Ten reasons why the teen movies of 1995–2004 were like, totally the best, ever.

Friday December 21st 2012


As victims followers of the Ultra Culture twitter feed may already be aware, last weekend I launched a Kickstarter page (I know, I know) for a feature-length documentary I’m trying to make called Beyond Clueless. The film will tell the story of the greatest decade in teen movie history, beginning in 1995 with the release of Clueless and ending somewhat spectacularly in 2004 with the release of Mean Girls.

You can get your hands on an HD download of the finished film for a fiver (or splash out a bit more and get zines, audio commentaries and the like) and, in the process, help to make sure Beyond Clueless actually happens, which would be nice. At the time of writing, we’re  31% of the way towards our goal, with a little over three weeks to go.

And if you need any convincing that the teen movies of 1995–2004 represent a slice of cinematic history worthy of academic investigation, here are ten reasons why they were so important:


THERE WERE JUST SO MANY OF THEM
More teen movies were made in the ten years between Clueless and Mean Girls than in any other era before or since, and — unlike today’s teen output — only a small handful of them were immediately relegated to the discount rack at HMV. The rest went on to significant, and in many cases monumental, levels of success. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1997 the teen genre had so much clout that 20th Century Fox moved the release date of Titanic back to avoid going head-to-head with Scream 2.


THEY DIDN’T DISCRIMINATE
Remember that John Hughes film that featured an openly gay character? Or the one with a black actor in the lead role? No, me neither. The teen movies of the nineties and noughties, on the other hand, had space for black stories (O), white stories (Slums of Beverly Hills), gay stories (But I’m A Cheerleader), straight stories (American Pie), transgender stories (Boys Don’t Cry), working class stories (Crazy/Beautiful), upper class stories (Cruel Intentions), funny stories (Clueless), sad stories (The Virgin Suicides), funny and sad stories (10 Things I Hate About You) and even stories without stories (Dude, Where’s My Car?).


THEY’RE WHERE ALL YOUR FAVOURITE ACTORS STARTED OUT
Fame was notably impermanent for many of the big stars of the nineties teen scene (take a look at the cover of Vanity Fair’s Class of 2000 Issue if you need any further proof of that) but the cast lists of films like Saved!The Rules of Attraction and Down To You were nonetheless riddled with actors who went on to better things. Can you honestly say that Jake Gyllenhaal would be where he is today without Bubble Boy? Would Ryan Reynolds have secured the lead role in Buried if he’d never made Van Wilder? Just take a look at this year’s Oscar contenders — you’ll find alumni of Bend It Like BeckhamThe Basketball Diaries, The Princess Diaries and even Halloween H20: 20 Years Later.


SOME OF THEM WERE EVEN MADE BY TEENS
The writers of Animal House were all in their late-30s when the film was conceived in 1978. Porky’s was written by a 42-year-old. It was only in the 90s that teen movies were first written by actual teenagers, with a 14-year-old Nikki Reed basing thirteen on her own experiences of puberty, and Harmony Korine penning the award-winning Kids at just 18. Even without the patience to sit down behind a typewriter and bang out 90 pages, teens could still get in on the act — a 19-year-old Bam Margera secured his place on Jackass after his self-distributed skits-and-stunts tape CKY caught the attention of MTV executives.


THEY WERE ALL POSTMODERN AND SHIT
It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Scream had on the teen genre after its release in 1996. Its creator, Kevin Williamson, became Hollywood royalty overnight, going on to write 4 of the decade’s 10 highest grossing horror movies — and Dawson’s Creek, obviously. Suddenly irony was the key ingredient of teen horror, and the genre could barely keep up with its own post-modernity. Scarcely had Jamie Kennedy declared the first law of horror movies — ‘you can never have sex’ — in Scream, before Cherry Falls came along and introduced a serial killer who exclusively targeted virgins.


THEY WERE SIMULTANEOUSLY OBSESSED WITH, AND TERRIFIED OF, SEX
Speaking of Dawson’s Creek, is any fictional character a better distillation of the teenage attitude to sex than James Van Der Beek’s eponymous neurotic? Literally all he thinks about through 6 seasons of the show is fucking, but the very idea of sex scares him so totally and utterly that he ends up constantly preaching against it like some kind of puritanical baptist minister. Elsewhere, Idle Hands and Ginger Snaps offered a pair of similarly terrifying horror analogies for the onset of puberty — if any late-nineties teenagers were considering ‘losing it’, the sight of Devon Sawa’s severed hand clawing at Jessica Alba’s vagina should have been more than enough to put them off.


THEY WERE REALLY CONFUSED ABOUT THE CONCEPT OF BEAUTY
After She’s All That became one of the first 90s teen movies to open at number one at the US box office, studios decided there was plenty more juice left in the Pygmalion fruit. The result was a raft of films that professed to have something to say about the value of inner beauty but — since nobody outside of the 90th percentile of physical attractiveness has ever or will ever appear in a teen movie — nonetheless starred people best known for their outer beauty. Try and take something morally valuable away from Down To You, I dare you.


THEY HELPED THE BODY SWAP GENRE COME INTO ITS OWN
The greatest of all teen subgenres couldn’t have been better represented in the late-nineties and early-noughties. Wish Upon A StarSeventeen Again (not the Zac Efron one), 13 Going On 30The Hot ChickIt’s a Boy/Girl ThingFreaky Friday and She’s The Man all boasted psychosexual themes, complex character dynamics and extended ruminations on the nature of identity that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a Bergman movie. They also featured Lindsay Lohan, who might have felt out of place in a Bergman movie.


LOTS OF THEM WERE RAUNCH COMEDIES (SOME OF WHICH WERE SORT OF ALRIGHT)
There’s a reason so many posters for teen movies contain nothing but a white background, some red text and a selection of scantily clad young people staring salaciously into the camera. In the wake of American Pie, studios were desperate to replicate its runaway success, and that meant a fuckton of raunch comedies. And even if 90% of them were as awful as The Sweetest Thing, there were always a few as perfect as EuroTrip.


EVEN THE BAD ONES WERE AMAZING
With more than 200 teen movies produced during the period, it’s hardly surprising that the failures of the 1995–2004 teen movie scene were as fascinating as the successes. Few would argue that American Psycho II: All American Girl ranks alongside the greatest cultural achievements of the 20th Century (unlike The Rage: Carrie II, which totally does) but that doesn’t stop it being a vitally important historical document, if only for William Shatner’s revelatory performances as a paedophilic criminology professor.