A brief history of the teenpic and its evolution.
It’s 11 August 1973, and American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973) has just premiered. Since the 1950’s, and the invention of the term ‘teenager’, baby steps have been made to make a film that is targeted solely at adolescents. But not until George Lucas directed the cult teen hit, American Graffiti, had the teen movie been done right. This film introduced many of the themes and conventions that have been used in almost every teen film since. These films were usually centred on high school life or what happens outside of school hours. The storylines were often very trivial, for example, getting a date for a school dance, loosing ones virginity, finding booze while underage or else trying to win the all-important street race. In essence, the kind of trivialities that we, as teenagers obsess over but has no lasting importance in later life. Many conventional character types were introduced that continue to be a fundamental part of almost all teenpics that have been created since. This includes the ever memorable, brain, athlete, basket case, princess and criminal, who was immortalised in The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985). But far from making a clichéd formula that quickly became boring and uninteresting, film after film came out, each adding to the genre. They all followed a similar formula but it worked. The abundance of films that followed in the 1980’s showed this. John Hughes’ ‘Brat Pack’ films worked primarily due to character stereotypes, to the point where the same actors and actresses were being cast for very similar roles in different films. But still, instead of losing faith in the genre and commenting on the samey nature of the films, audiences lapped it up and asked for more.
Into the 1990’s then, and there appears to be a lull in the market with regard to teen movies. They exist but remain unnoticed, in the peripherals of cinema, not daring to show their over familiar face at the party of action adventure films that were emerging at the time. Joel Schumacher has moved away from St. Elmo’s Fire (Schumacher, 1985) and The Lost Boys (Schumacher, 1987) in favour of the Batman franchise and, for now at least, no one seems to mind. But in 1995, the teenpic comes out of hibernation as Clueless (Heckerling, 1995) is released. The remake of Jane Austin’s novel Emma does surprisingly well in the box office leaving the way open for the teen film to make a resurgence. The resurgence comes in the form of American Pie (Weitz, 1999) which becomes immensely popular, spouting two direct sequels, with one more on the way, and countless spin offs (but more on that later). And so the flood gates are opened into the new millennium and teen movie after teen movie is released almost seamlessly. But do they capture the magic that the great 80’s teenpics did?
The short answer is no. Certainly there were a few diamonds in the rough, Superbad (Mottola, 2007) was incredibly popular and well received. As for the vast majority however, disappointing. Following a simple formula was no longer enough, it seems now that teen filmmakers have to outright copy another film or else adapt a piece of classic literature into something that would make Shakespeare roll in his grave. 10 Things I Hate About You (Junger, 1999), Get Over It (O’Haver, 2001) and She’s the Man (Fickman, 2006) are teenpic remakes of The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night respectively, and none of them deliver or even share one iota of the class that the teenpics of the 1980’s did, and to compare them to the plays that they are based on would be an insult to Mr Shakespeare’s memory.
So when modern teen movies are either remakes of classic literature or rehashes of already existing films, what could make the genre any more disappointing? What about a film that might not have anything at all to do with adolescence. The latest American Pie sequel which is titled American Reunion (Hurwitz & Schlossberg, 2012) is made, and set, 13 years after the first film. The film features almost the entire original cast and revolves around a school reunion. The problem is this: Jim and his friends were teenagers in the first instalment of this, now tired, series, and have slowly grown up into adulthood to the point where Jim and Michelle got married. This should have been the natural conclusion to the series; however this apparently is not the case. Instead it seems apt to create a film for teenagers, but about thirty-year-olds. The only possible way that this could work is if, after three films, it transpires that there has actually been no character development whatsoever, and the original gang are up to the same japes that they were over a decade ago. It is also hard not to think that this is a final, desperate effort to save a failing brand. The four films that followed American Pie: The Wedding (Jesse Dylan, 2003) were released straight to DVD and were not well received. Perhaps going back to the original cannon is the only way to restore faith in the American Pie franchise.
So, filmmakers everywhere, if it is impossible to make a teen movie without adapting literature, using material from existing films, or creating sequels for already exhausted series’ of films, maybe it’s time to stop. Words by Daniel Buckley