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
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
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.