Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Optimistic teenagers?
Adolescents get a bad rap on the big screen, but an acclaimed documentary film set in the world of Junior Eurovison is redressing the balance. It's about time, says Rosamund Witcher
Wednesday 13 May 2009
Think of a teen film and what springs to mind? The Malibu princesses of Clueless? The sex-obsessed goons of American Pie? Or the cynical city kids in The Class? Teenage angst is generally cinematically portrayed either with a glossy "prom night" sheen or as a precursor to the breakdown of society. The former category contains polished American high school comedies such as Bring It On, Clueless and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The latter, films that portray recalcitrant teens at their most unruly: Kids, Bully and Heathers.
In the aforementioned Palme d'Or winner The Class, a teacher brands two female pupils "skanks" in response to their bitchiness and cynicism. Former Parisian high school professor François Bégaudeau wrote the memoir on which the film is based, and even stars as a version of himself. The result is hugely realistic and a credible portrayal of what kids are actually like today. It's also pretty depressing. Bégaudeau's students are bored, disaffected and disrespectful. At the end of the film, one girl tells him she has understood nothing and learnt nothing at all during his lessons. It's a bleak state of affairs for modern teens. We all know that there are bright, funny, well-adjusted kids out there. They're just not being portrayed on film.
So thank heavens for Sounds Like Teen Spirit, a new documentary following a handful of teens as they prepare to take part in Junior Eurovision, the kids' version of the Eurovision Song Contest. "The contest is more amateur and homemade than the adult version," explains writer/director Jamie Jay Johnson. "These kids, from tiny countries all over Europe, write their own songs. So the music is like a window into their lives. Here in the UK, Eurovision's a joke. But for them it's the musical event of the year."
It would be an easy subject to lampoon, but the film is sweetly uncynical, and especially refreshing in that the teenagers portrayed are optimistic.
"The kids I chose to follow were simply the ones I liked the most," explains Johnson of the selection process. "They aren't desperate for fame like so many on TV these days. These kids' motivations for taking part are genuine. Miriam from Georgia wants to create better opportunities for her family and Marina from Bulgaria wants to make her dad proud so that he might not divorce her mum." Meanwhile, Laurens just wants to meet girls.
These eager, upbeat kids are a far cry from the violent, lawless teenagers in many of this year's other films. Last month saw the release of The Life Before Her Eyes, in which Evan Rachel Wood is caught up in a high school shooting. And not one, but two forthcoming films – Tormented and Sorority Row – feature teenagers who come back from the dead to kill their classmates.
Dan Waters, writer of 1988 teen noir, Heathers, called high school "a gruelling, traumatic, complex experience" and a "Shakespearean battlefield." But why are filmmakers so keen to focus on the negative?
"Angst sells," explains Johnson. "Nobody wants to hear about the good side of teenage life. And those years are difficult because, as a child, you're full of innocence and purity and dreams. Then, when you hit about 12 or 13, you realise the world isn't as sparkly as you thought and your dreams come crashing down."
He concedes there is an enduring appeal to the dark side of being a teenager. "Films like Elephant and Kids appeal to adults because we'd all like to smash up our boss's desk or do something really impulsive," he laughs.
Tormented takes that idea a step further. The British slashcom, featuring stars from sex-and-drugs-fuelled E4 series Skins, is about a bullied schoolboy who kills himself before returning as a ghost to pick off his former tormentors. So Jon Wright, the film's director, had to walk a tightrope between the serious issues and some graphic violence.
"The mood shifts between scary, comical, realistic and thoughtful," he explains. "Bullying and suicide are important issues, and Tormented is actually a fiercely moral film. It's not an issue-driven film but, equally, the kids aren't completely nihilistic. Teenagers are often portrayed as hard-hearted. Donkey Punch was like that: the kids are so brash and cool in a negative way. But being a teenager is a hugely emotional time when you're wrestling with your feelings and identity. Heartbreak hurts more."
At such a complicated life stage, it's interesting that teenagers on film are often portrayed in terms of sweeping stereotypes. We're all familiar with "the jock", "the geek" and "the rich bitch". Nanette Burstein's documentary American Teen, released last month, claimed to be a snapshot of real teenage life. But the characters were crowbarred into the archetypal categories so closely that it could have been fiction. It's this shorthand that so many teen movies use.
As a British film, Tormented aims to be more realistic. "We actually grilled the young actors who came in to audition," explains Jon Wright. "I asked if they still have Goths at school and they explained that they're Emos now. And we workshopped scenes with the cast to make them more authentic. But, obviously, it's a larger-than-life story with a fairy tale feel, so it's a romanticised version of how teenagers speak."
So how does Sounds Like Teen Spirit fit into these stereotypes? The answer is, it doesn't. "In countries like Georgia, I don't know if they even have those stereotypes," says Johnson. "Real people aren't one-note. I suppose you could pigeonhole our characters: the gay boy the rich girl, etc. But that would be a forced way of doing it. They're just lovely kids and it's a pleasure to spend an hour-and-a-half with them." And that's what's so unique about the film. The honesty and optimism is enough to make you believe that not all kids want to take a gun to school.
"Maybe I do have a rose-tinted view on life and maybe I'm naive," muses Johnson. "But I simply believe that, deep down, people are good. This film is a genuine refection of how I saw the contest. It is absurd and hilarious, but these kids really mean it. It's a celebration." And isn't that something we could all do with at the moment?
'Sounds Like Teen Spirit' is out now. 'Tormented' is released on Friday 22 May
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