They say that America is a youth-obsessed culture. We tend to like our stories young, but not too young (that’d be creepy). In a way this is a natural product of the Hollywood marketing machine. Teenagers and college students have a blend of independence and free time that allows them to participate in pop culture in larger quantities than any other age bracket. They also tend to have more disposable income as they aren’t raising a family in a house while struggling with multiple jobs. It’s not that the same audience members never grow up, it’s that the audience is constantly replaced by the next generation.
The High School movie inevitably holds a heightened place in our culture. It’s a shared experience of algebra, bad lunch, and infidelity. Teen hormones are wild, emotions run high, and the limitations of parental freedom are pushed and tested. Sure, high school movies are made to appeal to a certain demographic of money-spending free-time-having teenagers, but many adults unabashedly adore the high school movie from their own perspectives.
Why do we love teenagers and the high school movie? Since I was a teenager, I’ve hypothesized that high school is a microcosm of the real world and the dynamics of high school never really change. They’re the purest forms of our selves when we were too stupid to know that we had to temper our personalities for other people. In this way, many filmmakers use the high school setting to satirize or illustrate real world dilemmas. 1981’s The Wave was a dramatization of an experiment in participatory fascism held at a high school in Palo Alto used to illustrate how a culture could accept and participate in the Nazi movement. 1999’s Election created a microcosm of the down and dirty nature of politics at the most local of levels: class president. 10 Things I Hate About You, O, and Cruel Intentions took stories about adults and translated them into high school dynamics without losing much of a beat.
Teenagers are also full of potential. Their stories are like the first couple chapters of a choose your own adventure book. Both Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl and The Edge of Seventeen are single chapters in their main character’s lives with the goal of adjusting their emotional trajectories to change the path of their lives. The goal of Boyz N The Hood is to get its teenagers out of the ghetto and into college so they can have a chance at flourishing.
In a way, my viewing a high school movie four three components: recognition of self, nostalgia for their personal past, recognizing the impact of youthful decisions, and indulgence in youthful indiscretion. I see aspects of my former self in the characters, I kind of miss those more carefree/careless days with fewer responsibilities, and I see the parallels in how decisions made when I was a high schooler colored attitudes and decisions when I was older. Of course, there’s also the love of watching teenagers being irresponsibly teenaged.
When you were in high school, what did you get out of high school movies? Now that you’re an adult, do you still watch teenage movies? What do you get out of it?