THE WON­DER YEARS

Teen movies have been around since the birth of cin­ema, liv­ing out those sus­pended mo­ments be­tween yes­ter­day and to­mor­row, a time when any­thing is pos­si­ble, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

Spi­der-Man might have been a comic­book su­per­hero for more than half a cen­tury, but he’s still very much a teenage boy. Con­spic­u­ously so in his lat­est in­car­na­tion: in Spi­der-Man: Home­com­ing, his al­ter ego, Peter Parker — played by English ac­tor Tom Hol­land — is nerdy, boy­ish, firmly en­trenched in high school. He’s a kid. That’s the point.

Spi­der-Man: Home­com­ing is a Mar­vel-Sony col­lab­o­ra­tion that places its cen­tral char­ac­ter within the Mar­vel Cine­matic Uni­verse. It’s also — quite con­sciously, quite de­lib­er­ately — a teen movie, full of fa­mil­iar tropes and im­ages: the world of Peter Parker, su­per­hero in train­ing, is still the world of the yel­low school bus, the cor­ri­dor lined with lock­ers, the in­ter-school aca­demic de­cathlon. De­ten­tion. Crushes. The home­com­ing dance.

There are many ways to de­scribe the teen genre, but most teen sto­ries are, as Adrian Martin wrote in Phan­tasms, about the lim­i­nal ex­pe­ri­ence — “that in­tense, sus­pended mo­ment be­tween yes­ter­day and to­mor­row, be­tween child­hood and adult­hood, be­tween be­ing a no­body and a some­body, when ev­ery­thing is in ques­tion and ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble”.

Even as a su­per­hero, Spi­der-Man’s pow­ers seem to have a de­cid­edly ado­les­cent cast: it’s al­most as if he’s been trans­formed not by a ra­dioac­tive spi­der bite, but by a wildly ex­ag­ger­ated ver­sion of pu­berty. His un­canny ca­pac­i­ties are age-ap­pro­pri­ate. A trans­formed Peter Parker, with his sticky se­cre­tions and mo­ments of lit­eral sus­pen­sion, swing­ing wildly from one New York build­ing to an­other on his spi­der-web, em­bod­ies ex­actly that ex­pe­ri­ence, mag­ni­fied a thou­sand­fold. Yet is it help­ful to talk about teen movies in re­la­tion to Spi­der-Man, be­yond not­ing the film­mak­ers’ ex­plicit ref­er­en­tial ges­tures to the genre? What does it re­ally mean, par­tic­u­larly when the teen movie is hardly a fixed or eas­ily de­fined form? Is it sim­ply a mat­ter of the age of the cen­tral char­ac­ter, or the na­ture of the point of view?

The films you see as a teenager have an im­por­tant part to play in how you un­der­stand the genre, and what you value. When I was a teenager, teen films were barely part of my film­go­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. The clos­est ex­am­ple was prob­a­bly Fran­cois Truf­faut’s semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal The 400 Blows: it might be one of the found­ing films of the French new wave, but for me at the time, it was a film about how it feels to be young, com­mu­ni­cated to me with ex­tra­or­di­nary speci­ficity and en­ergy by Jean-Pierre Leaud as the 14-year-old at its cen­tre.

A teen movie, after all, can be a film about teenagers or a film for teenagers. The pro­tag­o­nists can be school age or a lit­tle older: they can be mak­ing the tran­si­tion to col­lege, or mov­ing out of home, tak­ing a job, seek­ing to ex­er­cise some in­de­pen­dence from fam­ily, fa­mil­iar­ity and strict in­sti­tu­tional rules, yet still in the process of de­tach­ing them­selves from the teen con­di­tion, ado­les­cent iden­tity, past al­le­giances.

Teen movies are of­ten about the op­er­a­tion of a group or groups — of how they in­clude or ex­clude mem­bers, how they cre­ate and con­firm iden­tity. These can be tales of mis­fits and out­casts, nar­ra­tives of soli­tude, sto­ries of the group and its loy­al­ties, nar­ra­tives of re­bel­lion. Or all of the above. Fam­i­lies and fam­ily dy­nam­ics some­times have a part to play. Adults might or might not be in the mix — their pres­ence and their power can be ev­i­dent or merely im­plied.

Teen movie schol­ar­ship points out that films about young people are part of cin­ema cul­ture since the ear­li­est years. There’s an ar­gu­ment that teen movies — tales of flap­pers and streetwise New York kids — ex­isted in the 1930s, even if the term didn’t. From time to time, the teen movie seems to emerge as a genre with some spe­cific fea­tures — it can be most read­ily iden­ti­fied, for ex­am­ple, in the 50s and the 80s.

If the 50s teen nar­ra­tive was of­ten about angst and delin­quency and puz­zled par­ents — who are these kids, why don’t they lis­ten to us, what’s this mu­sic they’re lis­ten­ing to? — the 80s has of­ten been con­sid­ered a golden age for teen movies em­braced by crit­ics. It’s the era of John Hughes, the Dean of Teen, who wrote the screen­play for Pretty in Pink and wrote and di­rected, among others, Six­teen Can­dles, The Break­fast Club and Fer­ris Bueller’s Day Off.

In The Break­fast Club, he gave us a group of teens very aware of their as­signed place in the world — five stu­dents rep­re­sent­ing a range of teen stereo­types, forced to be to­gether on a Satur­day de­ten­tion for a pos­si­bly trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence in un­der­stand­ing not just the self but the other.

If Molly Ring­wald is the em­blem­atic cen­tre of Hughes films, then Matthew Brod­er­ick, as Fer­ris Bueller, is the ex­cep­tion: the teen un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally in con­trol of his world, the wideeyed trick­ster who makes adults look bum­bling and in­ept.

But the “teen movie” term can cover Romeo + Juliet and Rebel With­out a Cause. It can re­fer to art house or hor­ror, gross-out com­edy or mu­si­cal or art­ful com­ing-of-age rec­ol­lec­tion. There are movies that sit­u­ate teenage dilem­mas in high-cul­ture frames — none bet­ter than the tri­umphantly witty Clue­less (from Jane Austen’s Emma). Di­rec­tor Amy Heck­er­ling had al­ready de­fined the gritty en­sem­ble movie a decade ear­lier with Fast Times at Ridge­mont High; with Clue­less, she cre­ated a whole new world of style, lan­guage, per­cep­tion.

In the same re­vamped vein, there was 10 Things I Hate About You (a ver­sion of The Tam­ing of the Shrew); Cruel In­ten­tions ( Dan­ger­ous Li­aisons in prep school); and She’s the Man, a teen Twelfth Night, which gave an early in­di­ca­tion of Chan­ning Ta­tum’s spe­cial tal­ent for jock vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

If there were crit­i­cally ap­proved films there were also dis­rep­utable movies, gross-out come­dies that revel in dis­com­fort and dis­gust, glee­ful ab­jec­tion. Yet sen­ti­men­tal­ity is of­ten a fea­ture of the teen movie, along­side scenes meant to pro­voke dis­gust or hor­ri­fied laugh­ter.

Trans­for­ma­tion is a key el­e­ment in a teen film: the ca­pac­ity for sud­den, dev­as­tat­ing, even cat­a­strophic change, the prom­ise of makeover or meta­mor­pho­sis. It can mean any­thing from los­ing your vir­gin­ity or your art folio to swap­ping bod­ies with a mem­ber of the op­po­site sex or dis­cov­er­ing you are a pop­u­lar girl or a were­wolf. It’s one of the great­est plea­sures of the form. But trans­for­ma­tion, for ac­tors in teen movies, can some­times be a vexed ques­tion when it comes to ca­reers. There are per­form­ers who have ef­fort­lessly breezed from child­hood to ado­les­cence to adult­hood, as eas­ily as don­ning and shed­ding cos­tumes. And there are others who never seem to tran­scend a key role, or who sim­ply fall out of favour.

To see how frag­ile the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of youth is, you can go back as far as Shirley Tem­ple — an ex­tra­or­di­nary screen tal­ent in child­hood, who had no real im­pact as a teenage ac­tress, and re­tired in 1940 at the age of 22. And to see how en­dur­ing it can be, you only have to look at James Dean, whose death in a car crash in 1955 made him for­ever Jim Stark from Rebel With­out a Cause, a per­ma­nent em­bod­i­ment, a ref­er­ence point with a post­hu­mous and per­pet­ual teen life of more than half a cen­tury. How­ever strik­ing he is in Rebel, the fact that its star will never grow old must have helped con­sol­i­date the mys­tique. Jim Stark trans­forms him­self by the end of the film, but Dean him­self is im­mutable, im­mor­tal.

For his Rebel co-stars, Sal Mi­neo and Natalie Wood, both gen­uine teenagers when they made the film with him, it was a dif­fer­ent story: Wood es­tab­lished a ca­reer post ado­les­cence, Mi­neo never re­ally did.

There are only so many teen roles in a per­former’s life. It’s a nec­es­sar­ily lim­ited life span, although an ac­tor’s ado­les­cence can be con­sid­er­ably pro­longed. In Mean Girls star Lind­say Lo­han was eight years younger than Rachel

Death in a car crash in 1955 im­mor­talised James Dean as a teen sym­bol

Jean-Pierre Leaud, left, and Pa­trick Auf­fay in Truf­faut’s The 400 Blows

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