It’s a typical human mistake to assume that however the world appeared when you entered adulthood is normal and ought to be permanent, and everything else is weirdness or decline. In my case, entering adulthood at the turn of the millennium made me assume it was just the natural order of things for Hollywood to be making movie after movie about teenagers.
The now-vanished cultural dominance of the high-school comedy was established by two distinct waves of teenage movies. First came the John Hughes/Porky’s/Ridgemont High era in the 1980s, which terminated in the satirical savagery of 1988’s Heathers. Then came the golden age of my own adolescence and early adulthood, which gave us an incredible range of high-school flicks: the stoner realism of Dazed and Confused, the repurposing of Jane Austen in Clueless and Shakespeare in Ten Things I Hate about You and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos in Cruel Intentions, the goofy raunch of the American Pie saga, the ruthless satire of Election, the cheertastic Bring It On and jocktastic Varsity Blues, and the simple genre perfection of Can’t Hardly Wait.
And then, somewhere between Mean Girls in 2004 and Superbad in 2007, the genre ran out of steam and mostly disappeared. Not completely, of course — you can see some of the old elements at work in a drama like Lady Bird or a tearjerker like The Fault in Our Stars or an action comedy like 2012’s 21 Jump Street, and Netflix’s assembly line has churned out some minor teen romances in the last few years. But as a culturally important form, the high-school comedy is in roughly the same place as the romantic comedy, which is to say it’s all but dead.
The death of a genre cries out for a sweeping explanation, but I’m not completely sure which one applies. In part the high-school flick may just be a victim, like other genres, of the all-conquering box-office power of the superhero movie. In part it may be a victim, like the rom-com, of the strange cultural turn away from sex and romance, the seeming failure of our society’s romantic scripts. And the helicopter-parent, stay-home-and-go-online caution that increasingly defines American adolescence may be depriving the genre of its essential material — the awkward physicality of adolescent longing and the stupid antics of the teenage idiot.
Or maybe the key cultural turn came with the final act of Mean Girls, a brilliant zoological satire of the high-school veldt that suddenly changed, in its closing minutes, into a weird hugging-and-learning fable with all the sharp edges shaved away. That turn from satire and stereotypes to a more therapeutic style has persisted ever since, making the teen movie a little kinder and gentler, a little more politically correct, and a lot more boring. As Allison Davis wrote for The Ringer in 2016, about Edge of Seventeen, a just-okay callback to the genre’s glory days: “The parties are lamer, the nerds are cooler, the emotional climaxes and resolutions are so much more rational.” In its flight from the old archetypes, the teen movie hasn’t found anything savage and fascinating enough to take their place.
This problem isn’t quite escaped in Booksmart, a new, extremely well-reviewed attempt at genre resuscitation directed by Olivia Wilde and starring Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as Molly and Amy, two uptight, overachieving nevertheless-she-persisted L.A. high-school seniors who are stunned to discover, just before graduation, that while they got into Ivy League schools so too did a lot of the kids who drank and smoked and partied and hooked up. Feldstein’s Molly treats this revelation as a reason to spend the last evening before commencement cutting loose, experiencing all the thrills and parties that they missed while being grinds, and she drags her friend with her through that classic teen-movie pilgrimage — the endless pre-graduation night.
In its two-pals-against-the-world storyline Booksmart resembles a gender-reversed Superbad — and Feldstein is, in fact, Jonah Hill’s younger sister — and as it follows its protagonists from party to party, disaster to disaster, the movie tries, with intermittent success, to update that film’s anarchic spirit for a more inclusive era. (The script’s most inclusive move makes Dever’s Amy a nerdy lesbian whose awkward sexual anxiety centers around the mechanics of sapphic affection.) The leads are very winning, and they have an interesting mix of supporting characters to play against — a billionaire’s son who can’t buy popularity (Skyler Gisondo), two intense gay theater kids (Noah Galvin and Austin Crute), a zonked-out party girl who appears unexpectedly in every social context (Billie Lourd). And the script does a pretty good job of being a little knowing about the rules of wokeness without ever challenging them directly — a balancing act crucial to its good reviews.
But the therapeutic spirit still presides over the movie, to its dramatic detriment. Everything is softened compared with high-school movies past — the unattainable crushes aren’t as hot, the hijinks are a little tamer, the humiliations less extravagant and public, the hierarchies more ambiguous, the cruel characters more humanized and easily forgiven.
Maybe this is true to teen life today — I’m not a teen, don’t ask me — and certainly it’s more realistic than some of the melodramatic extravagances and prom dance numbers of past high-school flicks. But the heart of teenage-ness is melodrama, emotional overkill, solipsistic stakes-raising, operatic readings of ordinary suburban life. And Booksmart doesn’t have enough of those qualities to recover, for our age of politically correct caution, the sheer extremism required to make its genre great again.
This article appears as “What Killed the Teen Movie?” in the June 24, 2019, print edition of National Review.