Arts: Why teenage is American

At least it is at the cinema. Our own teen movies have been dreadful ever since Cliff took his Summer Holiday. By Matthew Sweet

As with our bananas, we've always imported our teen cinema. And this is mainly because we're rubbish at growing our own. It's a pity, as adolescence was built for melodrama. Its anxieties, desires and power struggles make it ideal cinematic material - as do adults' paradoxical relationships with adolescents as a group. Teenagers are variously perceived as the root of all evil (they vandalise phone boxes, mug old ladies and - in some cases - gun down their classmates) and the object of their elders' sexual interests and jealousies (how old, for instance, does Kate Moss really look?). And although living between the ages of 13 and 19 is a disconcerting experience on both sides of the Atlantic, the UK film and TV industry has never satisfactorily addressed its palpitating, humiliating, desperate awfulness.

As a rule, domestic attempts in the teen genre have simply curled the toes of their target audience. In 1986, Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners was tipped to give the British film industry its first taste of home-grown teen cool. It was such a disaster that it almost squished the careers of all involved. In the Fifties, American teens had Marlon Brando and his Harley to build their fantasies upon. That famous dialogue from The Wild One (1954) - "What are you rebelling against?" "What have you got?" - virtually invented the teenager as an identifiable cultural figure. But all British pubescents got was Cliff Richard and Melvyn Hayes chugging round Normandy on a double-decker bus.

As the summer rolls on, a swath of American high-school movies - from upbeat comedies to gruesome thrillers - will colonise the UK's multiplexes. And there's nothing anybody can do about it.

In Never Been Kissed, Drew Barrymore infiltrates a class of teens and takes a second shot at becoming prom queen. In Jawbreaker, a gang of high-schoolers accidentally kill a classmate with one of those indestructible gobstoppers. In 10 Things I Hate About You, an unsociable sourpuss is wooed by the thick-headed football captain. In American Pie, four schoolboys swear to lose their virginity by the end of the term - a plot familiar to anyone who'll admit to remembering Porky's (1982). The film features a scene in which one of the protagonists masturbates into the eponymous confection, presumably with the aim of outgrossing the semen/ hair gel scene in There's Something About Mary.

For want of any alternative, British audiences are cosying up to their casts of transatlantic teen stereotypes. Although her elaborate swoopy hairstyle would get her laughed out of any schoolyard in Britain, we can recognise the teen movie's cheerleader-in-chief - the sharp-jawed, collagen-pumped uber-bitch who rules her little fiefdom with an air of unimpressed cruelty. We've got to know the football captain - buffed and beefy, but cursed with a streak of nastiness. And, most importantly, we're intimates of the round-shouldered geek or bespectacled girl who usually manages to reform one of the above and bag them for the senior prom.

The initiation rites, the warring factions, the grooming rituals, the pecking order that's savagely policed and defies the logic of friendship - you'd think they'd alienate an audience who weren't seeing them every day at school. But like bullfighting, bear-baiting and South Seas piercing rituals, they possess a harsh, exotic sexiness that makes them irresistible to anyone whose hormones are all revved up with nowhere to go. It's a cruel, divisive, sex-fixated world, and that's probably why British teenagers respond to it with such enthusiasm. Let's face it, at Grange Hill, nobody ever talked about getting laid. Not even Tucker Jenkins.

However, the essential alienness of Californian teen culture means that British audiences can enjoy its rituals without suffering the consequences of living them. In one of the smarter sequences in 10 Things I Hate About You - which, by the way, is the plot of The Taming of the Shrew redeployed in a suburban high school - the hero explains the tribal affiliations of his peers. It's a lot more complex than a simple division between Sharks and Jets. Sure, there are jocks and cheerleaders and nerds. But beyond that there's a whole new taxonomy. Meet the coffee-drinkers ("Oh man, you spilled my Colombian!" exclaims a voice in the playground), the golfers (all tank tops and side partings) and the white Rastas (a bunch of dreadlocked Jamaicans manques). Fun, but much more amusing to a British teenager who's never heard of the Trenchcoat Mafia.

Adolescents are now cinema's most committed audience, and their spending power has already influenced the cosmology of Hollywood's star system. Like policemen, screen idols are getting younger - or looking younger, anyway. Leonardo DiCaprio is so tiny, he made Titanic look like a film about a schoolboy who rescues his gym mistress from a watery grave. Ben Affleck has the air of a cocky fifth-former who flunked maths. As for Matt Damon, well, he's hardly Lee Marvin, is he?

Instead of chasing a mature audience, studio executives are romancing the spotty, angst-ridden slice of the cinema-going demographic. Not only because this audience is becoming steadily bigger (70 million US teenagers at the last count, and climbing), but because its heroes are TV faces who'll say yes for a fraction of the price of a Costner or a Roberts. Moreover, they suspect that recent high-profile flops such as Clint Eastwood's True Crime and Oliver Stone's Gloria may owe their poor box office to lack of teen appeal.

The Prom King of the genre is Kevin Williamson, the nerdy fanboy who turned hot-shot director when his 1996 movie Scream added a measure of postmodern oomph to the knackered, straight-to-video genre of the teen horror flick. Williamson took a gaggle of good-looking young actors (Neve Campbell, Drew Barrymore, Rose McGowan), dressed them up as college kids, and gave a knife-wielding homicidal maniac free range to fillet their fresh young flanks. And this was the twist: the characters and the audience were so familiar with the stalk-and-slash conventions from endless Friday the Thirteenth and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, that cliche- spotting became part of the lark. Teenage protagonists on-screen and teenage audiences in the multiplex knew - having seen their parents' videos of The Evil Dead and Halloween - that masked loopers with carving knives are never satisfied with just one act of butchery.

Williamson's most recent movie was The Faculty. With a sickening prescience, it was released in the UK the same week as the Columbine High School massacre. A sci-fi twist on the Scream formula, its involves a race of squid-like aliens who infiltrate a US school by taking over the bodies of teachers. The invasion can be stopped only by a handful of stereotypes straight out of John Hughes's classic Eighties teen flick, The Breakfast Club. To identify the impostors, this gang of pubescents slam caffeine-filled ballpoint pen cases into the eyeballs of their tutors. If they've guessed right, the possessed human is reduced to a froth of suppurating flesh - just as when you pour hydrogen peroxide on to raw liver in a biology class. If they've goofed, however, it's detention for ever and the grim recognition that teacher will never again be able to write "see me" at the bottom of a sub-standard essay.

The sassy cruelty is part of the appeal - and, as the ghastly events at Columbine have shown, also what makes the movies so perturbingly Zeitgeisty. But the Colorado killings have given the jitters to pop culture's renewed affair with teenage cruelty. CBS pulled an episode of their popular series Promised Land because of a plot about a shooting in front of a Denver school, and the season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was pulled because it involved the teenage heroine's attempts to prevent a classroom massacre.

There's also trouble ahead for Williamson. Until a few weeks ago, his latest movie had the title Killing Mrs Tingle. It's now called Teaching Mrs Tingle, and - though details are sketchy and are probably being nipped and tucked as you read this - features Helen Mirren as a schoolteacher who suffers a pupil's murderous resentment.

But certain kinds of stories seem to demand the high-school setting. That highly hierarchical, vicious environment is the only place in which we'll accept the revenge dramas and bed-tricks and murder plots of the sort that were once pursued on the Jacobean stage, in the French novel, or in the gangster picture. Cruel Intentions, for instance - out last week with teenie termagant Reese Witherspoon and the mean-mouthed Ryan Phillippe - is a cunning remake of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The plot involves a bet between two teenagers that the hero can't deflower the new virgin in town. If he loses, he surrenders his Jag. If he wins, he gets to "put it anywhere" in the heroine. Could we stomach such sexual betrayal, cold sadism and unfingermarked sexiness in a plot set among royals, moguls or politicians? No. Only American high-school kids could be capable of such sweet-cheeked depravity. And Cliff and Melvyn need not apply.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect