EDITORIAL: What happened to the "high school" movie?

(Image: buzzfeed.com)

A college classmate and Facebook friend of mine posed a particular question to me this past spring.  As a devout fan of fun movies, he asked me "what happened to the high school movie?"  It was a simple, but intriguing question that I've wrestled over for months now.  Most importantly, he was right.  Hollywood doesn't make the same high school movies they used to.  That friend and I are both 30-somethings now that grew up at the tail end of the John Hughes-era classics of the 1980's and were in high school and college during the prime of trendy fun flicks of the 1990's where high school was portrayed as fun, free-spirited, romantic, and hip.  It does seem like, after the better part of two decades, that we don't see those types of movies anymore.  Answering that question has inspired this editorial.

WHAT HIGH SCHOOL MOVIES USED TO BE

First, let's take a look at where that friend and I are coming from.  Every generation has had their "teen" movies, but no decade is more closely identified as the renaissance of that age group getting a cinematic voice more than the 1980's.  The greatest films of that time period possess the fingerprints of the late John Hughes who absolutely nailed the mood of that decade and generation.  As a writer or director, he is responsible for Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Weird Science.  When you throw in the Cameron Crowe double of Say Anything... and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and little individual pockets of success, like the double "Corey" movies of Feldman and Haim like The Lost Boys and License to Drive, or something a little deeper like Heathers, the films of the decade show the fun and rambunctious side of teens during a decade of yuppy decadence.

That vein of frivolity and fun continued in the 1990's when fresh faces were discovered and turned into stars.  With teen-centered programming on the then-new WB/CW network like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson's Creek  winning over youths everywhere, the popular actors and actresses of those shows started making the jump to movies.  Clueless got the ball rolling in 1995, but I consider the peak of the decade's prominence to be 1999, which is where this editorial's main picture comes from above.  Just take a look at those ten films pictured and then add serious fare like American Beauty and The Virgin Suicides from the same year.  American Pie was a high point for high school movies and a game changer.  Election brought a new black comedy edge to the genre and brought in a grownup Matthew Broderick passing the torch from Ferris Bueller to teacher villain.  You can comb the casts of 10 Things I Hate About You and Varsity Blues and find future A-listers and even Oscar winners.   Even high school movies from the 1990's that were set in different decades like the Richard Linklater classic 70's throwback  Dazed and Confused produced even more new stars and nostalgia to good old days of high school.

After the turn of the century, it all seemed to slow down.  I think an unofficial sign that your trend or fad is past its prime is when it becomes a parody.  It may have not seemed so at the time, but not long after 2000's Dude, Where's My Car?, 2001's Not Another Teen Movie spoof of just about every teen flick from the 90's might as well have been the nail in the coffin (even if it launched Chris Evan's career).  Once you get parodied, you really can't go back to that era with jokes and comparison.  Over the next ten years, very few movies can be considered high school hits.  The big three on the high school movie medal stand of this decade are Mean Girls, Superbad, and Juno.  They were the best followed by cult hit Napoleon Dynamite and movies that are more about other things that just happened to take place in high school, namely the football film Friday Night Lights, summer camp inWet Hot American Summer, and the loose noir update of Brick.  Multiple hits like those used to come out in bunches every year in the 1980's and 1990's.  Now, they were few and far between.

WHAT MOVIES TOOK THEIR PLACE

Something happened.  The mood and innocence shifted and tastes changed.  Blame 9/11.  Blame the former kids like me that grew up from the 80's and 90's audience to become adults instead of teens.  We got too serious and too old to like the same kind of high school movies from back in the day.  Heck, when you jump another decade to now, most of us from that era are parents and closer to 40 than we are to 30.

I think the biggest culprit of stomping out the fun high school movie trend was the rise of what many call the "man-child" movement of film.  Movie characters were still having fun and engaging in immature shenanigans, but they were older than high school now.  The laughs were being dominated by guys in their 30's and 40's instead of their 20's.

Mega producer Judd Apatow, this generation's equivalent to John Hughes, cut his teeth making teen comedies on TV with Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared before moving to the older crowd.  With the emergence of guys like Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Seth Rogan, James Franco, Paul Rudd, and more, the R-rated fun was being taken over by immature adults instead of teens.  Just look at the decade of the 2000's and look at how Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman, Old School, Knocked Up, Step Brothers, Role Models, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, Hot Tub Time Machine, and Dodgeball eclipsed anything taking place in high school.  Last year's monster hit Ted with Seth McFarlane and Mark Wahlberg is a continuation of that.  

The second trend that pushed out the traditional high school movie was lesser efforts of the straight-to-video market.  Universal Pictures made sure to beat the American Pie and Bring It On brands to the ground with bad spin-offs and loose sequels of diminishing quality.  Both franchises each had four direct-to-video sequels with the latest appearing as late as 2009.  The 2012 return of the original cast for American Reunion saved a little respectability, but the luster will always be tarnished.

The final big perpetrator was the enormous wave of teen-centered reality television of the last decade and a half.  ABC Family and CW has always been involved, but when MTV stopped showing music videos and started churning out endless trashy reality programming from The Real World all the way to 16 and Pregnant and all the junk in between, teens that would normally drop a few bucks on a movie could stay home on their computers, TVs, and devices and watch something longer and more regular for virtually free.  Even channels that started off as educational, like TLC and Discovery are now flooded with reality-based crap.  What teen was going to pay to see something like She's All That for an hour-and-a-half when they have an entire bank of channels containing 24-hour cycles of stimulation?  Very few is the answer.  Those that do are wasting their money on four films worth of Step Up.  An additional extension to reality TV is all of the web-based content on YouTube and social media that also steals away movie opportunities.  

WHAT TEENS IN MOVIES DO NOW

In the post-9/11 world, in a lofty notion that my fellow movie blogger Tim Day pinpointed, today's teens are out "saving the world" instead of engaging in ordinary lives.  They've gotten a bigger stage than the classroom and corner diner.  Look no further than the colossal franchises of Twilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and even the Star Wars prequel trilogy.  

While there's nothing wrong with young adult fiction aiming a little higher with imagination and settings, the result has become more fantasy than reality.  The hit movie teens now fight vampires and werewolves, wield magic, fight stirring battles, and kill each other in post-apocalyptic battlefields, and save the universe.  When you add the weaker entries like the Percy Jackson series, Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and other such adaptations, you'll see this trend of fantasy over normalcy taking over.  We'll get a new addition to that with Ender's Game this November competing against The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  One overarching facet of these teen characters and circumstances is that they are portrayed with a nearly morose seriousness to handling these kinds of burdens and tasks.  Call it "emo" if you want, but you don't see the happy-go-lucky teen anymore.

Need a litmus test of that?  Name one of those franchises where you could put in a character like Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  Try Ferris Bueller next.  I sure can't.  Today's gruff and mean Sean Penn could do it, but not that surfer dude from 1982.  For goodness sake, John Cusack, Lloyd Dobler to many, just played Richard Nixon in Lee Daniels' The Butler.  That ought to make you feel old.

The other place you will always find teens today and yesterday is in the horror genre.  Somehow, the Final Destination series that was born in the 90's is still going.  Between that and a mostly horrible stockpile of movies like The House at the End of the Street and bad remakes of 80's classic like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm StreetHalloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (twice in that last case), teens are still the favored prey of the sick and twisted.  That trend is an outlier to this larger idea of high school movies.

THE HOPE FOR THE PRESENT AND FUTURE

So what are the "high school" movies of today?  One thing is for sure.  They are different than before and, unless the next generation mellows out, we're aren't going to see movies like those 80's and 90's classics again.  Once we can all admit that and let go of that nostalgic hope, we can move on and see the hope for the present and future.

We've reached the point where "homage" has taken over originality.  Look no further than 2010's Easy A starring Emma Stone.  Using today's cell phone-connected and social media-obsessed kids, Will Gluck, who also made Mean Girls, created a sharp and charismatic homage to the works of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe with arguably one of the best high school movies of any era.  Easy A proved that, even with a changed teen generation, the themes of growing up and fitting in are never too far away for a high school movie.

If you take one step outside of the so-called "high school" movie, you will see that the best of them from any era or decade are essentially classic "coming-of-age" stories.  Every generation has those stories to tell.  Every generation of teens goes through those character-building growth periods.  The changes they experience, which may be common in theme but unique to time and place, add to the fabric of our culture.

Those children of the late 1970's and 1980's, like myself, that watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off a hundred times are finally becoming the 30-40-something adults that are writing and directing today's new films.  Remember James Van Der Beek's central character from Dawson's Creek that idolized Steven Spielberg as an aspiring filmmaker?  In ten years, the kids that used to be Dawson's age that watched Cruel Intentions and Never Been Kissed are going to be doing the same creative thing.  Easy A is proof that those filmmakers aren't forgetting where they came from and what influenced them.

THE MODERN HIGH SCHOOL MOVIES FOR THIS GENERATION

I'm here to say that, since Easy A, there are admirable and excellent coming-of-age high school movies being made this decade.  They are well-written, relatable, and endlessly engaging if you give them a chance.  They're just going to be different than the ones you remember and love.  Like that blending of influences I just talked about, we're seeing high school movies of today's generation through the lens of filmmakers that grew up before them.

A perfect example of the quality and tone modern high school movies now possess is last fall's surprise independent success The Perks of Being a Wallflower.   Set in an uncertain 90's/00's blend where cassettes and mix-tapes are still made, author Stephen Chbosky was given the chance to bring his hit novel to big screen as the screenwriter and director.  The film made my year-end "10 Best" list of 2012 and tells an extraordinary affecting story of fitting in that could have been written for any decade.  Ezra Miller, Emma Watson, and Logan Lerman are all future stars who dove right into the story's rich content.  The movie combines the seriousness of being a teen today to the domestic settings we all can relate to.  It shows that today's high school movies are skewing more to the American Beauty and The Virgin Suicides tone that the Jawbreaker and Drive Me Crazy one from from 14 years ago. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an example of the scope and scale of high school movies now in the 2010's.  Instead of box office glory and 15 minutes of fame, the high school movie genre has found a fertile independent film landscape that values artistic merit over mass popularity.  The people making high school movies now are storytellers, not marketing machines.  They grew up loving those character-centered 80's movies.  Right now, the products are more serious in tone than the wild fun of the 80's, but at least there is hope.

I waited to write the answer to my buddy's question because this past summer promised a trio of intriguing coming-of-age high school films that looked to match the quality standard set by The Perks of Being a Wallflower last year.  The Kings of SummerThe Way Way Backand The Spectacular Now were the three films I had to see before writing this editorial.  None of them ruined this new vibe of high school movies and all of them restored the hope that I'm sharing here.  Each movie takes their slice of drama seriously in their own way, but all three are buoyantly high in uplifting youthful spirit.  You can see their roots.  

The Kings of Summer compares to Stand By Me.  The Way Way Back has shades of Meatballs and The Spectacular Now feels like a new Say Anything...  All are still unequivocally original.  The best of the three is, without a doubt, The Way Way Back from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the writers of The Descendants.  It's one of those rare movies that will bring you to tears at some points, but bring you back up with the satisfaction that you didn't shed those tears in vain.  All three are absolute winners.  

I, for one, think this push for quality over quantity is a darn good thing for high school movies.  I will take 10 of The Way Way Back to every unrealistic and exploitative Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, and Project X wannabe hardasses that try to puff their chests as "real" teen movies.  All they do is stunt the growth of better movies that earn less, but aim higher.

Slowly, people are taking notice and asking the same question my friend asked me.  They are diving deeper and finding these smaller, but excellent films and seeing many of the traits they loved from 20 and 30 years ago.  Yes, it's all not as fun as it used to be, but that's the world we live in today.  We have to adjust and appreciate what we have.  This ain't the Reagan 80's and Arsenio Hall 90's anymore.

At some point, the right mix of story and performance in one of these little movies is going to become a breakout hit that everyone seeks out to see and experience.  Once just one of these little movies makes it big, you might then see a return to the mainstream high school movie that targets to move the box office needle.  However, just as we've seen before, success again will lead to emulation, inundation, and over-saturation that will burn that energy out.  Until then, appreciate and find solace in the little movies that tell special stories that hit home.  They are the ones that are worth your time and effort.