Totally F***ed Up (1993)
★★ / ★★★★
Gregg Araki’s “Totally F***ed Up” focused on six homosexual teenagers and how they responded to the every day challenges of being young in Los Angeles. Andy (James Duval) was a lonely virgin but, unlike most of his friends, he treasured that aspect of himself. When he met the charismatic Ian (Alan Boyce), Andy seemed to fall in love for the first time. Michele (Susan Behshid) and Patricia (Jenee Gill) were in a relationship and they wanted to have a baby despite the fact that they would not be able to support it. In one of the film’s most jaw-dropping scenes, they gathered their gay friends’ sperm to perform “artificial insemination.” Tommy (Roko Belic) abhorred gay stereotypes. He was proud with being a masculine homosexual but his parents weren’t aware of his sexuality. Lastly, Steven (Gilbert Luna) and Deric (Lance May) were also in a relationship. One had to deal with gay bashing while the other wrestled with guilt because he had sexual intercourse with another man. Despite the film having a number of great ideas, I was not convinced that Araki had successfully explored what made each character tick. In order for an ensemble to be effective, each subject has to be fully or close to fully realized. We knew that the group of friends in question liked to nap all day, party all night, and try all sorts of drugs in order to remind themselves they were still alive. But what else was there to them? The reason why they were friends in the first place wasn’t clear to me. Surely their friendship was based on something deeper than carnal and chemical pleasures. I didn’t feel like they could depend on each other because they were too preoccupied looking out for themselves. I hope the writer-director didn’t mean to imply that LGBT friendships were shallow and unrewarding. There were far too many scenes of teenagers “doing bad things” so their redeeming factors were overshadowed by their habits. I also wanted to know more about the protagonists’ life at home and their relationships (or lack thereof) with their parents or siblings. I was most interested in the characters when they started to talk about their home lives and why they felt like they needed to move away and seek solace with other strangers. They looked at the camera and talked about the hateful heteronormative society but they failed to offer any deep or unique insight about what LGBT teens at that specific time period had to go through. In the end, their struggles felt far away instead of prevalent regardless of one’s sexuality. “Totally F***ed Up” wanted to go in so many different directions that it ended up not going anywhere. Although it managed to capture the loneliness of youth in some parts, the scenes designed for mere shock value turned this film into a run-of-the-mill, independently-made urban teen drama.
The Craft (1996)
★★ / ★★★★
Sarah (Robin Tunney) and her family recently moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco. Sarah didn’t have many friends before and the prospect of her making many friends in her new school was low. It seemed as though everyone she encountered was either downright mean, mostly the catty girls (Christine Taylor) that scoured the hallways for their latest prey, or simply wanted to get her in bed, naturally, the hyper-masculine jocks (Skeet Ulrich). Sarah met Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True), goths who practiced witchcraft. Sarah had dabbled in witchery, too. She didn’t really get along with them at first but she hung out with them anyway because being a pariah as a group was better than being alone. Directed by Andrew Fleming, “The Craft” was an exercise in the exaggeration of high school teen angst. Half of it was fun, but the other half was self-indulgent. It was enjoyable to watch because we got a chance to see mean kids in high school get the punishment they deserved. My favorite was the blonde girl whose hair began to fall off after she called Rochelle a “Negroid” and that she hated Rochelle’s kind and their “nappy hair.” As ugly as it was to hear such dialogue, I thought it had a certain honesty. In high school, I’ve heard all sorts of mean comments that would rarely, if ever, make it on television or movies. The film’s strongest scenes took place at school despite its improbable hyperboles such as Sarah not meeting anyone who seemed genuinely nice. As we got deeper into the story, I noticed the picture slowly beginning to rely on special and visual effects to generate suspense. I don’t think it needed to. It would have been more fascinating if we saw no thunderstorms striking one of the witches or if there were no butterflies flying around them to symbolize that the god they worshipped was listening to them. Teen witches casting a spell in one scene and strange events happening the next day at school would have been enough. By not giving us much, we were left to wonder if the spells they foolishly casted were having an effect or it was simply a matter of coincidences. I thought there were also some missteps in terms of character development or editing. In one of the scenes, Rochelle started to feel bad about the spell she casted on the racist blonde. It was apparent that she wanted out of the witches’ circle (a literal self-reflection because she stood next to a mirror) but she was afraid of Nancy’s wrath. Almost immediately after the audiences were made aware of her guilt, Rochelle continued to be friends with Nancy and her character’s evolution was completely abandoned. That strand could have been a turning point. Instead of the protagonist, it would have been refreshing to see a supporting character come out of nowhere and defy certain archetypes. In the end, “The Craft” was just another teen flick from the 90s but with black nail polish witchcraft.
The Virginity Hit (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Four desperate friends (Matt Bennett, Zack Pearlman, Jacob Davich, Justin Kline) made it a tradition that they would only smoke weed using a special hookah when each of them lost their virginity. When all three but Matt finally had gone all the way, they decided they would help him out and document every step of the way. But when they found out that Nicole (Nicole Weaver), Matt’s girlfriend, had cheated on him with a frat guy, Matt and his friends had to find other means for Matt to experience his first sex. Written and directed by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, “The Virginity Hit” interestingly adopted a faux-documentary style but completely missed the mark. In the end, it felt like a cheap imitation of Greg Mottola’s “Superbad” and Paul Weitz’ “American Pie” but with characters who took idiocy to the next level. The crux of the movie’s so-called dramatic tension could have easily been solved with a teaspoon of intelligence. For instance, when Matt and his friends heard rumors that Nicole had been less than loyal, not one of them bothered to approach Nicole and ask her version of what happened. They immediately decided to take the cruel path. That is, pretend they knew nothing of the rumors, convince Matt to take Nicole on a date for their anniversary, have sex with Nicole for revenge, and broadcast it over the internet. The characters thought it was all fun and games. I was shocked that not one for them stood up against what was happening and express how mean-spirited it all was. There were also some “funny” scenes like the teenagers stealing from a store, breaking into people’s private properties, and other misdemeanors that could potentially land them in court to get sued or, worse, in jail. I tried to see that perhaps it wanted to comment on rampant youth and its relationship with YouTube culture. However, I didn’t feel as if the directors had full control of their material. Its in-your-face approach was its only technique. The filmmakers should have known that the ability to pull back was an essential weapon in order to highlight the positive feedback of certain videos uploaded on YouTube and people taking pleasure in watching other people’s suffering and humiliation. There was not one character to root for here. I wanted to root for Matt because he was the one who was pushed around. There were some scenes that almost portrayed him being forced to have sex just for the sake of losing his virginity. Why did they care anyway? It was none of their business. I thought it was sad and I couldn’t help but feel angry for him. I kept waiting for Matt to stand up to his friends. Even if he wasn’t successful in his attempt, I would have ended up liking him because it meant that he had a voice and he wasn’t afraid to use it. But he didn’t. Some people had their lives ruined by the things portrayed on this film. It was too bad the material failed to take that fact into account.
Easy A (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Olive (Emma Stone) was invisible like most of us when we were in high school. But when a false secret that she confidentially told her best friend (Alyson Michalka) was overheard by a Jesus fanatic (Amanda Bynes) in the ladies restroom, word traveled around the school like a virus that she was willing to sleep with anyone and everyone. Her newfangled reputation made her popular, which Olive admitted she enjoyed at first, but soon she began to feel harrassed by her peers and adults. “Easy A” had an effervescent charm and edge that most teen flicks could only wish they had. It caught me by surprise because I thought it would be another raunchy movie about teens with nothing on their minds but attaining empty sexual encounters. Or worse, the teens ending up as the jokes’ punchline instead of the situations in which they were thrown into. Instead, we had a bona fide main character with a brain, a sense of humor, and effortless charisma. The film’s heart was immediately established within its first few minutes so we willingly stood by our lead character as she attempted to navigate the uncharted waters of high school rumors and ugly backstabbing in which a friend was readily able to betray. We may not always agree with her actions but we like her all the way through. Stone injected buckets of enthusiasm and made the material better than it should have been. I liked that she was very sarcastic, fully equipped with references to teen movies of the ’80s, and came with progressive parents (the hilarious Patricia Clarkson and the sublime Stanley Tucci) who seemed to await the opportunity to share way too much information with their kids. The picture had a very funny rising action as Olive explained to us, through a video blog, what had happened and why she eventually came to regret her decisions. She even had time to explain to us the plot of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlett Letter” and why it was relevant to her life. It was a good decision on the writer’s part because I was one of those students who only pretended to read the book in high school. I thought it was unfortunate that the movie’s swift pace came to a screeching halt when Olive started to acknowledge her feelings toward the sensitive guy under the school mascot (Penn Badgley). I thought that aspect of the movie was unnecessary because it shouldn’t have been about her finding a man. The film’s message about owning up one’s actions and being free of labels were somewhat muddled by “the first romance” angle. Directed by Will Gluck, “Easy A” might have dealt with sexuality and the power that comes with it in a commercial way but it needed to because its intended audiences are teenagers. It worked because the script was full of rat-tat-tat witticisms, self-awareness, and even small ironic touches adults might l enjoy.
Kids in America (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Principal Weller (Julie Bowen) oversaw Booker High School and wanted to run for superintendent of the school district. She cared more about politics than helping her students to become active learners. In her own words, she saw her job as simply about improving statistics. In order to show that she was in control, she started to adopt new rules such as banning students from distributing condoms to promote safe sex (ludicrous but a more realistic goal than abstinence especially in a high school setting) during National Safe Sex Day and going through students’ diaries without good reason. Teenagers from several cliques (Stephanie Sherrin, Caitlin Wachs, Alex Anfanger, Crystal Celeste Grant, Chris Morris, Emy Coligado) came together, with an appropriately named Holden (Gregory Smith) as their leader and one of their teachers (Malik Yoba) as their mentor, to fight for their rights via civil disobedience. Inspired by several true stories, what I enjoyed most about “Kids in America” was the way the characters embraced their stereotypes and concocted a way to make what made them different work for them, which ranged from serious issues (a daughter of a hippie fighting for the injustice of female genital mutilation) to hopelessly silly situations (an Asian pretending not to understand English in attempt to get out of jail). The type of comedy was nothing particularly groundbreaking compared to other teen movies but it had so much manic energy that its typical teen humor was easy to overlook. What I found to be more important was the fact that it wanted to discuss intelligent issues that matter. It had a good message about making an active change in the community if rights were being stripped away. My favorite scene was when Holden challenged the teenagers to find another persons of the same sex and kiss them on the lips as a response to Principal Weller’s homophobia. It was very amusing but it had to be done in order to prove a point: Medieval methods do not coincide with modern times. Admittedly, I wished it spent more time, from a serious angle, about the repercussions of taking disobedience a bit too far. It would have given the movie more edge and therefore would have been more memorable. Directed by Josh Stolberg, “Kids in America” can be inspiring given the right type of audience. Under a critical eye, it may be a bit too simplistic with its themes but I think it is focused and ironic enough to successfully get its points across to its intended audiences.
★★★ / ★★★★
Cher (Alicia Silverstone) was not the type of popular girl who loved to bully those who were at bottom of the social ladder. She would rather spend her time shopping for designer clothes with her best friend (Stacey Dash). She was the type of popular girl who cared about her grades because her father (Dan Hedaya) kept her in check and her ex-step-brother (Paul Rudd) implicitly urged her to care more about the bigger issues in life. In her charmingly narcissistic way, she decided to give back to the community via giving the new girl in school (Brittany Murphy) a much needed makeover which led to a series of happenings that allowed her to realize who she was romantically in love with. As light and easily digestible the movie was, I was very entertained by it because the dialogue seemed simple on the outside but there was an intelligence and self-awareness in its core. I liked that the main character was an airhead but she had a defined perspective that she stuck with throughout which made her endearing and consistently interesting. For instance, when she was about to go out in skimpy clothing with the boy she really liked (Justin Walker), her father asked her what she was wearing. She responded by saying that it was a dress and Calvin Klein told her so. Furthermore, it was just refreshing to watch a popular girl not having to result to doing mean things to others just so she could get her way. Yes, she could be a brat at times but that trait did not define her. When her grades were low, instead of scheming of ways to blackmail her teachers (Wallace Shawn, Twink Caplan), she did the unexpected by playing matchmaker. Since she saw the world as a happy place, she believed that by helping others realize how good the world was, everything would come into place for her. Silverstone did a wonderful job playing the wide-eyed barbie because she made her character relatable, genuinely funny and, yes, even smart and witty (I love her scenes in debate class). The picture was honest with its title and it did not get lost in the satirizing the Beverly Hills high school kids when it could easily have been. Adroitly written and directed by Amy Heckerling, “Clueless” became a key figure in teenage pop culture because it was successful in its attempt to embrace the high school clichés but at the same time turning them upside down and pointing the fingers at us. Although we could not help but judge these kids as shallow and annoying, we laughed at (and with) them and maybe even cared about them. I think that says something about us.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann, “Heathers” was an addictively delicious dark comedy starring Winona Ryder as Veronica, one of the four most popular girls in school (Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker–all named Heather), who suddenly began to question her friends’ actions toward the less popular and less accepted. She eventually met the appropriately named J.D. (Christian Slater), a charming rebel who I thought represented Veronica’s id. During their time together, they came up with ways to murder those who made everyone’s life in high school a living hell. What they did not expect was, due to the poignant suicide notes they wrote, the dead teenagers became more popular than ever. My favorite element that defined the film was the laugh-out-loud one-liners. I just couldn’t help but laugh after hearing them because, despite the lines spelling out some gruesome imagery, they sounded natural (especially if they’re being spewed out by mean girls) and we remember them over time because we don’t hear anyone normally talking like the way they did. I admired the writer and director’s audacity to show the stupidities of all students (including our protagonist) and how unprepared/insensitive the faculties were when a student committed suicide. I thought “Heathers” was honest despite its histrionics. In high school, when someone from our school died, we held discussions in classrooms after morning announcements and sometimes acknowledged “the situation” during assemblies. But in the end, only a handful of people genuinely cared while others just couldn’t wait for the bell to ring so they (or we) would be dismissed. Talks of how “sad” the majority of students were about “what happened” was just something we felt we had to do either to pass the time or we felt as if it was the appropriate social response. However, my main problem with “Heathers” was it eventually began to lose focus of the big picture. Doherty’s boldness to eventually capture the newly available throne (even the “Heathers” clique had a hierarchy) was a little too late for me. I would have liked to have seen more scenes of her demonstrating how toxic and vile she could be especially to those who she considered her “friends.” Nevertheless, the movie managed to regain its focus toward the end when our protagonist finally decided to face (but not necessarily correct) her mistakes. I concur when others claim that “Heathers” is one of the best dark comedies about high school. Teen movies that aimed to copy its success could only admire from afar the essence of its vitriolic dialogues and metaphorical imageries.
Whip It (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I liked Drew Barrymore’s directoral debut “Whip It” starring Ellen Page but I think it held back when it came to really delivering something different. I loved that the film was about a teeanger who was constantly forced by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to participate in pageants only to realize later that she was more interested in roller derby. I thought it was refreshing because there are way too many teen movies out there that focus on (and even glamorize) girly girls and how life is so very hard for them. Give me a break. Seeing tough, rebellious girls on screen, I can identify with them a lot more so I was interested with what was going on in their livies. I thought the first part of this movie was stronger because it was all about pulling away from something the lead character did not believe in and finding something she thought was not only fun but also cathartic. I felt for her wish concerning getting out of the small town she lived in and leading her life however she wanted to. And it helped that Page just had that natural I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude going on. I loved watching the roller derby competition as they busted out interesting tactics to gain points. (I got giddy whenever they pulled out that whip strategy.) But the second half was problematic because it succumbed to the typicality of other teen film fares. For instance, Page’s deteriorating relationship with her best friend, the parents finding out about their daughter’s secret “extracurricular activities,” and finding out about the true colors of a boy the lead character fell for. I’ve seen it all before and I didn’t want to see it in this movie because all I wanted was to have fun. I enjoyed the supporting characters such as Kristen Wiig, Eve, Juliette Lewis, Zoe Bell and Drew Barrymore. Barrymore had small scenes here and there; she stole the spotlight every single time and I almost wished that she had a bigger role. With a running time of two hours, it felt that long at times because the forced dramatic arcs became the forefront somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, I’ll give “Whip It” a light recommendation because I thought it was enjoyable to watch despite its big flaws. Perhaps with more experience directing, Barrymore can one day create a picture that’s more focused and not resting on recycled material while still telling a story about characters that have some sort of a charming edginess going on.