Every summer they appear: the popular girls, the dweebs, the best friends; the prom, the big game, the graduation; the first crush, the first kiss, the first love. Although “teen movies” could be defined in many a light, at their core they are films with adolescents as both their subject and a presumed audience. This summer, three teen flicks distinguished themselves as both box office and critical favorites. “The Way, Way Back” is a coming-of-age story in which Duncan, a cripplingly shy loner, transforms into the star of the local water park. Sofia Coppola’s latest, “The Bling Ring,” dramatizes the true tale of a gang of elite, Los Angeles teen swindlers who rob celebrity homes. And James Ponsdalt ’01 directed the small-but-mighty high school romance “The Spectacular Now.” Not one of these films was distributed by a major studio branch, making summer 2013 a refreshing hurrah of the indie teen film.
Of the three films, “The Bling Ring” had the biggest directorial name and certainly accumulated the biggest buzz. Coppola’s repertoire demonstrates a touch for the teen genre, elevating what at times can be a commercial, clichéd and patronized breed into art house royalty. Her first film, “The Virgin Suicides” (1999), took a haunting look at adolescence in a suburban town. In “Lost in Translation” (2003), although her characters may be a bit older, Coppola depicts the terrifying possibility of post-college drift (especially apt as Scarlett Johanson’s character apparently attended Yale). “Marie Antoinette” (2006) portrays the oft vilified Marie Antoinette as the naïve teenager she was, infusing aesthetically gorgeous depictions of French court life with modern alt-pop music and even sneaking a pair of purple converse into a garish shoe shopping episode.
Thus expectations ran high for Ms. Coppola’s next escapade into the adolescent mind, but unfortunately the realization fell flat. “The Bling Ring” was stylistically engrossing and Emma Watson’s performance stole the show. But much of the film’s other acting felt plastic. In fact, the entire film seemed a bit like a shiny package lacking an interior, a short film or music video recklessly stretched out to feature length. A repetitive and cyclical narrative gave the film a feeling of artificiality that I believe to have been intended. But the film’s points — the superficiality of the characters, the disturbing manifestations of an ardent cultural obsession with fame, fashion and money — were overwrought. The film became morally pedantic, rather than letting the audience draw its own conclusions.
“The Bling Ring”’s unconcealed artificiality contrasts the other two films’ manifest aim at realism. The intrigue of the “The Way, Way Back” lies in its ambiguity. The film paints its three focal characters — Duncan, his mother and the water park’s manager — as morally neither black nor white, guiding the viewer through the dimensions of their personalities through the decisions each character makes. They are not cartoons or cookie cutter shapes; they would not fit into “Mean Girls” or “High School Musical.” And by the film’s conclusion, these characters’ problems are not magically solved. Instead of a bus flattening the antagonist, he remains very much in the picture. Rather than an epilogue depicting everyone “All In This Together,” characters we love are left behind and relationships we thought to be solid have been fractured.
Yet the realism of “The Way, Way Back” only goes so far. Although the main characters may have been more fleshed out than in the average teen movie, stilted moments remain: the musings of Duncan’s crush about her estranged father feel overly dramatic; the friends of Duncan’s soon to be stepsister are exaggeratedly catty. And the character of Duncan’s mother’s boyfriend, played by Steve Carell, lacks any nuance whatsoever: He might as well be Darth Vader.
“The Spectacular Now”, however, makes even clearer attempts at a more down-to-earth realism. Rather than in Los Angeles or an idealized beach town, “The Spectacular Now” occurs in a small, un-glamorized American town. The dialogue seems natural and age appropriate, oft including some moment, whether it be in point or tone, that reminds us of dialogues from our own past. Much fuss has been made on the Internet about the female protagonist, Aimee: a Flavorwire article labeled her as a personification of the “nerdy doormat dream girl” archetype, lamenting her constant pardons for her boyfriend’s poor behavior toward her. There is no doubt that if a female doormat is a dream, it is a disturbing and disappointing dream at that, but unfortunately we all know girls who could be Aimee.
These types of films are also not the only teen films of value. Films without even an ounce of realistic content can be fun and speak to audiences in other ways – “The Breakfast Club” and “Mean Girls” prove as much. But while there is room for all sorts of teen movies in the market, the predominance of art house adoption of the teen film this summer grants a deserved respect to the age group, both as a sophisticated audience and as a nuanced, loaded subject.