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The ABCs of teen movies

They may all follow the same blueprint, but I still can't help loving them. By Tara Ariano.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

A visit to the cinema this week strongly suggests that movie studios have just plain stopped making original films. Lindsay Lohan divides “Heathers” by “Clueless” and ends up with “Mean Girls” — a descriptively titled tale that presumably contains just as many fabulous outfits as the latter and fewer fake (or real) suicides than the former.

Jennifer Garner attempts to ignite her movie career in earnest with “13 Going On 30,” which combines the “child in an adult’s body” conceit of “Big” with the feminine body-switch sensibility of Lohan’s last big hit, the 2003 remake of “Freaky Friday.” But in fact, borrowing (or stealing) from their cinematic betters has long been a hallmark of teen movies: the best share common attributes with the classic teen movies that preceded them.

Where the girls areFirst, a clarification of terms: the subject here is teen movies targeted toward girls and women. Teen movies targeted toward boys, for one thing, are not targeted toward your humble commentator, and for another have their own distinct set of tropes and signature plotlines.

Sure, there tends to be some action centering on a seemingly unattainable crush object, as in girly teen movies. But the stories of boycentric teen movies tend to be resolved by a climactic feat of heretofore unseen and unimagined athletic prowess performed by a nerdy hero to vanquish a meatheaded foe (see: “Better Off Dead,” “Three O’clock High”), or the vanquishment of a meatheaded foe by means of the nerdy hero’s superior brain power (see: “Weird Science”). The teen-boy movie is a whole other animal — and anyway, the ones that attract real cult followings are the ones that cross over to appeal to girls as well (i.e. “Lucas,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “The Outsiders,” to name a few).

A whole new lingo? As if!When it comes to girly teen movies, there are several elements that tend to be present, regardless of story. For instance, the coining of new slang terms. Surely we all remember that moment in “Bring It On” when Cliff called the expression of hard-to-hear information from his sister an “overshare,” and we realized we immediately had to incorporate it into our everyday conversations (along with “cheer sex,” “cheerocracy,” and “cheer-tator”).

In some circles, an entirely cogent conversation can contain an admonition not to put Baby in a corner (“Dirty Dancing”), an expression of love for one’s dead gay son (“Heathers”), and a mournful request to “let my Cameron gooooooo” (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”). Good teen movies are endlessly and perennially quotable.

It's how you look
Girly teen movies also tend to have a focus on fashion, which can take different forms. The film can act as a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy to its young viewers, populated by attractive, popular, and above all rich girls who have the sort of wardrobes we all dream of possessing ourselves; hence you have one character telling another, “I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack” in “10 Things I Hate About You.” The fabulous wardrobe can be featured as a plot point, with one well-turned out character making over a less fortunate subject, as in “Clueless,” “The Princess Diaries,” and one memorable scene in “The Breakfast Club.”

Or one character’s fashion sense is vastly different from that of her classmates, so that the audience is to regard it as emblematic of the character’s creativity, originality, and spunk — and the ne plus ultra of this particular use of fashion is, of course, “Pretty In Pink.”

To those of us who were impressionable youngsters when that movie hit theatres in 1986, the punky prom dress Molly Ringwald’s Andie assembled from lesser gowns donated by her father (Harry Dean Stanton) and friend (Annie Potts) seemed daring and unique. Seeing it in adulthood, one is horrified at the devastation Andie wreaks on a couple of vintage dresses in order to Frankenstein together something Courtney Love wouldn’t be caught dead throwing up on. But never mind: in the world of teen-girl movies, as in the world of teen girls, fashion is a major concern.

When worlds collideAnother common teen-movie plot concerns inter-class dating. Nerdy or artsy boys get crushes on girls who are way out of their league (as in “Lucas” and “Can’t Buy Me Love”), or thugs turn into pussycats from the love of the right girl (as in “The Breakfast Club”). Girls from the wrong side of the tracks fall for rich guys (“Pretty In Pink”) or vice versa (“crazy/beautiful,” “Dirty Dancing”).

Relationship differences that might cause real conflict — such as race or faith — seldom come into play; more often, a potential love interest is controversial because one’s friends disapprove (as when the adorable, Clash-t-shirt-wearing Cliff in “Bring It On” is disdained by Torrance’s friends because he can’t compare to the long-distance cheerleader boyfriend who cheats on her).

A common conceit used to throw together two characters from different backgrounds is a bet: a popular kid must convince a geek that he’s in love with her (“She’s All That”), or a reputed juvenile delinquent is tasked to take out a bitchy elder sister so that the younger one is also allowed to date (“10 Things I Hate About You”), and then — whoops! — shocking all onlookers, the mismatched couple actually end up liking each other for real just in time for the closing credits. Cue Sixpence None the Richer.

And the moral of our story...
Finally, contemporary teen movies seldom pass up an opportunity to teach their target audiences an edifying moral lesson. Gone are the days of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which taught us all that, with the right car, the right connections, and the right Casio keyboard, a chronic truant could blow off school and get off scot-free. (Actually, even “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” contained a valuable lesson we all could take to heart: joyride in your father’s mint convertible if you must, but know that putting it on cinder blocks and running it in reverse won’t actually make the odometer go backwards.)

No, today’s teen movies both delight (well…some of them) and instruct: it’s better to come in second place (“hell, yeah!”) with an honest effort than to win by cheating (“Bring It On,” “Drop Dead Gorgeous”); just because you suddenly discovered that you’re royalty doesn’t mean you have to start dressing like the Queen Mum (“The Princess Diaries,” “What a Girl Wants”); you can do well in school even if you’re basically a shallow airhead (“Legally Blonde”); your mom leads a complicated life (“Freaky Friday”); it’s okay to date your stepbrother (“Clueless,” “Cruel Intentions”); and murder is…uh, bad (“Heathers”).

The current “Mean Girls” and “13 Going On 30” remind us that popular girls are cruel, and that it’s more important to be yourself than it is to fit in. Those of us past our teens should already know that, and to those who are still navigating the treacherous waters of high school, that particular moral is a tough sell if one’s options are to be accepted as a bitch, or ostracized as a doormat.

The teen movie has evolved into a distinct movie genre, with as many characteristic themes and motifs as the western or the film noir. At least, that’s what you can tell your sneering friends the next time they try to shame you for renting “Center Stage.” Again.