Return of the Teenager

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

The one recent "backward" approach to cliques was in Drew Barrymore's miserably sappy Never Been Kissed, less a product of the New Teen Cinema than a fungus launched from the corpse of a bad '80s John Cryer film. Barrymore's Josie character, a pimply laughingstock in high school, goes back at age 25 and learns how great and fun and meaningful life is when you're popular, and that her life would have been better had she been popular way back then. How did this get made?

LESSON 6: The star doesn't matter. Just take a look at the recent box office, evidence that who's in a big movie doesn't make it big. The most star power the New Teen Cinema boasts are castings like "the kid from Third Rock" or "that guy from Dawson's Creek." The films don't rely on marquee names, and though some might be starting to sound familiar (Jennifer Love Hewitt, Reese Witherspoon, Katie Holmes, James Van Der Beek), not one of these actors can sell a film unless surrounded by a half-dozen of their best-looking buddies.

And this young talent comes really cheap. Huge vehicles for Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery and expensive old white men do so-so business these days, but good high school pop flies off the ticket counter, no matter who's in it, so long as it feels good, looks right, and, oh yeah -- has girls in it.

LESSON 7: Girls rule! This couldn't be more clear. It's written on every blackboard in some sort of permanent chalk that won't erase. It's scrawled on the bathroom stall doors. It's painted on a banner that the football players run through. It's the prom theme.

Today's teens spend nearly $80 billion a year, with girls dishing out more than half of that, according to Teenage Research Unlimited Inc., which tracks that sort of thing. Teens are only 12 percent of the population (now), but they buy 27 percent of movie tickets and spend about $5 billion in total on entertainment. And this is only the beginning. The generation of kids born between 1977 and '94 (roughly) is packed with 60 million bodies, three times the size of Generation X, and most of its members haven't even hit puberty yet.

The current feeding frenzy is meant to capture only the oldest of these teens -- particularly the girls who announced themselves by making Titanic the biggest thing ever by watching Leo over and over again, thus proving that for the first time, they are a box-office force -- perhaps the box-office force. The New Teen Cinema is a realm where boys and their guns are kind of lame, explosions don't signify the climax, and being in love is the point of it all.

LESSON 8: John Hughes is dead. Long live John Hughes. Um, so like wait -- who's John Hughes, again? And who are all you old people talking about Ferris and stuff? During the 1980s, John Hughes reinvented the teen film, making movies both about and for the movies' subjects. The genre grew from the exploitation sex comedies of the Animal House school into some truly meaningful morality plays. There was a sort of Golden Age of teen films after Valley Girl culture had spread a uniform language and style across the country, uniting a group of kids by allowing them to recognize that there were others out there exactly like them.

By this time, the characters of Hughes' Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles were universal, not stereotypes but full-fledged living, breathing archetypes of bed-wetting nerds and wrong-side-of-the-tracks kids. And Hughes' masterpiece of boredom and philosophy, The Breakfast Club, slowed the teenage experience down to an afternoon of detention and dissected every inch of it, exposing and probing. Nothing since has really touched it.

All this ended when his audience went to college, Hughes started making Home Alone movies, and nothing high school seemed to sell anymore. The era turned dark and self-deprecating with Heathers, the Winona Ryder and Christian Slater classic that foreshadowed early '90s nihilism and even the Littleton, Colo., massacre (Slater's loner silently loathed the popular kids and was bent on blowing up the school). For most of the '90s, market forces concentrated on the brains of twentysomethings, those who grew up alongside Ferris and Claire and Jennifer Gray in Dirty Dancing. American youth culture became an endless desert of grunge music, flannel, boredom, irony, slackers, and goatees. The increasingly cohesive media landscape changed to suit the tastes of 17 million so-called Gen-Xers: A market had emerged.

But then Kurt Cobain died, Lollapalooza ended, the economy picked up, and the new teenagers showed up, the first wave of the 60 million: whole cities full of kids in fresh khakis, driving new Beetles, flashing wads of cash. The media calls them things like Generation Y and Echo Boomers, but we'll just call them loaded. These kids don't know Atari from Alf or Reagan from Nixon. They live in a world of Playstation and Yahoo!, a world where there has always been MTV. They want a culture of their own, damn it, and the market forces are eager to meet them on the big screen, on the magazine racks, in clothing catalogs -- everywhere. And so Matthew Broderick, most famous as '80s teen iconoclast Ferris Bueller, plays a teacher, a middle-aged graying civics droner, in Election, and New Teen Cinema pioneer Kevin Williamson says he's paying homage to an aging god named John Hughes. But the kids are beginning to ask: Who's Kevin Williamson?

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