These days, happy endings in the already glib genre of teen movies are like crack cocaine—cheap and dirty payoff for a bad habit. Let’s face it, there are no such things as upbeat epiphanies and understanding parents in the real world of high school. Heathers knew that. At least those kids were smart enough to blow up their school before the credits rolled.
And enough about the freaking prom already (unless, of course, we’re talking about Carrie).
This summer, though, looked as though it was going to save the world from vapid teen flicks. Saved! and Mean Girls, a double feature of teen-girl comedies, gave me hope. They seemed sardonic and offensive and fun all at once: the equivalent of straight sugar on baby teeth—or the aforementioned crack cocaine.
“I noticed in your last column that you promised to write about the new golden age of teen movies,” my pal D said last week, chuckling. “Isn’t this, like, the third time since you’ve been reviewing movies that you’ve proclaimed ‘the new golden age of teen movies?’”
“Yeah, maybe,” I sneered. “But Clueless was a golden age in itself. Ditto American Pie. Then there was Bring It On and But I’m a Cheerleader. That was, like, a golden age of the sub-genre of teen cheerleader movies.”
Saved! seemed particularly promising. I had heard from various semi-reliable sources that it was a trenchant send-up of the Christian mainstream in teenage America, and the premise had teeth: Jena Malone plays Mary, a devout senior at the American Eagle Christian high school in some nameless suburb of Baltimore (“I’ve been born again my whole life!” she announces by way of introduction.) This is the kind of school where multimedia student assemblies feature the principal, Pastor Skip (played by Hal Hartley regular Martin Donovan), addressing the rapturous student body in Jesus-tinged gangsta rap.
Mary is a member in good standing of the Christian Jewels, a girl-pop band fronted by her best friend Hilary Faye, a delightfully frost-mulleted Mandy Moore. But after Mary’s boyfriend tells her that he thinks he might be gay, Jesus appears to her in a supposed vision to instruct her that True Love needn’t wait in this instance, for it has a higher purpose. Mary, the blessed vessel, duly sacrifices her virginity to (unsuccessfully) “un-gayify” her boyfriend.
Of course, like all Christian girls, Mary gets pregnant in the first round and must go downtown to Planned Parenthood with a goal other than picketing with pictures of bloody fetuses.
For a while, Saved! rollicks along at a good pace. The central dichotomy between the straight-shooting Mary and the fanatical do-gooder Hilary Faye is nicely embellished by supporting characters: Eva Amurri, Susan Sarandon’s daughter, plays bad girl Cassandra, “the only Jewish” to ever attend American Eagle; Hilary Faye’s sardonic and “differently abled” brother Roland, Cassandra’s fuck-buddy, is played by Macaulay Culkin, here sporting a new dark-blond sexiness.
Admittedly, the thing I enjoyed best about Saved! in the first half was that I knew something most city audiences probably don’t. One side of my family lives in the heart of Middle America, so I’ve seen enough Christian pop culture to know that Saved! isn’t a satire at all; if anything, they’ve underplayed this particular reality.
But things soon went downhill.
A sick feeling began to roil in the pit of my stomach during the second half of Saved! I finally pinpointed its epistemological root around the time D and I started to speculate about the fate of Mary’s unborn child.
“Betcha she gets adopted,” he whispered in my ear.
“Nah,” I said. “Kids never get adopted in these kinds of movies. She’ll end up with two dads and everyone will be all happy.”
Sure enough, the final frame of the movie was a snapshot in the maternity ward, with Mary’s healthy ten-toed daughter surrounded by loving family, everyone getting along.
This was the biting satire we were promised? Diluted? Resolved? Even kind? Let down, I placed my hope in Mean Girls.
“Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own,” said Jonathan Swift. Tina Fey, the first female head writer ever at Saturday Night Live, must have read this in a fortune cookie. As the writer of Mean Girls, she does, after all, co-star as the smart but dorky math teacher who eventually brings peace to the backbiting vipers’ nest that is high-school girl culture.
The premise is brilliant: Fey adapted Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence, a book of self-help non-fiction by Rosalind Wiseman, into a comedy about a home-schooled child of African anthropologists who first ventures into mainstream school just in time for junior year. Rather than have Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) be a loser, Fey casts her as the newest addition to the cool chicks’ crew, where she learns adaptive behaviour and soon becomes the meanest girl in school.
This is an interesting twist on the “I was a tenth grade loser” theme, but again, one that Heathers did better. I found my heart sinking once more as I realized, during the requisite prom finale, that everybody was going to learn to like each other. As a matter of fact, after Lindsay Lohan becomes Spring Fling Queen, she actually relents and tosses out fragments of her tiara to the crowd. I mean, Kumbaya—how sad.
Though Fey gave some interesting twists to her Mean Girls (you can tell that the movie was written by a mordant feminist who almost never writes a “Weekend Update” joke that doesn’t have a bleak, toxic, delicious aftertaste), even she let me down. All the sharp edges in this film are dulled by everybody’s eventual tolerance and goodwill.
The Puritan poet William Cowper once said of satire, “Unless a love of Virtue light the flame, Satire is, more than those he brands, to blame.” This sentiment about the social usefulness of satire may ring true, but haven’t we, as aficionados of teen comedies, evolved beyond the point where everything must teach us a lesson?
I liked it better when we blew up the school. There may, somewhere in cinema, be a place for the instructive lessons of tolerance, but we aren’t going to solve all our problems in high school, a time for crippling emotional drama, back-stabbing desperation, cherry-popping, nihilism and bad fashion ideas. Bombs away.
Next time: An introduction to the Fantasia Festival (or Fear and Loathing in Fanboy-dom).
Montreal-based journalist Melora Koepke is in her element when the theatre lights dim. Camera Obscura lights up cinema culture every second Thursday.