It’s been too long since a timeless high school movie came out that doesn’t insult the kids or bore the adults. There have been saccharine yet understated glorifications of outcasts (Napoleon Dynamite) and John Hughes rehashes (Clueless, Bring it On) – all painfully good-natured. Elephant and Mean Girls, expressing adult anxieties about what they viewed as inexplicable murderousness and cattiness the experts cannot seem to explain to the adult world, enacted by the filmmakers desire use cameras as sociologists, and both were about as much fun as watching a science experiment. Edgy filmmakers have created postmodern after school specials about teens who set out to shock their elders but learn terrible lessons about peer pressure, bloodlust, and sex (Kids, Thirteen). Defensible films, both, but on the whole, the miscreants that populate them don’t bother with school much and the genre needs brick and mortar. By definition the institution becomes a character and being institutionalized transforms the characters.
Pretty Persuasion, at least, remembers to include a nod to the campus, in the witty opening narration exposing, true to the form, the social terrain of the place. Pretty Persuasion focuses on at turns precocious and psychotic sophomore Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Wood) enacting revenge on any number of people as she pursues an acting career it’s unclear why and if she wants.
Kimberly decides her only means to fame is notoriety, which she achieves by saying a lascivious schoolteacher actually touched her. In the end, the characters probably wouldn’t have much cared if he did, and I don’t think we’re supposed to either. The film does a charming job creating skits out of the series of events which led to and are set off by her actions. As Kimberly struggles to manipulate all of Los Angeles (which feels surprisingly like small-town USA considering how easily she manages to do so) James Woods manages to have the funniest phone sex ever filmed and Selma Blair gets to be Selma Blair. In their minutes of screen time, they amuse the audience more and develop more coherent characters than Evan Rachel Wood is allowed to through the whole film. Kimberly is forced to remain a pastiche of clichéd excuses for teenage (and female) misbehavior. The kitchen sink does disservice to the conventions it exploits.
Pretty Persuasion is being sold as a high school/revenge movie, and a twisted comedy. But once the instability of the lead becomes apparent, heavy-handed references to Columbine-style killers appear. I wanted, in this moment, a direct confrontation of the myth of a “post-Columbine” world (wherein media violence, permissive or overbearing parenting/strange fascinations with fascist hatemongering, anarchist nihilism are both new and somehow now explanations rather than excuses). I got another attempt to cue the audience this latest movie about fucked up kids should be considered relevant. And another cue that the movie in fact isn’t. Or at least not as an exploration of youth. It’s part of an impassioned refusal these days among filmmakers who are exploring mad-feeling teenagers to actually show what teenage madness feels like.
In contradistinction are 1968’s If… and 1988’s Heathers—the two best high school movies ever made both are about gleeful killing sprees set during iconic high school events. The theme also popped up in Carrie, and a few B-horror movies, but If… and Heathers are remarkable in their acuity expressing the violence of emotion through violence. Nothing says hate like murder.
These days, the films’ premise is said to be dated. Today, kids do this sort of inexcusably frightening thing, and media violence presents real danger and children are impressionable. From the insistence with which teen revenge films have begun to recoil from physical violence it seems possible that some smart people might actually buy this crap. Violence is being written out of our fantasies of high school revenge, and it’s weakening them. It’s not a cliché or even a metaphor that high school is a war zone with life and death stakes—it’s an axiom. High school is the kingdom where no one dies, unless you kill them. Anyone who believes in the cathartic power of art (and admittedly I forgot to ask if anyone still does) should hope that every so often these emotions get an expression that’s smart, beautiful and balls out.
As of yet, If… is the most balls-out expression of this frustration, ever. Set in an elite British all-male boarding school, the main characters get subjected to wanton physical and sexual violence by both peers and teachers, in dorms and the gymnasium, underscoring the film’s message that violence is at the heart of the institution and the institution is at the heart of violence. The film follows the course of a school year, which begins with Mick (Malcolm McDowell) returning from London world-wise and bohemian. After being forced to shave off his rebel beard he counters with an attack on the school itself, turning a small room within its walls into a dilapidated, contraband-filled, Che-poster-covered headquarters for his band of misfits. As petty rebellions grow, focused on returning to his new life, the dissonance between the institutional and non-institutional life makes the film increasingly surreal. In the real world, colors become hypersaturated, and on campus, rooms of weaponry appear out of nowhere. The war which began with the inevitable enforcement of the most basic of school rules continues, until Parents weekend, when Mick, his girlfriend (resembling no one so much as Patty Hearst in her SLA days) and his cohort open fire on the chapel, literal center of the institution and metaphoric foundation of the entire culture (which back in the ‘60s, let’s remember, people still had the energy to oppose).
It’s the quintessential teenage fantasy, to tear down, with a literal bang, the trappings which confine. But in 1968, of course, it wasn’t a fantasy. If… is about the anxiety caused by an incomprehensible generation of youth who claimed to be set on undoing civilization brick by brick, and the anxieties which caused them to speak in such grand terms. It explores political violence and the ultra-personal scars of youth, while at the same time laugh at the fogies who were actually afraid a group of pissed-off schoolchildren would haphazardly change the world.
Heathers is most often remembered as the story of star-crossed lovers who go on a killing spree to re-order the oppressive cliques that permeate high school. But it’s also an unrelenting satire of 1980s media hysteria and the “teen suicide craze” that occupied and confounded parents more than cutting and voluntary asphyxiation put together.
Heathers follows the story of Veronica, a precocious, popular junior in high school, who starts killing first her best friend, and then the date rapist jocks, when she starts dating J.D., the town’s new JD. To cover their tracks, they forge suicide notes from their murder victims, with the assumption that the authorities will be quick to believe these were suicides. After all, suicide clusters were popping up everywhere. But when viewed as suicides, the school’s worst offenders gain the virtues they never had in life. The problem of high school hierarchy is exposed as institutional not personal. J.D. decides that the only place high school could be a decent experience is heaven and he should stage a mass suicide during prom. In the initial script, the school does indeed blow up and the prom in heaven does indeed rock, but even by 1988 that was too much violence for a comedy hoping for wide release. The DVD extras would have you believe that the change is regrettable, but in the end, the message of Heathers is the same. Even though Veronica stopped the school from blowing up and in the last scene makes nice with a fat girl, only the naïve think that this time things will be different.
The best moment cut from the screenplay, however, comes in an impromptu conversation between Veronica and her guidance counselor. The counselor, refusing to hear that Veronica is not suicidal implores her to listen: “I know more about being young than you. Read my articles.” In the end, the line was cut, because in the Heathers universe, adults don’t get many lines. And that’s for the good.
The school in Heathers is named Westerburg after the singer from the Replacements, and even the town surrounding it exists only through the eyes of the young. Nothing real about the universe of Heathers is part of the adult’s world. At the boarding school in If…, students and teachers were always shot walking away from each other, even in conversation. The reality of teenage experience is that more often than not, adults don’t count for much. Recent high school genre movies like Pretty Persuasion, Election, Mean Girls, and even Elephant focus extensively on intergenerational conversation. Even at their finest, the importance placed on adult interaction is a signal that the films present an overly adult perspective on youth. And in the end, they fall short somewhere, while Westerburg High still rules.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.