Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Good & the Bad: Teen Movies

In an effort to share a little more about myself (I'm an introvert in real life), I've decided to start a series called The Good & the Bad. The idea is to let my readers know the kind of things I like and the kind of things I don't. And why. The why is important, for the reasons we do things matter far more than the things themselves. And I'll probably focus more on the good, because that's where the fun is.

So we're going to start with some movies, and this time I'm looking at teen movies. What makes a good teen movie and what ruins one.

The Good

One of my favorite movies in the past several years is Brick. There's a good chance that most of you haven't even heard or it. It got some nice critical praise, but never released why or saw much commercial success. It's a shame, because it puts a lot of the recent YA fair to shame.

Brick is about a high school kid (played so well by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, pre-Inception and Dark Knight) who investigates the disappearance of his semi-girlfriend. It's film noir, a hard-boiled detective story with modern day teenagers. That could fail big time, but what makes it work is that it hold to the genre tropes - plot twists, strong silent MC, dangerous dames, and a satisfying dreary but honest ending - but it does it with real kids. It doesn't have kids trying to act like film noir characters, but using modern archetypes (social loner, girl craving attention, meat-head jock, drug-dealing scum) to fill in the roles. It has an authenticity and individuality that's just plain fun to watch. (Joseph Gordon-Levitt's The Lookout almost made this list, but it's more properly New Adult aged than teen).

Heathers. It's a little old in some ways, but I think it still holds up. For those too young to remember it, it's Mean Girls with more mean (and more snark). What works about it is that it's satire - it gets crazier and crazier to the point that it's ridiculous (especially Christian Slater channeling Jack Nicholson), but the underlying truth is so real. The social hierarchy in high school is brutal, and people do crazy, despicable things to get ahead. But once you're in you're still not safe. Nobody is safe and no-one has it easy.

Another cult hit that seems to live on and even grow in renown is Donnie Darko. It's a hard movie to describe, and even harder to defend, but it worked for me. Once again, it was the real-ness of the characters instead of the storyline that sold me. Donnie's sense of loneliness, the nature of outsiders in high school, the youth understanding the hypocrisy of the adults, all felt real. I've watched the director's cut which focuses more on the time travel elements and felt it took away the heart of the movie. Sometimes the studio folks know better.

A few other teen movies worth mentioning. Easy A, Juno, Rushmore . Classics like My Bodyguard, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Say Anything. Silly fun like Bring It On, American Pie, Valley Girl.

The Bad

There are an endless number of bad teen films, most of them guilty of nothing more than trying to be cheap entertainment. I don't fault mindless entertainment for being just that, so I'm going to stick to movies that should have been good - or at least had the budget and players to be good.

I'm sure I'll get some flack here, but I thought Twilight was a bad movie. (Thought the same of the book). While it's a vivid world, and I think the movie does a good job highlighting the scenery and giving a sense of the connection between characters, the fundamental principle is too flawed for me. A dreamy girl who thinks of herself as plain but is adored by everyone somehow wins the heart (instantly) of a hundred year old man. Pedophilia anyone? Insulting gender roles and stereotypes much? I know it kicked off a craze; I know umpteen millions loved it. It's still not a good story on many levels and the movie-making was very trite and formulaic. Teens (and everyone who was once a teen) deserve better.

A movie that I wanted to like, and thought I would, was Swimfan. It had a dark angle to it and I know a number of people that really enjoyed it. But somehow it fell flat for me. I thought it tried too hard - it wanted to be realistic and scary, but I didn't quite buy into the obsession enough. It felt more like the characters were acting in a way to move the plot instead of a natural way that lead to a story. But if you bought into it, I can see how it would work, and I certainly won't fault anyone for liking it.

Sometimes movies are bad but I still enjoy them. Jennifer's Body would fall into that category. What's good about it is the relationship between the two girls. Amanda Seyfried somehow pulls off the awkward friend who still has her own personality. And while Megan Fox won't win any acting awards from me, she worked in this role. The crazier parts of this story actually had the same self-aware satire nature of Heathers, but I think that was missed by lots of people - especially those who marketed it. It's problem was that it tried too hard to be a real movie about a possessed teen, but it's strengths lay in the context underneath. It just got too buried under the gore and slow-mo shots of Megan's hips swaying. But if you don't mind a little camp, check it out and look at it from that angle and see if it doesn't shine a little.

How about you? Agree or disagree with my choices? Have any favorites that you recommend? Any hit movies that you hated? Feel free to share in the comments.

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