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Could ‘Superbad’ lead to superstardom?

It wouldn’t be the first time a teen movie launched a major career. Kurt Russell, Tom Cruise, Sean Penn and Kiefer Sutherland all got their big breaks in seemingly disposable teen fare. By Stuart Levine
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

While “Superbad” may provide plenty of chuckles when it hits theaters on Aug. 17, it may also give us something even more lasting than a well-earned belly laugh. Like other winning teen movies of the past, chances are “Superbad” will introduce audiences to actors that are likely to have an impact on movies right now, but 10 to 20 years down the road as well.

In this Judd Apatow-produced comedy, we’re offered Michael Cera and Jonah Hill as a couple of socially awkward high schoolers whose attempt to throw a party goes hilariously array. Many will know Cera from his role as George-Michael Bluth on Fox’s critically loved but little seen sitcom “Arrested Development,” where he learned the essentials of comic timing.

Unlike Cera, Hill hasn’t landed a signature role yet, but small parts in “Click,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” — yes, he’s officially part of the Apatow gang too — have also honed his comedic touch. If this movie is as good as people are saying it is, then “Superbad” will be the film both look back at affectionately when surveying their careers.

All of which brings me back to this: teen movies have often been the launching pad of great actors and actresses. Movies that might have seemed inconsequential at the time have aged well and are now seen as starting points for some of Hollywood’s A-list talents.

Kurt Russell, who possesses a film resume that could fill the side of a skyscraper, entered the business as a teenager starring in Disney films that seem awfully nonsensical now but helped establish him as a bona fide star. Sure, late ’60s movies “The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit” and “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” aren’t looked upon for their cinematic achievements but proved essential in Russell’s steady rise up the ranks.

Harrison Ford gets his big breakA few years later in 1973, young filmmaker George Lucas had an idea for the story of how high school graduates in a small California town would spend their last night before heading off to college. Not only did Lucas create a name for himself in “American Graffiti” — one could easily argue that, at age 30, it’s his finest directorial achievement — but his casting decisions were spot on.

A young carpenter barely hanging on to a struggling acting career, Harrison Ford used his role on “Graffiti” and, more importantly, his relationship with Lucas to maneuver into a little something called “Star Wars.” Two years later, Richard Dreyfuss moved on to “Jaws” and Ron Howard was finally seen as an adult after 197 episodes as little Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Looking back, the early ’80s might be the richest period in American cinema to see new talent flourish via teen projects. Here, in only a few short years, we had “Taps,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (see Sean Penn seamlessly move from soldier to surfer dude) and, within a few months of each other, “Rumble Fish” and “The Outsiders.”

While John Hughes gets most of the credit for directing the quintessential teen films of the decade, one needs to realize and appreciate the accomplishments of Francis Ford Coppola, whose “Rumble Fish” and “The Outsiders” brought to the screen Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane, Mickey Rourke and Nicolas Cage.

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Sure, many of those folks had done work stellar before taking direction from Coppola, but it was under the maestro’s hand that moviegoers were able to uncover the potential Coppola had mined. Some careers would sputter but the lessons learned on the set here would ultimately make them better actors.

Three Oscar winners appeared in “Fast Times” — Forest Whitaker, Sean Penn and Cage — and, during that same time, even the randy “Porky's” introduced us to future “Sex and the City” starlet Kim Catrall.

Hughes had his impactAnd, yes, Hughes deserves huge high fives for “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” (the latter he wrote and executive produced). Here, we saw folks like Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall and Jon Cryer get their fill of teen angst.

But for my money, Hughes’ high school piece de resistance is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which brought us Jennifer Grey, a sullen Charlie Sheen and turned Matthew Broderick into a bona fide star. To this day, 21 years later, Broderick, who has accomplished so much in his career, still must endure the affectionate parroting of lines from “Bueller” fans.

In “Young Guns,” long before Kiefer Sutherland became “24” go-to guy Jack Bauer, he was young Doc Scurlock in the teen-centric Western. Three years later, in 1991, when a young and impressionable and future Dr. McDreamy was having a difficult time establishing his presence in Hollywood, “Mobsters” gave Patrick Dempsey a chance to stay for awhile.

Amy Heckerling, whose direction with young talent was evident in “Fast Times,” rose to the challenge again in 1995 with “Clueless.” Not only did she help propel the career of Alicia Silverstone, but it’s easy to forget that such actors as Jeremy Sisto, Brittany Murphy and Paul Rudd were also part of the ensemble.

Which, in a weird way, lead back to “Superbad.” Rudd has now become synonymous with some of the top comedies of the past few years: “Anchorman,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” where his more nuanced and less slapstick work is probably more appreciated from cinephiles than that of top-billed star Seth Rogan.

Apatow and Rudd are longtime buddies and their films have flourished. Cera and Hill are fortunate to now be part of the ever-growing Apatow troupe and are able to use the goodwill Apatow has created to make names for themselves.

“Arrested Development” made Cera a TV personality, but a winning “Superbad” can make him a star. High school, despite the cliques, bullies and jocks, may not be all that bad after all.

Stuart Levine is an assistant managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at stuart.levine@variety.com.