well-defined set of tastes. I love Disney films, of any sort. I have a not-so-secret infatuation with Nicolas Cage and his movies; Con Air is a glorious work of art. But even as I begin my second year of college, nothing can compare to my soft spot for high school teen movies.
The first big movie in the genre was American Graffiti (1973), directed by George Lucas, which introduced the basic premise of the teen flick. Cliques, drama, coming of age, and sexual hijinks abound. The genre’s early heyday was in t
he eighties, with films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and this success continued into the nineties with 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That. Since then, the classic teen genre has died out. I would say its last great gasp was Mean Girls in 2004, which remains one of the greatest high school movies of all time. I still take time to watch almost every single new teen movie, from the enjoyable (17 Again and 21 Jump Street) to the appallingly bad (High School of the Dead and Project X). I’ve even seen all of the High School Musical series.
Despite my obsessive love for the genre, I have to say that the films have a few common flaws. The most important is that although these movies supposedly portray “real life teens” in “real life situations,” frankly, they’re simply ridiculous. No high school is quite that insane. There are no huge orgies disguised as house parties or bullies that beat you up just for talking to their girlfriends. Student bodies are no longer solely different shades of white.
But on the other hand, the movies are subtly and thematically accurate. They play out like a feverish dream, with exaggerated characters and extreme situations. Much has been made of how these films play to the eternal parental nightmares of underage drinking, drug use, and sex, but hardly anyone talks about how these movies prey on and influence adolescent hopes and fears as well. Growing up is a frightening experience. The transition into adulthood, or even into high school, is fraught with pitfalls, and teen films play with that anxiety. We’re all afraid, at least at first, of sex, relationships, popularity, being an outcast. There’s always that bumbling nervousness in the moments before a first kiss, the utter panic before asking someone out on a date, the absolute heartbreak of rejection. It’s a feeling that never leaves, but the unique cocktail of hormones and angst makes it infinitely worse. And of course, there’s that peculiar teenage fixation with virginity.
I remember sitting on a friend’s couch in middle school watching American Pie, a movie that in some scenes was basically soft-core pornography. It was really my first experience with any sort of sexuality, and it was like most preteen experiences: terrifying. I stole darting glances of the other people in the room. The girls blushed, embarrassed; the boys stared, hungry. I wasn’t quite sure what I felt. Perhaps it was because I was a year younger, and still innocent, or at least as innocent as I could be. My friends were already talking about porn, or making ridiculous comments about having made it to a vaguely defined second (or as they called it “sexond”) base.
But despite the lack of resemblance to any real situation I had been in, American Pie taught me a lot about life. Sex is not something to be feared, to avoid, or to giggle about. Everything that was happening to me was normal, albeit a lot less interesting than what was happening on screen. And in my mind, sex as an act itself isn’t the focus of the movie. Instead, it serves as a stand-in for the transition to adulthood. The lover learns to let a dying relationship go, the jock connects with his sensitive side, the nerd strikes back at his tormentor. Even Jim gains some semblance of emotional maturity and transfers his romantic attentions onto people, not food products. And so I finished the movie slightly less afraid. It’s ok to be awkward, it’s perfectly normal to feel angst or sexual desire. For me high school movies were a reassurance; they told me that life gets better in the end.
I know that my obsession with these movies may seem a little strange. To some they’re just meaningless pieces of entertainment, after all. But so what if I spent dozens of hours watching people obsess over weird cliques and non-existent parties, complaining about each other and gossiping about sex? Because fuck it, it was those people who got me through puberty.