Issued in droves every year for the past 25 years, teen comedies are like new cars, perennially issued with the latest gadgets and gizmos to allure the consumer’s eye. Each promises the latest in teenage angst, romantic longing, social shame, and sexual desperation, along with camaraderie, bonding, and sexual hijinks. Inevitably, one teenage film resembles another in its generalities; the difference between the plots of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Mean Girls is not much difference at all. It is in the particularities — their efforts to bottle the essence of now — that the best of the teen comedies emerge from the pack.
Teen comedies are closer kin to pop singles than anything else, offering the same tunes, again and again, with a constantly renewed store of lyrics. Like pop songs, teen comedies are rote, by-the-numbers, and generally trite; but also like pop music, they fulfill a yawning, aching desire on the part of their core audience, who hear each new tune as if it were the first of its kind. It is the bittersweet melody, not the words, that keep us coming back.
As the cinematic equivalent of bubblegum pop, teen comedies have gotten short shrift from critics and comedy buffs. And yet, as emblems of a niche-marketed genre cinema, not necessarily intended for an 8-to-80 audience, teen comedies honed an immediately recognizable style — loose, conversational, catty, sly.
In honor of the latest entry to the teen-comedy genre, Easy A, which transforms The Scarlet Letter into the stuff of adolescent shame, here are the eight exemplars of the form since 1980. These films paint a portrait of the changing face of the teen comedy over the past 25 years, pushing ever-deeper into raunch while remaining much the same at heart.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)
The boys of American Graffiti, George Lucas’ landmark 1973 teen comedy, may have been sex-starved, but it would have been difficult for them to picture their female successors in Fast Times at Ridgemont High practicing fellatio on carrots in the school lunch room. Ridgemont‘s adolescents are consumed by sex: worrying over it, finding it, having it, dealing with it. But Fast Times at Ridgemont High is more than just another raunchy teen film; it is a surprisingly delicate exploration of what it really feels like to be young, stupid, and horny. And in Jeff Spicoli, the blond-haired surfer played by Sean Penn, for whom every clock always reads 4:20, the film creates the stereotypical California beach bum, his every entrance further evidence of his dim-witted exuberance.
Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1989)
Let’s play a little thought game, OK? Picture a contemporary movie about high school in which the prom queen chugs Drano, the stars of the football team die in a purported gay suicide pact, students make a habit of killing their classmates, suicide becomes the latest teen rage, and the school faces complete obliteration at the hands of an evil teenage mastermind, who blows himself up when his plot fails. Couldn’t ever be made, right? The screenwriter would be held for questioning at Gitmo before he had finished typing out the first scene.
Funny thing is — this film’s already been made, all the way back in 1989. They called it Heathers, and it remains the blackest black comedy ever made about high school. Heathers savages a world where cool rules; where teenage girls dressed like thirty-year-old divorced realtors set the rules for everyone below them; where children act like adults, and adults are little better than children — cranky, foolish, and easily distracted.
Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)
Heathers sought to predict the future, and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused reconfigured the past as a wonderfully mellow, motor-mouthed nostalgia trip. A retro teen comedy in the vein of American Graffiti (a 1990s director fondly remembering his knockabout 1970s youth), Dazed is an all-night bacchanalia on the very first night of summer, 1976. No lives are permanently changed, no earth-shattering romances conceived. Dazed and Confused is a mix tape of Linklater’s favorite hard-rock jams of the mid-1970s: Aerosmith, Foghat, Alice Cooper. These songs become the expression of hormonally charged youth, in all its agony and ecstasy. Dazed and Confused is a paean to youth as remembered in adulthood; its fondly traced remembrances are marked with the knowledge that the freedom of youth is irrevocably fleeting.