Return of the Teenager

Everything I need to know about high school I learned from the New Teen Cinema

Good morning, kids, and welcome back to class. You may have noticed that a new student has joined us. Or, actually, quite a few new students. About 60 million, to take a quick guess. Say hi, everybody. Now, they might look familiar, they might look a little like the teenagers you've been going to school with all these years, the ones you used to see in teen movies, but they're different. Better. Stronger. Faster. Richer. In fact, they brought a note from home saying that they've got permission to kick your ass and take over the place.

Oh, and if you haven't noticed, the school has moved, too. It's been repainted and rewired, the cliques and cliches rearranged, the teachers lobotomized, the cafeteria expanded. It's the teenagers' school now, and there are 60 million of them, so, well, please pass your locker keys to the front of the room. There's not a demographic on Earth with more potential right now than the American teenager, with their numbers rising to outnumber baby boomers and their giant wads of disposable income. So whatever they want, whatever they buy, whatever they know ... goes.

Today's lesson, then, is this: The forces of mainstream consumer culture have begun an all-out campaign to win the minds and loyalties of today's teenagers, publishing juvenile versions of their magazines (Teen People, Teen Newsweek, Teen Cosmo) and creating TV shows that have finally gotten under their skins (Dawson's Creek, Daria, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Nowhere is this takeover more obvious and complete than at the corner megaplex, where a new breed of film has arrived, peppy pop cinema with a low price tag and easy success. And with films like Varsity Blues (which cost $16 million) and She's All That ($10 million) grossing around $60 million each, there's much, much more on the way. The public exploration of high school at the end of the 20th century will continue this summer and into the fall and on and on, solidifying as it does so a new genre: the New Teen Cinema.

Spend some time in the halls of this shiny fictionalized school, and you'll see students living lives so self-assured, so complete, so funny, and so tightly scripted that you'll wonder why any of them would want to pipe-bomb their classmates. These kids inhabit sunny semiurban lands with no adults and no irony and lots of encouragement to just be themselves. The schools they attend were erected not by teens, but for them -- mostly by aging Gen-Xers who grew up on the emotional class-conflict comedies of John Hughes and the mindless sex romps of late-night Cinemax. They've created these schools for their younger brothers and sisters, and now plan a total recolonization of American mass culture, attempting to recast history in a mold polished and styled for the Next Wave of Human Beings.

All summer, the themes and moods of this New Teen Cinema will continue in heavy rotation like $8 pop songs: there one minute, gone the next, replaced by something almost exactly the same -- but new! The movies feature hit bands, tie-in soundtracks, fresh faces you may have seen on TV or commercials, and sly references to each other. Synergy! Cross-marketing! Fun! To say that there is a movement, an aesthetic, a cohesive scene comprised by these films would be a lie. It's all pop: bits and pieces to get us to the next artistic breakthrough, the next Nirvana or Fast Times or Beatles, or whatever other force can seize 60 million minds.

Until then, the lessons are clear: Twentysomethings are old, adults suck, moments are short, and life belongs to those who can milk each day for the most. The stories adopt the fashion-and-chastity vibe from Clueless (1995) rather than the raunchy realism of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1980); the age-old don't-come-a-knocking atmosphere of the classic teen romp has been replaced by a clean moral code. All the great stories, all the great dramas and mysteries of life, everything that boomers railed against in the '60s and Gen-Xers complained about never having, now belongs to these new young creatures. And right now, too. Their lessons move quickly, so write fast. Break out the Nike-branded Trapper Keepers and take a few notes on what the new school has to teach us:

LESSON 1: It's OK to be an outcast. Everyone will eventually figure you out, love you, and realize that you were right all along. None of the laws of the New Teen Cinema apply across the board, but the major themes stand out like the albino kid in gym class. Chief among them is the role of the outcast, the rebel, the nerd, the weirdo -- a character who has traditionally been the hero of teen movies. From Rebel Without a Cause to Grease to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the passionate kid with a vision is always eccentric and troubled. And in high school, as everyone knows, eccentric kids are to be mocked and ridiculed, taunted and teased. Add a few dumb jocks and prissy debutantes and you've got instant drama and conflict.

This formula hasn't changed, but the modern cinematic high school is packed with more and more outcasts -- stranger and cooler outcasts -- and these heroes are usually mainstream enough to cross over clique boundaries or even "convert." Kat (Julia Stiles), the cantankerous older sister from 10 Things I Hate About You, begins the story as a rigid pseudo-lesbian type. She eventually comes around to meet everyone else (the brooding motorhead who loves her, her perky pretty little sister, the AV geek, the greasy good-looking "Chachi") somewhere near the middle, saying, essentially, We can all get along.

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