100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Young Adult, 5-1

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can use to read my full review.

5) Election (1999), directed by Alexander Payne.

I’ve written this a thousand times, and the people who actually get paid to write about television have probably written it even more. But Glee (here we go) was at its best when it was really open about the sort of disappointment and sadness that comes with being in high school, and comes with feeling that you have all the potential in the world but no serious outlet to hone it, much less display it. Finn knows what he wants to do is pursue all of his interests, whether they’re girls (Quinn, Rachel) or extracurriculars (football, glee club), without interference or judgment from others. Rachel knows she wants to get out of Ohio and become the next Barbra Streisand, believing that “being part of something special makes you special.” The sadness in the show is knowing that their hopes are bound to be beaten down by their classmates, their finances, their setting. No one is a better proof of that than their teacher, Will Schuester, born and raised in Lima, Ohio, never left for any serious amount of time despite his own dreams of glory, and now is teaching Spanish at the same high school he went to and coaching the glee club that made him feel like he was part of something special as a kid. That was the best part of Glee; that’s what makes Election, which basically ate Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), and Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) and turned them into Will, Rachel, and Finn. Jim is much better off than Will but far more cynical; Tracy is goal-driven like Rachel, but has a couple dashes of mania tossed in. (Rachel puts a little gold star after her name when she signs it; Tracy, about ten years before, replaces the dot in her “i” with a star.) Honestly, take out the singing and Paul is essentially the same person as Finn. There’s a lot of pain there – Tracy is interesting because her pain is more a fear of what might happen rather than what has happened, which is Paul’s issue – and it drives everyone in the movie to do what they do.

Election recognizes the hurting in its characters, and it looks at it as a way to discuss the vengeful inner lives that high schoolers often have. No doubt Glee was inspired by Election‘s frequent use of voiceovers from multiple narrators as a way to build backstory quickly and stylishly, which helps us to understand what drives Tracy Flick. Tracy, like a lot of ambitious, intelligent teenagers, wants older people to see her as an older person. The first twenty minutes of the movie are given to her consensual, if one-sided, relationship with Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), who is Jim’s colleague and best friend. The one-sided nature of the relationship is Dave’s side, who is smitten with his pretty, independent student. Tracy is not very insightful about her own reasons for being into Mr. Novotny; you may think it was a daddy issue, she says, but it wasn’t, because he made me feel safe and secure. When she’s not having sex with a teacher (to the movie’s credit, it puts all the responsibility and blame on Dave for that episode), she looks for security and assurance from her success in the school’s various clubs. Her gospel is hard work; she is just as convinced that hard work will lead to success as the average Christian is sure that taking Jesus Christ as your lord and savior is will lead to Heaven. Tracy’s revenge is given life through her ability to dissemble; she trashes Paul’s campaign posters while doing a bad job of putting up her own but manages to wriggle out of any culpability thanks to someone who’s even more vindictive. Tammy (Jessica Campbell), Paul’s younger sister, decides to run for president out of spite; her girlfriend breaks up with her and starts dating Paul to twist the knife, a move that Tammy responds to by making a mockery of the Carver High School election. And of course, no one is more vengeful than Mr. McAllister, teacher of morals and ethics, who tries and fails to rig the election against Tracy.

4) Dazed and Confused (1993), directed by Richard Linklater.

The inhabitants of Dazed and Confused are fabulous ’70s creatures (and I can just see how I’m going to have work around calling this “Young Adult” and another movie “Period” when I get there), set in a world we buy as the ’70s for no other reason than cars and outfits. Age is very much at the heart of this movie. In the shot above, we have two rising seniors, a rising freshman, and a guy old enough that he is just beginning a witticism that comes to define him: “That’s what I love about these high school girls…I get older, they stay the same age.” The movie begins with the fear of a hazing ritual which has a jigsaw-like quality to it. Rising seniors in this Texas town get to do some ugly stuff to rising freshmen, and depending on whether you’re male or female it could either last all summer or last one afternoon. Girls are rounded up into trucks, placed in a parking lot, and have condiments thrown at them; it’s ugly but at least it doesn’t take more than a couple hours. Guys get paddled by older guys; the public humiliation is reduced significantly, but the risk level is there for months. At night, age matters less. Pink (Jason London) takes Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) under his wing for the night, lending a freshmen the prestige and protection of the star quarterback. Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) hits on Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), even though Mike (Adam Goldberg) say that they must have been three-year-olds when Wooderson graduated high school; Cynthia is nonplussed. Tony (Anthony Rapp) and Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa) hit it off even though he’s years older than her. Age may lend status, but it doesn’t signify much else to these teenagers. Status can be bought far more easily by being the person with weed or beer.

Dazed and Confused is not even two hours, which is just unbelievable. This movie feels as loose and breezy as a weed poncho, but it does such a marvelous job at compressing its characters into a single long stretch absolutely no longer than eighteen hours. As much as any other teen movie I’ve come across, it recognizes the entropy of teenage society, the cathartic disorganization which follows on the heels of rigid structure. The first act of this movie,the daylit section, takes place in and around schools. It’s the last day of school, so no one’s doing all that much, but they still literally have to be there. The hazing is much more repressive and preordained than anything that happened at school, but when that ends – i.e., when the O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) subplot is mercifully closed off – the only structure remaining in the movie is “party at the Moon Tower.” That’s it. The atmosphere is muggy with possibility. Mike could fight that guy. Mitch could hook up with some girl. Benny (Cole Hauser) could give Pink the business about signing his name on a pledge for their football coach. Ron (Rory Cochrane) could declaim on marijuana. None of those things, with the possible exception of Benny and Pink, feels forced. They simply are, they simply do, they simply happen. Whether or not people will have distinct memories of that night is kind of a moot point. The experience in the moment was all.

3) Metropolitan (1990), directed by Whit Stillman.

Earlier this year, the New York Times published one of those interactive articles we all love to fiddle with. It was called “Some Colleges Have More Students from the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours.” So I did. My wife and I went to the same university (although we weren’t married then) and, lo and behold, it happened to be one of the thirty-eight schools in America which has more one-percenters than bottom sixty-percenters. Neither one of us is a one-percenter, but at that school you inevitably rubbed shoulders and made friends with kids whose parents were fabulously wealthy. When I turned on Metropolitan one night and we watched it together, it didn’t take more than twenty minutes for her to say, “I know these people.” They’re a different breed, of course; the New York UHB (that’s “urban haute bourgeoisie”) are not quite interchangeable with the plantation Southerners I went to school with. But the affectations, the pretensions, the tone, the assurance of the college freshmen on break in Metropolitan are all precise, dangerously close to non-fiction. Much of that has to do with the screenwriter and director, Whit Stillman, who really was one of those people growing up. Metropolitan is dazzlingly funny and sometimes sad, full to the brim with one-liners which veer between urbanely witty and self-importantly absurd. Stillman, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, has an ear for the totally ridiculous things that people say and do in these settings and isn’t shy about reporting them for the underclass of average joes. For better or worse, Stillman (and Fitzgerald) also have this desire to belong to that cadre of the totally ridiculous anyway, and so their portraits of them are shaded with sympathy around the edges even if the scope of the canvas is pure rococo. You can almost hear the narrator of “The Rich Boy” fading in and out of Metropolitan during establishing shots or quiet moments:

All my life I have lived among his brothers but this one has been my friend. Besides, if I wrote about his brothers I should have to begin by attacking all the lies that the poor have told about the rich and the rich have told about themselves – such a wild structure they have erected that when we pick up a book about the rich, some instinct prepares us for unreality. Even the intelligent and impassioned reporters of life have made the country of the rich as unreal as fairy-land.

Stillman gives us entry to fairy-land via Tom (Edward Clements), like Fitzgerald a Princetonian, and like Fitzgerald a little unsure of himself around wealthier peers. At his first apartment party after the debutante parties (which is where all the best stuff happens anyway), Tom announces to his new acquaintances that he’s not interested in this sort of lifestyle, nor does he find them wholesome. He’s read enough to buy into socialism which leads one of the others, Charlie (Taylor Nichols), to say incredulously, “You’re a Fourierist?” After the party, Nick (Chris Eigeman) gets to the heart of what’s holding Tom back from coming to more parties. Half of it is that Tom is not as well-off as the rest and doesn’t have the clothes for night after night of deb parties. Half of it is that Tom doesn’t want to indulge this aristocratic fantasy he found himself in. “Has it ever occurred to you,” Nick says, “that you are the ‘less fortunate?'” Tom does not give the impression that he’s swayed in the moment, but Nick’s argument – touching on girls, gentlemanly conduct, and the admission that he’s not “entirely joking” – seems to stick with Tom. Before you know it he’s as odious as the rest of them.

I think it’s in our teenage years that dogmatism sets in like concrete. The concrete is poured in childhood, but it begins to harden and stiffen for good when you’re sixteen, eighteen years old, and from then on it’s profoundly difficult to break up except with whatever pickax or jackhammer our lives provide us. Metropolitan is exceptional in depicting how easy it is for these teenagers with only one perspective to view everything through that lens. Thus Charlie, who coins “UHB” in the movie and seems to really believe in them as a social class beyond even the powerful narcissism in his discourse:

Charlie: The term “bourgeois” has almost always been one of contempt, yet it is precisely the, the bourgeoisie which is responsible for, well, nearly everything good that has happened in our civilization over the past four centuries. You know the French film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie? When I first heard that title, I thought, ‘Finally, someone’s gonna tell the truth about the bourgeoisie.’ What a disappointment! It’d be hard to imagine a less fair, or, or accurate portrait.

Once the concrete sets and the worldview is really solidified, I think that’s when most people feel like they’ve grown up. Set in the context of debutante balls, the great white way of presenting one’s daughter as a marriageable entity, Metropolitan depicts a group of young people who are positive that they have reached adulthood. Their conversations are adult – sex, money, social class, literature – but they still grope at meaning like children. It’s a perfect depiction of a particular class of young person who, thank heavens, might really be going extinct.

2) Badlands (1973), directed by Terrence Malick.

Of course, no movie about teenagers (even if Holly, like Tigger, is the only one) has ever embraced a lack of structure like Badlands. I would say that Badlands is almost certainly more full of events than Dazed and Confused; between a murder, a house set on fire, another murder, more murders, car chases, and an extended robbery, plus the other happenings of the plot, Badlands almost seems full. Yet the order of things is never set in Badlands. Stuff happens and people react in the next ten seconds, but a plan is hardly ever made. When Kit and Holly are hungry, they eat, and sometimes it’s groceries they’ve jacked and sometimes it’s plants from the prairie. When Kit is threatened, Holly hides and Kit kills. I always return to the treehouse with battlements and booby traps that Kit and Holly build for themselves in the woods; they needed somewhere to live and they built it, simple as that. Action-reaction reigns in Badlands for a pair who live like they’ll live forever.

Part of my emphasis for this “young adult” genre is in the way that characters grow up and get older before our eyes. I’ve written before at my wonder that a twenty-three-year-old Spacek could play a fifteen-year-old with such aching perfection. She gets some help from costumes. The first time Holly meets Kit, she’s wearing a blue t-shirt and short white shorts and playing with a baton. In another scene she wears an ugly yellow dress suited for a confirmation ceremony in Hell. But part of it is her nervous hands, which are always moving, touching something, fixing her hair, fooling with eyeliner, fiddling with her clothes. She exudes a squirmy energy which is more obviously suited to a girl than to the cool redhead whose lost virginity ends with a remark to the effect of, That’s all there is? Kit shoots people and she barely blinks; while Kit is robbing a house, she gushes about the beauty of it to its owner. It’s no wonder to me that she gets off with parole while Kit gets the chair; how could anyone hear her talk and think that she was older than fifteen in mind or body? That’s affirmed, I think, in the poetry of her voiceovers. Sometimes the mere fact of newness, of first observations, can make a description holy and beautiful; much of her reminiscence is said in such a tone. Teenage poetry is almost uniformly abominable, but every now and then one comes across a line that is lovely because the author’s fledgling perspective shows. Badlands gives us that point of view with Holly time and time again.

1) Elephant (2003), directed by Gus Van Sant.

In my first take on Elephant, I described it as a great high school movie because it’s so firmly rooted in the nothingness that consumes the average high schooler’s day. They go to lunch, they go to class, they talk with friends, they don’t talk with friends, they walk aimlessly. When I wrote that a few months ago, I still hadn’t seen Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I only just saw it at the library a week ago, and oh my word, that’s Chantal Akerman with a pair of scissors and I have to go now). Elephant is the Jeanne Dielman of high school flicks, and I can think of no higher praise than that. Elephant is less concerned that Jeanne Dielman with the idea of time, and how time passes, and how we inhabit a single space. Elephant has a wider vision; on the whole it’s more interested in how large groups can be dissected into smaller ones, and how small groups and individuals relate to other small groups and individuals. When Alex and Eric (Alex Frost and Eric Deulen) murder a bunch of people at school, it’s not played for drama. It’s a way for the two of them to use their antennae to sense the other people around them, just as surely a means of rough reconnaissance as the three bulimic girls gossip about other people or the photo shoot that Elias and John (Elias McConnell and John Robinson) do in an empty hallway. It is unspeakably cruel and obviously wrong, but it is dispassionately presented. However much horror you feel watching it is however much horror you can whip up inside yourself; I don’t know that I’d call Elephant a strictly educational film, but it gives you plenty of time to meditate on it and thus to learn about who you are.

Elephant and Jeanne Dielman share an unusual bedfellow: “Too Many Cooks.” Although they are, tonally speaking, polar opposites, each of those movies works best when you have no idea how long they are. In watching it for the first time, “Too Many Cooks” raises a serious question, which is, “How long can they possibly keep adding to this joke?” That’s not too far distant from Elephant or Jeanne Dielman, which both force the viewer to reckon with questions like “How much distance will this jock in a red sweatshirt cover before something happens?” or “How long is this woman going to go without having any kind of human interaction with her son?” Knowing how long Elephant is, and knowing anything about its plot beforehand, is a disservice to the movie itself; ironically, I knew what happened in the movie before I saw it and planned to watch it within a certain timeframe because I knew its length. And yet knowing those things beforehand does not wreck the movie any more than knowing that “Too Many Cooks” is only about eleven minutes ruins that sitcom-satire acid trip. Elephant does not try to wind you up in its first two-thirds except for one short incident, which of course fills the rest of the movie with a sense of terrible foreboding. “Teen movie” is so frequently a shorthand for a type of film that has all the sound and fury of a traffic accident for ninety minutes that seeing Elephant, which is so quiet and pensive throughout, makes you reconsider the genre. No one is ever going to find a corollary for “fetch” or “as if!” in this movie, but they will find a subdued and tremendously incisive portrait of young adults. Their concerns are not given special weight, nor do their hobbies and preferences turn them into snowflakes. They are simply recognizable as teenagers, which is an incredible accomplishment within a genre that so rarely contents itself with teenagers as a type of person as opposed to a marketable subgroup.

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