Teen Movies Are Growing Up, But It Isn’t Easy

Adrian Martin considers his long love of the teen movie genre and its oddities, in the wake of Amy Poehler's nice and inoffensive 'Moxie' on Netflix.

Tripping down memory lane to the video store

Recently, I have been immersing myself in the teen movies of the 1980s. It’s a re-immersion, actually, because, although I was a few years late to Amy Heckerling’s classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), I quickly made up for lost time by literally watching every film of this genre that I could find – and taking copious notes on all of them.

Indeed, I can vividly recall the exact weekend in 1985 that triggered this fine addiction. I was house-minding for the Melbourne artists Maria Kozic and Philip Brophy. Before they left, they introduced me to new-fangled technology – a VHS player – and shoved tapes of two John Hughes films, Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985) at me. ‘You’ll like them’, they predicted. And how right they were! I loved them, immediately, with a passion that has lasted.

Five years on from that fateful weekend, I had a book’s worth of rough draft material on the teen movie phenomenon – mainly of the American variety, but by no means confined to the USA. Teen movies were, in fact, everywhere, and came in every possible form: prestige, Z grade, serious, unserious, sophisticated, crude, famous, obscure … I allowed myself a loose, associative definition of what the term ‘teen movie’ could mean: basically, anything that drew upon the vitality and energy of youth, as that zone of life-experience is construed (often imaginatively) by pop culture.

Although many teen-related films zipped through theatrical release in those days, it was, mostly a video-shop phenomenon: comparable in the scope of possible choices to current Netflix culture, but without any taste-determining algorithm to guide and limit viewers’ natural curiosity. Many were the times that I would stagger home with eight or ten VHS tapes in tow – most completely unknown to me – for a teen binge. I took a chance on anything that looked even vaguely interesting, and discovered many weird and wonderful gems that way. I also learned how to value some films for just a single amazing scene, element or idea in them: when you’re watching such a high volume of movies within a single genre, their pieces start to network amongst themselves, arriving at unforeseen configurations.

I learned how to value some films for just a single amazing scene, element or idea in them: when you’re watching such a high volume of movies within a single genre, their pieces start to network amongst themselves, arriving at unforeseen configurations.

So I watched them, wrote about them, and even taught a university unit on them in 1989 – just down the corridor from where a certain Gerald Murnane conducted his famous writing course. (I wonder if I momentarily disturbed his class by blasting Prince’s Purple Rain movie at top volume?) Sadly, the sudden demise of my first personal computer put an end to the book plan: I had neither backed-up nor printed-out any of my hundreds of pages-in-progress (that was a life lesson). However, to compensate for this traumatic loss, I have taken virtually every opportunity since then to write about stray new entries in a worldwide genre that long ago outran my vain, encyclopaedic ambition to ‘see it all’.

The 80s heyday: more than John Hughes

Let’s make a bold cut from the late 1980s to, more or less, now: a leap in time and cultural sensibility seemingly on par with Kubrick’s famous transition in 2001 from the prehistoric age to the space age. Those John Hughes movies that turned me on to the teen genre in 1985 are no longer treated so indulgently by many contemporary commentators. They are blasted for their facetious jokes about date rape, their slew of racial stereotypes, and their ultimately conformist messages about fitting in and making good. Most unsettling to a seasoned fan like me was the 2018 testimony of their star, Molly Ringwald, in a captivating New Yorker essay about the experience of re-watching The Breakfast Club in the company of her ten-year-old daughter – it’s subtitled ‘Revisiting the Movies of My Youth in the Age of #MeToo’.

Ringwald’s diagnosis, delivered with the virtue of hindsight, is not altogether pretty (in pink): while she praises several of Hughes’ movies for their female-centred stories and their overall ‘humanity’, on looking into the totality of his work she is ‘taken aback by the scope of the ugliness’ she finds there. Even the films she acted in – and of which she remains proud – are tainted for her now by ‘racist, misogynistic, and, at times, homophobic’ values. How could I ever argue, even in my imagination, with the great Molly Ringwald – this eternal teen icon, this veritable axiom of popular cinema?

there’s a lot of treasure out there, buried far below the recognised teen movie milestones

Well, let me share something else that I learned in my years of peak-immersion in the teen movie genre. Although there might seem to be a recent surge in inclusivity as a worthy consciousness-raising catchword, there are plenty of teen movies from the 1970s onwards that are admirably inclusive. Films where the heroes are – variously, or in combination – disabled, working class, black, queer or female. Wonderful, inspiring, unselfconsciously radical films that almost never make it into any reference book on cinema, like My Bodyguard (1980), The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), Willy Milly (1986 – starring a young Pamela Adlon), The Beat (1987) and The Prince of Pennsylvania (1988). There are also, from that period, very empowering tales of (and presumably for) pre-adolescent children – a sector curiously less championed in the socially-conscious films of today.

At any rate, there’s a lot of treasure out there, buried far below the recognised teen movie milestones, those peppy satires like Heathers (1988), sweet ‘rite of passage’ stories on the order of The Year My Voice Broke (1987), complex art movies like Wild Reeds (1994), or nihilistic, punk dramas such as River’s Edge (1986). Which are all terrific films – but they should not be automatically taken as the 1 per cent crest line of quality that damns the other 99 per cent to the oblivion of dross.

Is there also evidence of the types of ideological ‘ugliness’ that Ringwald retrospectively decries in teen movies (or TV series) past and present? Of course, there is – and plenty of it, too. It would be strange indeed if there wasn’t, since every genre soaks up (both consciously and unconsciously) and then projects, in complex, transformed ways, the contradictory, push-and-pull tendencies of the time and culture in which it is produced. That’s part of what makes cinema so rich, and so fascinating to study. Nobody wants – I should say, I don’t want – a sanitised, purified regime of entertainment. Popular culture is a mess, and it’s my belief that we have to, in some sense, embrace that mess. That’s precisely why I watched several thousand teen movies in the 1980s!

Popular culture is a mess, and it’s my belief that we have to, in some sense, embrace that mess. That’s precisely why I watched several thousand teen movies in the 1980s!

In recent years, the teen genre has been precariously poised between the riotous mess it once proudly was, and the politically aware agent it is now obliged to be. Clever, inventive, cheeky films including Laura Terruso’s Good Girls Get High (2018), Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019) and Alice Wu’s The Half of It (2020) manage, ingeniously, to have it both ways. The TV series Sex Education is praised for presenting a ‘sex positive’ attitude – while still revelling in its old-school sight-gags about pesky nocturnal emissions, bothersome contraceptive devices, flagrant public erections, and all the rest.

Enter, Moxie: a teen movie for the #MeToo era

Amy Poehler’s recently released Moxie is a more earnest, less deft attempt at making a teen movie for the age of #MeToo. Where the typical 1980s teen movie was sometimes celebrated by (male) critics for forging an empathetic link between fathers and sons (both on screen and in the audience) on the basis of their shared love for rock music, DC comics or Frank Capra classics, Moxie switches around that plot device.

Here it’s the story of a single mother, Lisa (played by Poehler), and her adolescent daughter, Vivian (Hadley Robinson, who – in a time-honoured teen movie tradition – was only 25 at the time of filming!). This story is a process of cultural transmission: passed from older to younger generation is a 1990s-style, Riot grrrl feminism (Bikini Kill features prominently on the soundtrack) that aims to (as Lisa says) ‘smash the patriarchy’. Which, as it turns out, really does need some smashing, judging by its manifestations at the Rockport High School that Vivian attends: boys harass girls, women are judged on their looks, men get all the breaks, and the mealy-mouthed Principal Shelly (a splendid turn from Marcia Gay Harden) prefers to sweep any complaints from the student body under the administrative carpet.

With a slight strain on credibility, Vivian imbibes the spirit of her mother so quickly and so utterly that she is soon secretly producing a ‘Moxie’ zine, distributing it around the school, and inciting revolts small and large. Two particularly galvanising knock-on effects of this activism are Vivian’s friendship with new classmate Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) – the first person to dissuade her of the merit of keeping quiet and saying nothing about situations of oppression – and her budding romantic bond with Seth (Nico Hiraga), a super-sensitive, soulful, politically aware guy who is almost literally too good to be true.

So far, so good – and not all that different from The Legend of Billie Jean, which achieved one of its most rousing moments in the communal celebration of a girl’s first menstrual period. Moxie, however, shows up the storytelling perils of inclusivity at all costs. No matter how much Poehler and her writers (Tamara Chestner & Dylan Meyer) endeavour to cover the waterfront and include all social groups, they just can’t get away from the Hollywood convention of privileging some characters as ‘leads’ over others who inevitably rank as ‘secondary’. Wanton discrimination!

For instance, there’s a disabled teenager in a wheelchair, Meg (Emily Hopper), threaded through the action. She gets some sassy, right-on lines and is present at major turning points in the story – but her eternal position on the sidelines is glaringly evident. And as Jake Wilson pointed out in his Sydney Morning Herald review, the moment where Viv’s best pal, Chinese-American Claudia (Lauren Tsai), suddenly decries ‘white privilege’ is a feeble attempt, on the film’s part, at self-critique – and, worse still, a gesture swiftly shoved aside in the narrative’s flow, as is the clumsy effort to integrate a revelation of rape concerning another secondary character.

Teen movies have often toyed with hot-topical matters – and have just as often evaded them. That’s nothing new. Even the immortal piece of pop froth that is Clueless (1995) – Amy Heckerling’s masterpiece – included an extended episode of social outreach to feed and clothe the homeless! As a director, Poehler does not yet have Heckerling’s mastery with swiftly changing tones of comedy and drama, or the ability to dive in and out of diverse genres without cracking the overall construction apart.

The chief problem with Moxie is its mad scramble to appease, all at once, every currently approved constituency, and to enthusiastically illustrate all positive social agendas. It then discovers that this utopia of a level playing field is impossible to fit into a conventional story line – and it can neither break through that impossibility into a different kind of story, nor find any way of acknowledging and playing with the impossibility (as teen movies often do, with great poignancy).

A good teen movie (whether comedic or dramatic) needs more bite, more outrageousness, more iconoclasm than Moxie can generate. It needs to be ready, willing and able to offend someone, somewhere. And that, it seems, is not so easy anymore. 

Adrian Martin
About the Author
Adrian Martin is a freelance film critic. Born in Australia, he created a unique role as an academic and public intellectual and is a key international figure in his field. His latest book is Mysteries of Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2018) and his website is www.filmcritic.com.au.
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