Longform

The Teen Commandments

Page 3 of 6

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 where divorce was a 50-50 shot, and there's a clear bitterness embodied in the absence of adults. The comical, pastoral world of Cruel Intentions hosts spoiled prep schoolers who speak in refined accents and plot sexual high jinks 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 gore fest/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 in the Old World: 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.

The first meaningful dialogue between these new onscreen generations might come this summer with Kevin Williamson's Killing Mrs. Tingle, in which genre star Katie Holmes plays a student who kidnaps her teacher, and then gets to know her. Or perhaps in American Pie, which promises a revival of the early-'80s fascination with "losin' it" (Fast Times, Losin' It, Risky Business) couched in a healthy father-son relationship. If only the parents from last year's Disturbing Behavior, who signed their kids up for mind-control so they would behave, had seen more of these new films. Neurological experiments aren't necessary, see. These kids are angels.

LESSON 4: Live clean, wait for true love and party. The cast members of the New Teen Cinema are so squeaky clean and perky and motivated that you kind of want to throw up in their book bags. Kat in 10 Things . . . , though rebellious and wild, won't date smokers and practices celibacy. Van Der Beek's Moxon turns away a cheerleader who throws herself at him wearing only three dollops of whipped cream. And the biggest conflict for Freddie Prinze Jr.'s Zach in She's All That is whether to go to Harvard or Dartmouth. The moral center of this new culture might as well be uptight virgin types Dawson Leers or Felicity Porter. (Yeah, I know Felicity's done it, but she feels really bad about it.) And the obscene sexual antics of Cruel Intentions are so over the top, so humorously unfathomable, that they simply serve as parodies of adult behavior. The lesson yelled over the constant be-yourself-and-you-shall-prevail messages is that you should only be happy with your one true love. Although real-life high school romances are usually doomed after graduation, the films find closure and meaning when couples hook up by the time prom rolls around.

The raciest of these films so far, Doug Liman's Go, plays around the edges of sex and drugs, lacing the lives of errant teens and twentysomethings with the stuff, just as in real life. Yes, one character (Simon) does get it on with two bridesmaids at the same time and then gropes some strippers, but he's the anomaly. He gets punished, too--shot in the arm. There's a great, telling moment when Katie Holmes' flighty Claire is being held as collateral by a likably scuzzy drug dealer. She's nervous as he just stares at her, but any tension that something bad might happen fizzles when he begins needling her: "Are you a virgin? Answer the question, Claire." It sounds harsh and probing, almost criminal, but he's only quoting a movie to her, replaying the scene from The Breakfast Club where Judd Nelson's stoner asks Molly Ringwald's prom queen the same question, over and over again, in specific and embarrassing detail. In the original film, as written by John Hughes, it's painful, sexy and disturbing. In Go, the words simply defuse a tense situation: I'm playing with you. Joking. Quoting a movie we both like. See? Pain is postmodern in the new high school, therefore painless.

LESSON 5: Stereotypes are okay, actually, so long as you don't take them (or anything) seriously. One of the best moments from the New Teen Cinema comes at the beginning of 10 Things . . . , as a know-it-all gives the new kid a tour of the school, pointing out the cliques familiar from both life and from Hollywood. The beautiful people, the geeks and Goths, the white Rastafarians, etc. In a blatant and obvious finger to the whole concept of stereotypes, there's a band of cowboys on the suburban Seattle campus, defining their own world with big hats and lassos and cans of beans. These surreal cowpokes underscore the arbitrary meaninglessness of social divisions, while recognizing that they are a reality. In the new cinematic high school, you can fit into some group or another, no matter how wacky or fucked up you are. Again, what the Trench Coat Mafia lacked was perspective on their situation, recognition that they might as well declare themselves cowboys or astronauts, that these little "groups" are arbitrary and signify nothing. It's all just silly.

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Glenn Gaslin