Charlie Lyne, the youthful director and writer of this visual essay about the teen film cycle that seemed so omnipresent after the success of Clueless (1995), is a film critic, and in many ways it’s surprising more critics don’t use the form they’re critiquing to put forward their argument. (Then again, maybe they do, but if so, I suspect it’s mostly the domain of YouTube videographers.) The Northern Irish critic Mark Cousins has made a range of essay films about various aspects of film history, while Jean-Luc Godard took to the form in his usual idiosyncratic way with Histoire(s) du cinéma, but other prominent examples are rather scarce.
Lyne’s project may be more straightforward than Godard’s, but it still allows for plenty of interesting juxtapositions, often carried as much by the swelling and jagged music of his musical collaborators Summer Camp as by Fairuza Balk’s dreamily-detached narration. The film enjoyably marshals all those iconic teen movie experiences — the high school corridor gauntlet, the cliques in the school canteen, the prom, the house party, and of course the lust and consummation of rampaging hormones — but also interrogates more closely the tropes and how they’re represented through chapters which delineate a sort of coming-of-age life cycle (from conformity and rebellion to social reintegration and maturation). Along the way the film wisely avoids the familiar works to focus on the revealing and surprising byways, from the more basic personality-makeover tropes of Slap Her, She’s French! (2002), to the insidious sexual politics of The Girl Next Door and the confused homoerotic undertones of EuroTrip (both 2004), and almost too many other films in between. There’s a creeping sense, in fact, that taken together, the whole genre is just cynically exploitative and retrogressively conservative in its morality (not that this stopped me loving many of these films at the time).
Beyond Clueless is not a history of the genre and it doesn’t waste any time trying to define what counts as a teen film, so there’s still room in the marketplace for something that does that (taking in, say, the John Hughes comedies and straight-to-video filth of the 80s, to the lacquered cheerfulness of the post-High School Musical generation). Instead this is a personal essay that is more concerned with what this distinct subset of period films say about us as an audience, hungrily lapping up all these films which are so distant from our own lives (even for those who live in the States), and touching on how those meanings may have changed as we ourselves get older and wiser. It doesn’t always cohere perfectly, and some of the nuances feel lost by Balk’s uninflected voice as we’re carried along by an impressionistic deluge of barely-contextualised clips, but it’s put together in a way that’s surely more accessible than a lengthy written post on the subject would be. If it feels like a starting point for further conversation about what we should take from all these films, then it’s a fascinating conversation and one that I enjoy listening to.
Director/Writer Charlie Lyne; Starring Fairuza Balk; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Wednesday 14 January 2015.