The Teen Commandments

Why Hollywood's high on children of the multiplex

The one recent "backward" approach to cliques was in Drew Barrymore's miserably sappy Never Been Kissed, which is less a product of the New Teen Cinema than it is a fungus launched from the corpse of a bad '80s Jon Cryer film. Her Josie character, once a pimply laughingstock at her 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? Hel-lo?

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 3rd Rock" or "that guy from Dawson's Creek." The films don't rely on marquee names, and even though some might start to sound familiar (Jennifer Love Hewitt, Reese Witherspoon, Katie Holmes, James Van Der Beek), not one of them 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, it looks right, and, oh, yeah--it's got girls in it.

LESSON 7: Girls rule! This couldn't be more clear. It's written on every chalkboard in some sort of permanent chalk. It's scrawled on the rest-room stall doors. It's painted on a banner that the football players run through. It's the prom theme. By reinventing the world for broadcast to the new teens, the structures of society have shifted, and the female lands on top.

Economics is easy; it's all numbers: 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 buy 27 percent of movie tickets, spending about $5 billion on entertainment. And this is only the beginning. The generation of kids born between 1977 and 1994 (roughly) is packed with 60 million bodies, three times the size of Generation X, and most of them haven't even hit puberty yet. The current feeding frenzy is meant to capture only the oldest of them, particularly the girls who announced themselves by making Titanic the biggest thing ever by watching Leo over and over again and proving that, for the first time, they are a box-office force, perhaps the box-office force. Clearly, we've entered an era of girl-happy pop that still hasn't maxed out on the number of manufactured pretty-boy bands it can support: the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync and 98 degrees and C Note, and more arriving every day.

Alicia Silverstone's Cher in Clueless defined the earnest and powerful young doer who has dominated the New School and will continue to this summer with Killing Mrs. Tingle and Drop Dead Gorgeous, the story of a Midwest beauty pageant gone awry. Even the ensemble-heavy Go cast Sarah Polley as the plot's dizzied pivot, and throws in softer-edged men in the form of a gay couple and a crunchy-veggie-tantric-sex guy. 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. This was during 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 as a mass culture, 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 types. And his 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.

But this all ended when his audience went to college, Hughes started making Home Alone movies and nothing high school seemed to sell anymore. This era of the pop high school turned dark and self-deprecating with Heathers, the Winona Ryder and Christian Slater classic that foreshadowed early-'90s nihilism and even the Littleton, Colorado, massacre (Slater's loner silently loathed the popular kids and was bent on blowing up the school). For years, for most of the '90s, the market forces concentrated on the brains of twentysomethings, those who grew up alongside Ferris and Claire and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. American youth culture became an endless desert of grunge music, flannel, boredom, irony, slackers and goatees, a giant unchanging billboard covered with Mountain Dew, Xtreme sports, anything else with the word "extreme" in it and anything else with the letter "X" in it. The increasingly cohesive media landscape changed to fit the tastes of 17 million so-called Gen Xers. A market had emerged. Or so the mediamakers thought.

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