‘high school’ films: a modern renaissance

In his MTV interview at Toronto International Film Festival 2018, Timothée Chalamet speaks to Josh Horowitz about his experiences filming Beautiful Boy (2018) and what it means to be a young actor today. It can be seen here.

He says,

“What was amazing last year was that I felt like audiences are yearning, thirsty for films that feel urgent and relevant, that they can connect with and not the same, not literally, some of the same stories done again and again and again…

I feel that urgency now. I dont know if literally or economically, if you can point to it in numbers, the film industry.. but the road maps, the studio system is not there anymore. Beautiful Boy is an Amazon film, the first film I worked on last year was a Netflix film, I think it’s kind of great that there’s a return to the mid-budget movie now.

In the 80s and 90s, and obviously through the 2000s, there was a lot of great independent films. But then I think through the late 2000s there was this kind of transition, and that’s why I’m not envious of being 22 at that time and I’m grateful to be at this age now, it’s such an interesting time in film and in TV.”

At the end of TIFF 2018, ideas that attempt to define and navigate contemporary film are expectedly in orbit. Chalamet speaks to some of these ideas, the rebirth of the mid-budget movie for example, and his gratitude for being 22 years old now as opposed to ten years ago, as another.

What is clear from the last few years of cinema is that we now face a modern renaissance that is for, and driven by, young people. For example, the sudden exponential growth of the Netflix film has propelled the rebirth of coming-of-age movies, and in particular, ‘high school’ movies, a sort-of-subgenre that has not been truly revisited and reclaimed since Mean Girls (2004) and Superbad (2007) established their cultural impact in the early to mid-2000s. Now, with films such as The Edge of Seventeen (2016) as the earliest example, and Netflix films To The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) and Sierra Burgess is a Loser (2018) as the most recent, there is a kind of resurgence and redefining of what being a teenager post-2010’s entails.

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still from Mean Girls (2004)

Chalamet calls this gap, this mid-2000’s-to-now epoch, a ‘transition’, implying a process or transformation rather than a death and rebirth. This transitional period was a period in which ‘high school’ films (and coming-of-age films more broadly) failed to produce the same cultural impact as their predecessors. After decades of films that spoke to entire generations, from the John Hughes 80’s filmography to 90’s classics such as Clueless (1995), there seemed, by the late 2000’s to now, to be a period of quiet. Films such as 17 Again (2009), Bandslam (2009), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) and Project X (2012) are just a few examples of ‘high school’ films that have left little referential impact on film culture, or at least to the same extent as Superbad or Mean Girls.

Easy A (2010) is one example that I do think succeeds as a ‘high school’ vision with lasting cultural impact from a period of transition. But even then, Easy A self-consciously relies on tropes of the past and future: it is a love-letter to 80’s ‘high school’ movies structured by modern vlogger-style confessionals. The finale itself is the interruption of a confessional video by Todd serenading Olive with The Breakfast Club (1985) anthem ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ playing outside her window. In essence, the champions of the transitional period rely on being technologically modern or nostalgic and retrospective, or both.

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still from Easy A

Only recently, in their current resurgence, are ‘high school’ films beginning to repossess the ability to impact their audiences and shape contemporary culture. And only now, with enough distance from the transitional period, are we able to try and understand why films between 2008-2013(ish) failed to create the same cultural phenomena and buzz that modern (2015 onwards) ‘high school’ films inspire.

Recent ‘high school’ films, such as the aforementioned Netflix group, may not possess the same referential impact as Superbad or Mean Girls, two of the most quoted and essential teenage films for their cultural gravitas, but they have indefinitely become a spectacle; an object for praise, critique and discussion. There is an alternative cultural power in how much they are discussed that compensates for whatever they lack. Maybe this power lends itself to the existence of websites like Twitter and Letterboxd that appear to have replaced Tumblr. Young people no longer spend hours making thumbnail collages and gifs to pay homage to their new favourite film. Instead, they spend their time tweeting and reviewing films in a community, thus films’ impact is greater, more dialogic and much more quantifiably traceable. Essentially, these modern ‘high school’ films are not just contemporary in subject matter and style, they are spectacles within a culture that loves to discuss, review and share film in a way that moves beyond isolated viewership.

 

Enough time has passed that there is now a clear distinction between the pre-transition and the post-transition epochs. Despite their distinctions, however, modern additions (2015 onwards) to the high school canon do to some extent feel inspired by some, if not many, of the same tropes of their predecessors. Perhaps this is because many of the creatives who grew up watching the 90’s and 2000’s high school films are now making high school movies themselves. From watching and growing up alongside a vision of 90’s and 2000’s high school, they have perhaps inherited the exercise of translating their own high school experiences into film, in a kind of generational inevitability, a rite of passage.

Mid90s (2018), written by Jonah Hill, premiered at this year’s TIFF and established itself as a film of critical acclaim. Jonah Hill is a fitting example of the kind of individual involved in the catalysation of the modern renaissance of coming-of-age cinema. From starring in Superbad in 2007, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg who began writing the script when they themselves were only 13, to now having written his own coming-of-age film that centres around skate culture in LA. There is a kind of pass-over, of the cultural tools by which to create a film, that allows such a personal yet inspired, individual yet relatable take on teenagehood.

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still from Mid90s

If we can predict anything for the next few years, it is that the modern renaissance will continue and more ‘high school’ films will be in circulation. Now, for perhaps the first time, there are more voices, from all angles, in range. Because of platforms like Twitter and Letterboxd, there are spaces in which viewer and filmmaker are in symbiosis. With the creation and discussion of ‘high school’ films, we are aided by hindsight, of the transitional period, combined with the means to share our responses with entire online communities. We are able to participate in a discourse that we now know is in itself necessary to propel films into lasting cultural resonance.

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