Return of the Teenager

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

James Van Der Beek's Jon Moxon in Varsity Blues, a second-string quarterback in a West Texas town obsessed with high school football, runs way outside the boundaries of "accepted" behavior, ripping apart a ball program that has kept the town's young men under its thumb for generations. The rest of the team follows his lead, and they all work together to destroy the old status quo and create a new one that everyone likes.

Yeah, OK, these are simplifications of the irrational rifts that have always divided kids in the real world, where two smart guys with trench coats and shotguns decide that they've had enough ribbing and everyone else will pay. It's hard to keep teen angst at a healthy distance when your world consists of a locker full of homework and a hallway full of assholes, but the New Teen Cinema offers the antidote: perspective. Look at how silly it all is. Keep being weird, the films say. Keep being yourself, and you will be rewarded.

The outcast-as-hero idea is taken to more artistically complex levels in two films, Election and Rushmore, which almost don't belong in the genre. (Ads for Election have had to tout the phrase "adult comedy.") Max Fisher, a tortured creative prankster who practically runs the prep school Rushmore Academy, washes away every stereotype and can only be called a genius. He builds his own world, literally, everywhere he goes -- writing plays, starting clubs, striking up relationships with powerful billionaires -- and asks the other kids to join him. And in the end, they do.

Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick in Election may be the one true, irredeemable outcast in the lot. She paces the eerily realistic halls of a Nebraska high school with such single-minded ambition that anything diabolical she does in order to become class president is offset by her sheer, complete, and universal loneliness. We feel sorry for her, and realize that her brand of unchecked eccentricity will never "clear up" -- that her plot line won't have a satisfying climax during the prom scene; that she is hopeless. Her story, more than any other, goes against the mood of the New Teen Cinema.

LESSON 2: The classics rock. A father forbids his youngest daughter to date until his older, crustier one does. A whole town gets a lobotomy so that its citizens will stick to societal norms. A man takes a bet that he can "tame" a wild woman from a lower social class. A team of sexual tricksters deflower fragile virgins for fun and profit. Any of this sound familiar?

Every great civilization has recast the best stories from the Old World in its own vernacular and style, and just as the Romans rejiggered Greek mythology, the New Teen Cinema is retelling the history of the world with its own Oxy-clean faces and Skecher-clad casts. Amy Heckerling's remake of Jane Austen's Emma as Clueless back in 1996 worked so well that it's truly amazing this trend didn't come together faster. Now, 10 Things ... has begun scattering Shakespeare's folios down the hallways of the new high school, and will be followed this year by O (Othello on the basketball court) and Near in Blood (Macbeth on the football field). She's All That did Pygmalion one better, especially with that choreographed prom-dance number, and Cruel Intentions made prep-school sense of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. What's surprising is how masterfully fun these adaptations are. They do what Shakespeare did best -- entertain the masses with classic fables reworked in the language of the day. One question, though: How long will it be before we start seeing "fresh" remakes of Saturday Night Fever and Smoky and the Bandit?

LESSON 3: Adults do not exist. And if they do, they're corrupt, stupid, and backward. Of course this is the case in a teen fantasy world, but it might come as a surprise that the new high school admits no adults -- not so that the kids can party, but to keep out the old folks' unsavory morals. The writers, audience, and subjects of the New Teen Cinema are all boomer spawn, products of households in which divorce was a 50/50 shot, and there's a clear bitterness evidenced by these films' absence of adults.

The comical, pastoral world of Cruel Intentions hosts spoiled prep schoolers who speak in refined accents and plot sexual hijinks in vast, lavish, vacant apartments. Where did all the adults go? In 10 Things ... the counselor, Ms. Perky, is writing a porn novel, the English teacher curses and rages, and the soccer coach confiscates a bag of weed from a kid in detention and then suspiciously swipes Chee-tos from another. Deviants! In the gorefest/comedy Idle Hands, the protagonist doesn't notice for days that his parents have been murdered. This summer's Dick reveals that two high school girls exposed that whole Watergate thing, not a couple of bushy-haired, tie-wearin' reporters.

And in Varsity Blues, Moxon goes head-to-head with Jon Voight's evil establishment football coach, fighting against things important to the Old Guard: war, district titles, manhood. Moxon just wants to go to a good school and have a decent life. He's seen where "being a man" got his father: on the lawn, drinking beer, yelling at his kids. Here, it's pure good vs. evil, new vs. old, father vs. son. Easy.

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