September 21, 2005

One Word: Plastic

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Teenage restlessness and furor have always had a place in literature, art, music, television and pop culture. But nowadays, teen angst seems to be at the forefront of indie films. As New York Times film critic A.O. Scott states, “art house [cinemas] look like the young-adult section of your local bookstore.”

Holden Caulfield. Romeo and Juliet. Dawson and the whole Creek crew. These lusty, verbose, bewildered teens are quintessential representations of the confusion and turmoil that is adolescence. Impulsive, impassioned and indecisive, these fictional teenagers are so real that we know them – Daria, Benjamin Braddock, Meg Griffin, the entire emo movement – the list goes on. Films as diverse as The Graduate, Igby Goes Down, American Beauty, Harold and Maude, Rushmore, Election, Donnie Darko and Ghost World all feature irreverent social outcasts searching for meaning and fulfillment in perverse worlds of seduction, power, drugs, sex, death and alienation. The films deal with dysfunction on an exaggerated scale. The situations are heightened, the women sexier, the clothing stylized, the style experimental and the language edgier. Though the people onscreen are prettier and their daily lives are more pleasurable and painful than your’s, the basic struggles remain relatable, even common. The slick visual style, the alt-rock music and the pop culture referencing bolster the basic human experience of growing up. This begs the question, why do novice writer-directors continue to make these films as a type of initiation ritual, coming-out calling card? Are these films about high-schoolers even intended for high-schoolers? If so, then it seems an “R” rating might not be the best marketing plan. But what is it about the coming of age story that continually attracts auteurs? Maybe writers and directors find solace and support in their hipster-nerd adolescent leads. As Josh Schwartz, creator of The O.C., has shown in his reincarnation as Seth Cohen, not only does he get the hot girl but he enacts revenge on water-polo-playing jocks everywhere. Filmmakers may be seeking to glorify their geeky childhoods and re-imagine their adolescence; the creative kids who flocked to the drama department and the audiovisual room are the ones who would and could fashion high school life as a farce. The social bullshit is dismissed as mere cattiness by unimportant, uninteresting people. It seems dorky playground rejects morph into offbeat, charismatic, quirky screen creations.

And the trend continues. This season alone Thumbsucker, The Chumscrubber, Pretty Persuasion, The Squid and the Whale, Brick and Down in the Valley will be invading art house cinemas everywhere. Though they all center on teenagers, the marketing campaigns will surely target graduate students, young professionals, and even our parents. Adolescence remains a foreign, transitory time, even to those of us who just recently survived. Yet, undeniably, teenage years are hopeful – whole lives lay ahead, the “anything is possible” moniker still applies and futures are spectacularly bright. Perhaps filmmakers and moviegoers alike want to tap into that golden time of endless possibility – adolescence.

Archived article by Dara Gordon