Teen Movies: The Class of 2013
Originally published on Junkee.
Let’s take a look at the 2013 graduating class.
Covering a broad spectrum of tropes and styles—from sci-fi to drama, comedy to romance—teen movies are an oft-dismissed school of film. In actuality, teen films have been a valuable cultural form since the invention of the ‘teenager’ (or youth market) in the 1950s.
Each year teen movies are made with either adult appeal, for an adolescent audience or both. They’re often a mixed bag of painful emotions, awkward sexual encounters, memorable moments and, sometimes, totally forgettable faces. In other words, just like high school.
The teen movies released in 2013 continue this tradition – they’re a wide and varied bunch with some hits and a few misses. Moving past the self-deprecating phase of the early 2000s, the genre is growing up and finally gaining some recognition. So now that schools out for the year, we thought we’d crack open the yearbook to commemorate the 2013 class.
Outstanding Achievement: The Spectacular Now
In a year brimming with adaptations and ironic nostalgia, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now is a genuine, heartfelt teen release. In fact, it’s the best teen film in a long time. Beyond festival awards and critical acclaim, what it has achieved is indeed outstanding.
Graduating from the John Hughes/Cameron Crowe school of teen movies, The Spectacular Now follows the lives (and romance) of two high school seniors—Sutter (Miles Teller) and Aimee (Shailene Woodley)—brought together in an affecting yet unaffected way. This film is easily the Best Newcomer to the teen film canon due to its perfect pace, humour and heart.
The extraordinary performances here also earn The Spectacular Now the Best Double Act of 2013 (you know, in addition to the Sundance Special Jury Award for Acting at, but whatever). Teller and Woodley kill it, sensitively portraying the colliding feelings of timidity and confidence, displacement and longing felt in those late teen years or with your first love.
It’s not all love-hearts and holding hands though. The Spectacular Now presents relevant, serious issues with a level of subtle intelligence that evades an overly preachy (and often unavoidable) ‘after school special’ vibe.
In addition to one of the most honest teen sex scenes ever presented, Sutter’s alcoholism is deftly portrayed; his drinking is present and rarely discussed but intensely felt. There’s no flashing neon sign telling you Drugs Are Bad and it’s great. Actually, Sutter’s lush party boy ways out (moon)shine Haymitch Abernathy from Hunger Games – Sutter is easily the Biggest Wisecracking Boozehound of the 2013 teen movie class.
The Spectacular Now is definitely the stand out teen movie that graduated onto our screens this year. (Don’t ever change, Shailene! Srsly.)
Most Likely to Succeed: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
No need to volunteer, the second Hunger Games movie was always going to win this tribute: It’s Katniss Everdeen. It’s Jennifer Lawrence. It’s the shit.
With its fiery gowns, big budget, names and franchise, Katniss is easily 2013’s teen movie Prom Queen. Peeta (on a stack of phonebooks) is her King while Gale watches on, pouting in the crowd. These characters are the popular kids and contrary to what She’s All That or even Carrie tell us, it’s the popular kids who win at Prom…and at the box office.
Catching Fire succeeded as a film in it’s own right, too. This time around Katniss is tested when her and Peeta are thrown into the arena once more for the Quarter Quell. How does she handle it this time, haunted by the initial games’ ghosts and President Snow’s hold over her?
Catching Fire a fun, action-packed, YA drama full some emotionally challenging moments that genuinely engage the viewer. Power, control, conflict, love – all the good teen themes remain central here. Francis Lawrence (who will also direct the subsequent Mockingjay instalments) handles the source material neatly, balancing bleaker moments with requisite suspense.
Less likely to succeed: Ender’s Game
Remember when you wanted a Ripcurl top but ended up with a Hot Tuna one because it was all you could afford? Or when you wanted to colour your hair but mum wouldn’t let you, so you used hair mascara instead? Ender’s Game is Hot Tuna/hair mascara to The Hunger Games’ Ripcurl/hair dye. Sometimes it’s better to go without.
Based on Orson Scott Card’s book series, Ender’s Game is set in the not-too-distant future where aliens have attacked Earth. Ender Wiggin is the wunderkind recruited to save us via his mad battle-strategy skills.
Okay, so Ender’s Game was aimed at a slightly younger audience, featured younger (far less sexy) actors and was made on a slightly lower budget than Catching Fire ($20million less). While it was touted to challenge to the reigning YA leader, Ender’s Game was less likely to succeed because it’s not a particularly good film and jumping onto a trend doesn’t make you one of the cool kids.
Ender’s Game is disappointing on many levels. It overlooks or glosses over many of the social and political issues that could have given it weight (i.e. child soldiers, family pressures) and there’s little to grasp beyond explosions or poor character dynamics.
Best Dressed: The Bling Ring
The Bling Ring crew get ‘Best Dressed’ by default: because they’re teens draped in the ridiculous stolen attire of the rich and famous. Bling Ring is all vapid attitude, fashionz and sparkles…and not much else.
I really wanted to love it. Instead, I feel more compelled to give it a finger-waving lecture: “You have so much potential, Bling Ring. I’m really disappointed in you.” Even with Emma Watson as one of the ringleaders of the criminal team, a Birkin bag of celebrity cameos and some great moments from male lead Israel Broussard, Bling Ring was one of the most disappointing teen films of the year.
It squandered its chance at greatness. Based on a real life story that’s saturated in tension and excitement, glamour and suspense, I had hoped that—boiled down, glossed up, stretched out and shot on location—the result would be a glorious adventure in the life of some hedonistic Gen Ys obsessed with Hollywood glitterarti. Sofia Coppola as director and the trailer attributed high hopes but story was boiled down so much it burnt; Bling Ring was little more than an extended series of the same events with bored teens being bored, robbing stars’ houses then partying in the wares. Rather the desired hypnotic feel, it was merely insidious.
The final outcome was a big fat F. Sadly, The Bling Ring failed this year’s teen movie class.
Biggest Party Animals: Spring Breakers
Far less disappointing is Spring Breakers – the hyper-coloured, hypnotic, hallucinogenic party trip to Florida where shit gets real, wet and wild.
Four bikini clad teen girls live up to their wild reputations—and some—during Spring Break festivities. Initially up for anything, they push their partying to the limit and get in pretty deep, testing their friendships, loyalties and boundaries along the way.
Harmony Korine’s neon masterpiece is an abject flash-and-trash fest that leaves any after school special judgements way, way, wayyyy back on campus in the counsellor’s office. Spring Breakers is a super spiked cocktail that mixes sex and sleaze with social commentary and is a rollicking good party.
If you haven’t seen it yet, add this spring fling to your bitchin’ summer – Korine and the girls—including previously clean cut Disney starlets, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens—definitely bring the party more than any other.
Worst Attitude Problem: How I Live Now
Another post-apocalyptic YA book adaptation, How I Live Now leans closer to Tomorrow When The War Began with WWIII erupting while Daisy (Saorise Ronan), an American, goes to stay with her cousins in the UK. A change in style for director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, Last King of Scotland), the English countryside is shot beautifully and while youth oriented, the movie doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war.
Daisy is all attitude. And in case her barbarous tongue wasn’t enough to demonstrate the chip on her shoulder, she listens to loud music, wears dark eye make up and has piercings. *cue drama*
The sense of catastrophe and internal conflict suffered by a teenage girl questioning her identity is touched upon, but Daisy’s instability is elided for a rapidly intense romance between her and her cousin (second cousin, maybe? First in the book.) By usurping character development for the romantic plot, Daisy becomes wildly inconsistent and unlikeable, with few redemptive features and all the mood swings. Rebelling against authority, taking on responsibility and feeling like an outsider are tropes given the teen treatment here, but don’t bring anything new to the genre.
Like Daisy, I’d be hot for the handsome young chap/animal whisperer if I saw him bobbing around in shirtless in a picturesque lake too. But if he was my cousin, I’d probably keep that fact to myself not, you know, fuck him in a barn. Maybe I’m being too judgy – it is wartime after all and you can’t help who you love.
Most hardworking: The To Do List
Rather than a loose sex comedy, The To Do List felt as uptight as it’s main character Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza).
Brandy has just graduated high school, taken a job at a pool for the summer and decided she wants to be more sexually experienced before hitting college. She tackles this task with her usual neurotic zeal: lists, books and eventual organised practice.
Alongside Plaza, The To Do List stars Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Rachel Bilson, Andy Samberg, Donald Glover, Adam Pally and FNL favourites Scott Porter and Connie Britton. I had hoped it would be the Wet, Hot, American Summer for today, with a teen comedy edge.
Unfortunately, its ham-fisted early 90s nostalgia lacks the incidental humour of its predecessor. Inverting the teen sex comedy genre to focus on the girl’s virginity and sexual experience is always welcome, yet it just felt too forced. It felt more stiff than fun (no puns…okay, well maybe a pun).
Accordingly, as hard as it tried, The To Do List belly flopped like a fat kid into a pool. With no local theatrical release, it’s available on DVD.
2013 Honour Role:
The Way Way Back
Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) heads on summer holiday with his mum (Toni Collette) and her horrendously arrogant, controlling boyfriend (Steve Carell). As the adults unwind and regress, introverted Duncan heads toward adulthood, learning responsibility and life lessons in his summer job at Water Wizz Park. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash and starring everyone (Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, Amanda Peet), The Way Way Back is a fun, Bildungsroman film.
Romeo and Juliet could be considered the ultimate teen drama, with Shakespeare kicking arse before John Hughes’ mum’s mum’s mum was even a twinkle in her mum’s eye. Or something. Adopting Shakespeare’s framework is not new to teen movies with Ten Things I Hate About You being the standout example (Taming of the Shrew). In Warm Bodies, Shakespeare’s teen tragedy has been successfully melded with the schlock zombie genre and the self-depreciating style of late-90s/early-00s teen romance comedies. Parodying the apathy of youth and touching on the angst and frustration of teen life (sexual, cultural, social), Nicholas Hoult plays R, a zombie, whose sardonic inner monologue leads us, staggering, through his thoughts and feelings as he falls for human, Julie (Teresa Palmer).
The Kings of Summer
Fed up of their tyrannical parents, lack of social status and the restrictions imposed by ‘real life’, The Kings of Summer sees three teen mates (two best friends and one ‘oddball’) head out into the woods to live off the land and as they please over summer. Along the way they have some fun, learn some serious life lessons and a lot about themselves. Boys just want to have fun, you know? Bonus: features Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally.