Are Teen Movies Finally Growing Up?

The Spectacular Now, Ender's Game, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire are exploring loftier topics than the usual rituals of high school dating.

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There’s generally been a big gap between movies made about teenagers for adults, and movies made about teenagers for teenagers. In the extreme, it’s the difference between Elephant (2003) and What A Girl Wants (2003). As beneficial as watching Gus Van Sant’s experimental high school shooting drama would be to a young audience, the target audience for that Cannes-winning title was predominantly older and more inclined to liking those ‘boring’ movies where ‘nothing happens’.

While there have been plenty of movies aimed at teen audiences that have given older audiences a reason to watch, even if they won’t always admit it — Bring It On (2000) and Clueless (1995) are just two stellar examples — it finally seems like teenagers are getting movies made about and for them that deal with loftier topics than the oft-discussed rituals of high school dating. They’re movies that don’t treat those under the age of 20 as idiots without the capacity to deal with subject matter of a mature nature; movies that have the capacity to actually inspire discussion amongst young viewers without alienating them in the process.

In James Ponsoldt’s new film The Spectacular Now, issues of delinquency, alcoholism, and the peer pressures associated with being a common teenager are explored with such depth and uncharacteristic honesty, that critics have been eager to champion it (the film won a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and reached 92% on review aggregator website, Rotten Tomatoes). Its biggest success, however, is that Ponsoldt — who had only previously directed Smashed (2012), a much grungier take on alcoholism — has actually appeared to have made his film for the younger audiences it portrays.

Recalling two of Natalie Wood’s greatest films, Rebel Without A Cause (1955, with James Dean) and Splendor In The Grass (1961, with Warren Beatty), but without their heightened sense of melodrama, Spectacular’s characters are frequently uncomfortable in their skins and can’t think of the best thing to say. They try too hard at being ‘normal’ to mask other issues. It’s a film that will speak to young audiences, while also giving them the nuts and bolts of what makes a ‘teen film’.

Unlike many moves with young actors, the film casts people who could genuinely pass for teenagers — Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are really excellent. They’re attractive, but his scarred face and her ‘plain Jane’ appearance lack the photoshopped quality of many a young star. They’re the sort of faces one might expect to see in a real high school.

It certainly helps that today’s modern film distribution landscape makes it easier for a younger audience to actually see the film. Once upon a time The Spectacular Now would get a limited release in cinemas and then maybe pop up on the video store shelf six months later with its target audience none the wiser to its existence. However, thanks to the wider net cast by online and digital streaming and, yes, even illegal torrents, as well as more target audience-focused marketing on websites and blogs, it means teenagers have a better chance of seeing it.

The film’s US distributor, A24 Films, was specifically set up because its founders saw “an exciting opportunity right now for movies in the domestic space, given all the new ways to target moviegoers and the changes that are happening in the marketplace”. Earlier this year, the company released Sofia Coppola’s superb look at a generation of dead-eyed Hollywood wannabes and their mass commercialism, The Bling Ring, and turned Harmony Korine’s eye-popping nuclear bomb of satire, Spring Breakers, into a surprise box office smash.

The Spectacular Now isn’t just a film that ol’ critics with bad memories of high school will respond to; it’s one that teenagers ought to see as well. And it isn’t the only one out right now, either. Three Young Adult adaptations — Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now, Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game — are currently in theatres, and deal with topics as wide-ranging as class warfare, teen isolation, genocide, and totalitarianism. The successful books they’re based on (and others like them, including the Harry Potter series that made a yearly event out of violent, fantastical puberty allegories) are prime examples that teen audiences are smarter than they’re often given credit for, and it’s nice that these adaptations have kept their heady ideas more or less intact.

Surprisingly, the Australian classification board has given The Spectacular Now a relatively unrestrictive ‘M’ rating. Usually, when films dare to represent teenagers as they really are, they’re greeted with harsh ratings that curb their audiences. How I Live Now, a thoughtfully provocative look at how one damaged teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) handles the outbreak of World War III, is just one example. Despite featuring language every teenager uses on a regular basis, it was hit with an ‘MA15+’ rating.

Some American cinemas have even taken it upon themselves to ignore the national rating board’s commercially-disastrous ‘NC-17’ rating for the sexually explicit Cannes winner Blue Is The Warmest Colour and permit teenage audiences into screenings, stating “It is our judgment that [the film] is appropriate for mature, inquiring teenagers who are looking ahead to the emotional challenges and opportunities that adulthood holds.” Too bloody right.

The Spectacular Now’s IMDb page suggests The Princess Diaries (2001) and Ten Things I Hate About You (1999) as associated recommendations. Both films have their virtues, especially the latter, but they’re hardly in the same ballpark. Perhaps if young audiences use the expanding marketplace to their advantage and are inspired enough, they could discover Paranoid Park (2007), the best ‘teen movie’ since The Breakfast Club (1985), or Kids (1995). Harsh films about the lives of contemporary young adults, sure, but for an adventurous burgeoning teen cinephile, they may just be every bit a must see as Easy A (2010) or Mean Girls (2004).

The Spectacular Now is currently showing in cinemas nationally.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer and film critic from Melbourne, and currently based in New York City. His work has been seen online (Onya Magazine, Quickflix), in print (The Big Issue, Metro Magazine, Intellect Books Ltd’s World Film Locations: Melbourne), as well as heard on Joy 94.9.