Friday, May 27, 2011

‘As If!’ to ‘Honest to Blog!’:
Why Audiences Shouldn’t Scoff at ‘Hip’ Teen Films

It seems that over the past several years, there has been a growing popularity around off-beat, independent feature films.  Littered with dry wit and a quirky cast, it’s no surprise that mainstream audiences have warmed to features like Thank You for Smoking (2005), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and more recently, the critically-acclaimed Juno (2007).  

Massive blockbusters still dominate the box office, so it can be refreshing to see small charmers push through the ranks to make their mark on the year’s films.  Encouraging, even.   Big budgets and innovative CGI don’t have to be the standard, and audiences can expect more for their buck (or at today’s ticket counter, $10.50) with clever narratives, fun dialogue, and down-to-earth direction.

Even more interesting is when a film featuring – and directed to – young people gets significant critical attention.  Every year, studios churn out high school comedies, trying to make a mark on the overly opinionated and increasingly snobby youth market.  One film in 2007 managed to do just that: Juno, the Jason Reitman directed follow-up to his 2005 hit, Thank You for Smoking.   The former centered on a 16-going-on-40 teenager, Juno MacGuff, who finds herself in the sticky predicament of teen pregnancy. 

Wasting no time, Juno, with the support of her family and best friend, makes preparations to carry the baby to term and give it up for adoption “to a family that, like, totally needs it.”  Juno, not one for pleasantries, expels zingers and clever, pop culture-infested anecdotes without missing a beat.  The script, from first-time screenwriter, Diablo Cody, was lauded by most critics as hip, fresh, and charming.  Such praise also landed on the film’s young star, Ellen Page, who turned the archetype of the “teenage girl” on its head by portraying Juno as a tough, complicated, imperfect tom-boy, not to mention one filled with irony.

The subject matter, teen pregnancy, is another notable aspect.  A topic usually considered taboo or melodramatic in the teen genre is handled here with care, humor, and subtle sensitivity.   Juno’s exclamation while calling a clinic that she’s “calling to procure a hasty abortion” is steeped with urgency, light-heartedness, and even a spot of denial.

This is not your typical teenager.  Juno’s rough exterior serves to repel common conceptions about teenage girls: not all are sappy, whiny, or co-dependent, and Juno will make damn sure you don’t think she’s any of those things – whether she is or not.

In the end, the film garnered four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and walked away with the prize for Best Original Screenplay.  Universally praised as one of the best films of 2007 (with a 94% “fresh” rating on online film site, Rotten Tomatoes), such adoration couldn’t occur without just a little bit of backlash.  And in the case of Juno, that backlash came strong and hard.

Just as popular as the evolving genre is peoples’ penchant for cutting these films down.  Following the release of the film in December ’07, criticism from film audiences began to seep out.  As the movie grew in popularity, the negative critiques piled on thicker.  The reason?  Well, I asked myself this question many times over the past 6 months, taken aback by the vitriol and hatred that seemed to, almost instantly, turn young audiences away from the film.

Then I found one of the likely rationales:  just like when underground bands rise from obscurity, only to have one of their songs played on the most recent episode of “The Hills,” die-hards turn their backs in disgust.  How dare their favorite band, who they’ve loved since they saw them play in that grungy bar on that corner that one time, go and get popular without their express permission?  Don’t they know you’re supposed to stay ‘underground’ in order to be good?

It’s a sense of entitlement that many people, not just those in their youth, have towards cultural favorites. Juno, as a result, suffered from its popularity.  Screenwriter, Diablo Cody, became the butt of every Juno-related jab, poking fun at her overly “hip,” trying-too-hard-to-connect jargon, as well as her tendency to have her characters make obscure pop culture references.

As I’ve found out, Juno’s off-handed remarks about everything from gore-king, Dario Argento, to ‘50s comedian, Soupy Sales, rubbed many critics and viewers the wrong way – the more they thought about it, that is.  More than once, I have heard people in their late teens and early 20’s criticize the film for bringing something they loved into mainstream culture. Whether it be the funky soundtrack by underground sensation Kimya Dawson or the faux-punk fashion styles, original lovers can’t bear to watch as *insert trend here* is trivialized and revealed as something everyone can enjoy.

Claims were made on popular gossip sites such as Oh No They Didn’t and JoBlo that the film tries “too hard” to be appealing, laying on the banter and repartee too think.  One reviewer noted that Juno felt like “Hollywood’s desperate bid for the fickle attention of the YouTube generation.”¹  Further criticism stems from the assertion that “today’s kids just don’t talk [like Juno]!”²  Well, god forbid someone younger than eighteen speak like a wise-cracking adult, or they might risk attack from people carrying stereotype-manuals and a bucket of tar.

Stepping away from the craze and fervor surrounding the movie, it’s hard to really comprehend the extreme hate these critics and audiences continue to direct at this harmless comedy.  Haven’t they seen the iconic movies that paved the way long before Juno hit the big screen?  Don’t they remember that the same remarks of “lack of authenticity” and “too mature, witty dialogue” were made constantly over the past several decades about teen classics such as Heathers, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless, and Can’t Hardly Wait, not to mention most of the “Brat Pack” movies?

Those films went on to represent a generation of high school kids, and it’s fruitless to blame Hollywood for that representation.  Aren't all teen movies stylized and “hipped-up” to one degree or another?   A slice of teen life captured on film through a world of heightened fashion trends, popular music, and slang?  Immense enjoyment comes from watching a movie like Juno after a decade or two has passed, absorbing the visual and social highlights that generation had to offer.

The best comparison to Juno I can cite to make this argument has to be one of, if not the, most loved – and stylized – teen films of the ‘90s:  Clueless (1995), written and directed by Amy Heckerling.

Like Juno, Cher walks through life filtering trends, making statements, and, most notably, creating a dictionary of slang terms that has since become a part of youth culture.  Popular Valley Girl phrases such as “whatever,” “as if,” and “totally buggin’” are bandied about at lightning speed, while characters reference everything from Marky Mark to Tony Curtis to Monet.

When I watch Clueless, it’s hard to argue that all that much is truly “real” about the film.  Characters go around completely unsupervised, drive expensive cars without licenses, talk on their cell phones during class, and fast-talk themselves out of everything from bad grades to sexual assault.  Nose-job bandages are as popular at Cher’s high school as Converse footwear is at Juno’s, which gives the film a very specific period, with a style and tone that says: “This is the world these kids live in – deal with it!”

Cher talks and acts like a grown-up, regardless of how immature and in need of life lessons she is, and watching Cher is eerily similar to watching Juno – 12 long years later – dealing with all the shit life throws at them.  

Sure, the plots are drastically different (I might even argue that Clueless doesn’t really have a plot at all), but the concepts are still the same: whether we’re in Beverly Hills or the Midwestern American suburb, teens create a culture all their own and it’s the adults’ job to keep up.  Youth culture can’t be pigeonholed, so it’s a safe bet that films will take some creative liberties in representing each ever-changing generation.

As critics today look back at past films, now being released on special edition DVDs and Blu-Ray, I’d be curious to find out just how “cliché” and “hip” those critics of Juno might consider Clueless.  Would they make claims that Amy Heckerling was trying too hard to appeal to the ‘90s teen demographic?  After all, she was over 40 years old when she made that movie, older than Diablo Cody was when she wrote Juno at a youthful 30 years of age.  Surely she didn’t live as a teenager in 1995, so how could she know how they talked and interacted?  She must have been making something up!  Perhaps she wanted to capture elements of what was popular at the time and represent teens in a fun and unique way.  Would that be so bad?

Regardless of her age or motives, Heckerling produced a film that became a phenomenon, and has turned into a nostalgic look back at the fantastical world of high school in ‘90s Beverly Hills, not to mention any place else that tried desperately to emulate the world as she saw it.  Cher’s life is unlike any teenager’s I ever knew growing up, but that doesn’t make her story any less valid or her dialogue any less entertaining.

Juno takes a page from that same playbook, creating a stylized version of the “every-high school,” and future decades will be able to look back on this cinematic creation to catch a glimpse at what teens were like during the ‘00s – or at least how they should be remembered:  image-crazed, over-saturated, media-driven, and just a little bit indifferent.  Hey, wait a minute… that sounds like some people I know.  Maybe Juno - and Diablo Cody - weren’t so far off the mark after all.

¹ Thomas Peysor. “Little Miss Rain Clouds,” Style Weekly (Dec. 19, 2007)
² Berge Garabedian. “Juno,” JoBlo’s Movie Reviews (Feb. 22, 2008)

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