Film #115: But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

film 115 but i'm a cheerleader

Rating: 3.5/5

“Oh my god… they were right. I’m a homo. Oh, my god!”

With its lurid colours and Stepford-style 50’s inspired kitsch, But I’m a Cheerleader revels in its campness. Although slightly quaint today – gay rights have come along in leaps and bounds in the last fifteen years – it tackles a serious topic in a overtly tongue-in-cheek manner, revealing the absurdity and hypocrisy of the entirely real schools and camps that promise to rid people of their undesirable homosexual tendencies. In doing so, the film takes a light-hearted satirical dig at the often Christian-based groups who believe that being gay is a lifestyle choice, with heterosexual living being the only desirable, “normal” way of living, while simultaneously downplaying the religious aspect of such camps. Although Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is openly Christian, and the facility her straight-laced parents send her is clearly inspired by the Christian “conversion camps”, once the girl’s lodged at True Directions, there is no real mention of religion in the rest of the film. While this seems slightly like a missed opportunity, it safeguards against possible backlash – despite the controversial subject matter, the film is inoffensive and entertaining, with the blossoming romance at its core often surprisingly tender.

Megan is first introduced living her normal life – she has a boyfriend, although she doesn’t appear to like kissing him much, says grace before dinner, is polite and well spoken, and is a cheerleader. Arriving home one day, she finds herself confronted with her well-meaning friends and family, who proceed to inform her of her latent homosexuality. She has to be a lesbian, because she’s a vegetarian. She has pictures of women in her locker, and posters of gay icons on her bedroom walls. Despite her insistence that she’s not gay, she’s packed off to True Directions, a Barbie-esque residential facility in the middle of nowhere, where she has to complete five steps before she graduates, a happy and well adjusted heterosexual. At the camp, she meets a small but varied group of other teens – an androgynous girl with a shaved head, a flamboyant boy, a Jew (further distancing the film from its overtly Christian inspirations), a goth, a varsity quarterback, and a girl called Graham (Clea DuVall), who seems certain to be ejected from the course due to her insolence and disdain for the whole project.

There are plenty of funny moments – the group’s admissions regarding what “made them gay” are particularly absurd, ranging from “my mother got married in pants” to “I was born in France.” Curiously, however, despite the film taking great pains to show that being gay doesn’t mean necessarily conforming to the expected stereotype, these are almost validated by Megan’s realisation that she is a lesbian – despite their “evidence” being entirely circumstantial, her family and friends are ultimately proved right. In contrast, True Direction’s methodology conforms entirely to heterosexual gender stereotypes. The girls all wear frilly pink dresses and practise childcare and cleaning, the boys dress in blue and learn mechanics and sports. All the tasks are, however, saturated in homoeroticism, which is particularly obvious with the boys’ classes – “accidental” pelvic thrusting during a car maintenance class, for example. It’s not exactly subtle, but it’s effective, bringing a surreal camp twist to everyday activities – in the end, the film seems to be saying, there’s queerness in everyone.

At its core, of course, is Megan’s relationship with Graham, and it’s a slowly developing romance that delicately reveals the intricacies of flirtation. Ironically, of course, if her parents hadn’t made her confront her unrealised gayness, Megan would quite possibly have lived out her days in precisely the kind of denial True Directions aims to teach, shacked up with her jock boyfriend in a sexless marriage. Instead, her incarceration at the facility enables her to finally stop living a lie – admitting her homosexuality is the first step, and a gay relationship is the inevitable conclusion. It’s in the conclusion that the film really falters – there are no surprises (except the discovery that Megan’s cheerleading abilities are thoroughly underwhelming), and it ends abruptly. Megan and Graham are the only characters who really find any kind of resolution, and it’s a shame that the fates of the majority of the True Directions camp remain unknown. Do the camp’s male mentor Mike (played by uber famous drag queen RuPaul) and the owner’s obviously gay son finally acknowledge their attraction for each other? Is the conversion really a success when only a tiny fraction of students end up graduating? Do the graduates accept their gayness, or do they live in denial? Is there a happy ending for anyone, really? Who knows. Yet despite the weak ending, the film itself is entertaining, revelling in campness and knowingly addressing the nuances of gender and sexuality in particularly unsubtle ways. Fun, light-hearted, flamboyant yet touching, But I’m a Cheerleader starts to wear thin in the end, and its satire might not be as biting as people might like, but it’s a welcome alternative to the traditional teen/ high school movies so prevalent in the late 90s.

Film #111: She’s All That (1999)

film 111 shes all that

Rating: 3.5/5

“I feel just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. You know, except for the whole hooker thing.”

If any film could hope to challenge Clueless as the ultimate high school movie, surely it’s She’s All That. So filled with clichés that in some ways it’s difficult to figure out whether it was the first of its kind or just another lame copy, it’s stupid but likeable, with an impressive cast including Freddie Prinze Jr, Rachael Leigh Cook, the late Paul Walker (I always forget he’s in it), Anna Paquin, Clea Duvall, Kieran Culkin – even Usher pops up, proving the movie’s pop-culture credentials, and so does Sarah Michelle Gellar, for a split second, in homage to the fact that this was shot in the same school as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

To be honest, it’s quite difficult to review She’s All That without being constantly reminded of Not Another Teen Movie, which quite perfectly parodied the more ridiculous moments – and, the fact that it’s this film that forms the basis of the spoof’s plot indicates how popular and influential it was. Cook is Laney Boggs, an anti-social poor girl filled with inner darkness, as evidenced by her moody abstract art. She’s beautiful, of course, but has the misfortune of wearing glasses, never plucking her eyebrows, and wearing paint-covered dungarees (see, I’m already slipping into Not Another Teen Movie…) Nevertheless, she’s the one popular-but-recently-dumped jock-hunk Zac (Prinze Jr) is tasked with transforming into the prom queen – the result of a bet between him and his jock buddy Dean (Walker). To be fair, she is not considered a challenge because of her looks, really, but because of her personality – but, naturally, a makeover is imminent, thanks to Zac’s sister Mackenzie (Paquin), and it seems to be mostly a result of her newfound contact lenses that, overnight, inexplicably, she becomes the most popular girl in school.

There are actually quite a few interesting possibilities borne out of this new popularity, but the film mostly ignores them. Honestly, if you scratch the surface of this movie, there’s mostly just more surface, and attempting any in depth analysis is a fairly pointless exercise. Laney’s nomination for prom queen doesn’t make her become a brat (a la Cady in Mean Girls, for example) but it does appear to bring all the nerds out of the woodwork – whereas the school initially seemed to be entirely populated by beautiful twenty-somethings (Walker was twenty-six; the only person even close to being actual high school age was Paquin, and she looks like a child in comparison; on a side note, realising this made me feel particularly old), following her nomination the student-extras more fully represent the less fortunate too. Yet this isn’t a “nerd-uprising” sort of film, and the likes of the Hygiene Club remain firmly in the background. There’s never even the slightest pause to consider how Laney actually feels about her makeover – she stops wearing her glasses but continues with her (more figure-hugging) paint-covered clothes, for example. What matters is not the exterior changes, but the internal ones – having avoided her classmates for years, she finally begins to realise that they’re not all as bad as she might have thought. Of course, some of them are precisely as bad as she thought: Dean has ulterior motives, while Zac’s ex Taylor will let nothing stop her from becoming prom queen. While Taylor is the pre-Mean Girls mean girl, her new flame, reality “star” Brock Hudson (Matthew Lilliard) is great fun – egotistical, self-obsessed and utterly deluded, his overly energetic moronics brighten up the film and provide arguably the best dance scene of the piece (sorry Usher, the prom dance is unexpected, but Brock’s fist-pumping worm takes the biscuit).

Seeped in pop-culture of the 90s, perhaps I’m again showing my age when I say that in many ways the film hasn’t dated as badly as it might have. Yes, there are several references to Hanson and yes, kids today might not know what The Real World is, but it’s by no means inaccessible today. Its biggest problem (if you can call it that) is the fact that, like I said earlier, everything seems so clichéd – and even that’s not really its own fault, but that of Not Another Teen Movie. Everything in this film reminds me of that one: the token black guy who features solely to react in exaggerated ways to the white kids; Laney contemplating her latest expression of artistic pain, which is really not particularly good, but we’re supposed to think it is; her father’s strange terms of endearment (“pumpkin nose”?!); Zac’s misunderstood rich-boy problems; Laney refusing to let anyone see her cry at the party… Every moment has been lampooned, highlighting the inanity of it all, and it’s really difficult for me to separate the two movies now. Yet I’ll happily watch She’s All That any time – its lead actors have a nice chemistry, its got a happy ending and, while I remember Clueless with great fondness from my childhood, it’s this film that captures the essence of my teen years. Besides, any film with a Buffy cameo gets my vote.

Film #105: Easy A (2010)

Emma Stone as "Olive Penderghast" in Screen Gems' EASY A.

Rating: 3.5/5

“The rumours of my promiscuity have been greatly exaggerated.”

Although Jennifer Lawrence is currently Number One Sweetheart in Hollywood, arguably Emma Stone is a close second. After roles in Superbad and the stupidly hilarious The House Bunny, she burst onto the scene with Zombieland, took the lead in Easy A, and made females around the world jealous by smooching Ryan Gosling in not one but two films (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad). Safe to say now she’s a hot commodity. I’m not quite convinced – she’s likeable, of course, but even here she’s by no means the most interesting or funny person on screen, nor is she (in my opinion – I’m sure there are plenty who would disagree) the most personable. But Easy A‘s a strange film, self-aware yet oddly oblivious to its own problems, one that is perfectly entertaining while it’s being watched, but littered with inconsistencies in retrospect.

Stone is Olive, a clean-cut, presumably straight-A student who is invisible to the boys (and most of the girls) in her school. Despite this she’s beautiful, trendy, has a quick wit and no real evidence of any insecurities – to be honest, it’s really not clear why she’s not popular. She’s not particularly awkward (like, for example, Stone’s character in The House Bunny), she’s neither stupid nor pious, but for whatever reason, she’s somehow the outsider. Via online video chat, she relates her version of recent events, using click-baity intertitles to punctuate the various chapters of the story – most of the film consists of flashbacks to said events (in hindsight this implies that almost all the scenes involving her parents and adopted brother are entirely incoherent in this context – as sequences that do not progress or impact upon the main purpose of her testimonial, the reasons for their inclusion are unclear. They are, however, among the funniest scenes of the film). Olive’s story begins with an innocent white lie, which snowballs into school-wide rumours about her promiscuity; mirroring her assigned reading (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter), she becomes the school harlot and finds that infamy and notoriety – whether justified or not – is not necessarily as fun as it first appeared.

While the plot is fairly straight-forward, it’s Olive herself who is so incoherent as a character. Of course, this isn’t Stone’s fault, but that of writer Bert V Royal, who never seems quite sure whether his leading lady is a protagonist, antagonist, smart, stupid, worldly, or naïve. I find it very difficult to believe that, with such enlightened, laid-back and liberal parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, both excelling in their roles and stealing all the scenes they feature in), Olive would actually encourage a bullied gay kid to pretend he’s straight to fit in – surely she would oppose this kind of falseness? Yet this is where it all begins – he takes her advice, they pretend they’ve had sex, and in the blink of an eye she’s the local slut. And, rather than reject this new reputation, she embraces it (though never seems quite sure as to whether she enjoys it or not), accepting gift cards from fat losers and nerds as payment for their alleged sexual encounters, until it all starts going horribly wrong – her best friend Rhiannon (former Disney child Aly Michalka), another entirely incoherent character with hippy-dippy nudist parents and a penchant for calling everyone “bitch,” dumps her, the school’s born-again Christian students, led by Amanda Byne’s holier-than-thou Marianne, are determined to get her expelled, and the lies somehow end up threatening her favourite teacher’s marriage.

If I sound particularly negative towards Easy A, I don’t mean to be – it’s a perfectly engaging film, with some funny moments. Royal’s script attempts to situate itself within a broader group of well-respected school-movies – namely John Hughes’ 80s classics – and there are frequent references to other films, as well as self-referential moments (Olive’s voice-over comments on the clichés in the story, for example) and a whole host of pop-culture remarks. The script is snappy and quick, matched by equally snappy pacing that conveniently conceals the fact that so little makes sense. It’s got a great cast, for instance, but character development is severely limited, and some of the cameos are in desperate need of expansion. Malcolm McDowell’s principal, for example, has one scene in which he (rather inappropriately, it seems, but most of the adults speak to Olive in ways that seem particularly inappropriate) declares that “this is public school. If I can keep the girls off the pole and the boys off the pipe, I get a bonus” – then he’s never seen again, despite the apparent scandals that are rocking the school’s faculty and students. Other characters – Rhiannon, Marianne, dimwitted 22-year old Micah (Cam Gigandet) – have minor subplot stories that mostly lead nowhere. Really, Olive is the only character who grows at all, and even her lesson is a half-hearted one in the end, with the film’s eventual message getting lost beneath the weight of the screenplay’s need to conclude with a homage to better movies. In retrospect, these are the things that stand out the most: Olive’s dog is amazing and I want one; and “Pocketful of Sunshine” is undeniably, infuriatingly catchy yet becomes the most memorable bit of the whole movie.

Films #99-100: Crossroads (2002) & Burlesque (2010)

film 99 crossroads

Ratings: Crossroads, 2/5; Burlesque, 3/5

“All we have is now, and right now we have each other.”
“I will not be upstaged by some slut with mutant lungs!”

One hundred films watched, finally – and what better way to hit the milestone than to celebrate with a 90s-pop-star-to-movie-star-showdown? Yes, it’s Britney Spears in Crossroads versus Christina Aguilera in Burlesque, with a dash of Cher thrown in for good measure. It goes without saying these are cheesy movies but, despite the suggestively low-to-average ratings, they’re both great fun (if you’re that way inclined, I suppose).

First up: Crossroads. Britney is Lucy, virginal do-gooder and all-round nice girl with some abandonment issues thanks to her mother leaving her as a young child. She and her two childhood friends had buried a time capsule many years ago, but as the years passed, these three best friends have grown up, and grown apart. Lucy’s a smokin’ hot dork, Kit (Zoe Saldana, long before carving a name for herself in some of the biggest movie franchises around) is a rich bitch with mummy issues, and Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant by some loser. But it’s finally their high school prom, and the three temporarily put aside their differences to open the box and remember their hopes and dreams. This, naturally, leads to the three embarking on a road trip to LA in a classic convertible with a handsome older man, Ben (Anson Mount) who may or may not have just been released from jail for murder. It’s a coming of age roadtrip movie – they’re all at the crossroads of their lives, you see?

The film is shoddy, to say the least. The plot makes little or no sense, and the characters react in ways that never consider the big picture: the girls find out that Ben may have killed someone while on their road trip, yet continue to antagonise him at every given moment. They may be freaking out in the motel bathroom that they’re going to be murdered and buried in the desert, but two minutes later they’ve apparently forgotten the entire thing. Mimi is planning on going to LA to compete in a recording contest, but develops stage fright the first second she has to sing in public, and almost instantaneously hands over the mike to Lucy and forgets her dream. Kit oddly switches between stereotypical black girl (saying things like “y’all” and getting shouty when drunk) and prim white rich girl. Lucy is a wallflower, but the second she puts on a denim mini-skirt she suddenly becomes a raunchy, pole-dancing showgirl. Ben has no personality whatsoever, but is generally pleasing to the eye so gets away with throwing tantrums in the desert. He also listens exclusively to heavy metal, but writes the music to one of the soppiest pop songs ever (Britney’s mediocre soulful hit, I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman). This does at least, lead to one of the most cringeworthy moments in the whole movie, when he plays the song to Lucy on a white grand piano, as she does that classic 90s, breathy “na na na na” singalong. Yes, there are plenty of moments to groan through and laugh at.

There’s very little actually good about Crossroads – the acting is perfunctory at best (as the biggest name after Britney, Dan Aykroyd sleepwalks through his role as her dad), the narrative incoherent, and one important scene is marred by the constant disappearance and reappearance of a toothbrush in Mimi’s hair. The biggest problem, however, is that the girls are supposed to be eighteen – and therefore adults – yet look and act like they’re about thirteen. Meanwhile Ben is, admittedly, older, but looks a good ten years older than these teens, making the whole thing more than a little uncomfortable. It’s also a surprisingly dark movie – although the overarching themes are ultra-cheesy (friendship, family, finding yourself, growing up) the individual characters’ stories include parental abandonment, cheating, potential murder and rape, with pregnant Mimi in particular suffering a number of harrowing blows. It adds another layer of awkwardness to the movie, which seems to be confused as to who its target audience is: the tweens who love Britney as a pop star, or the young adults who are her actual age. Consequently, it fails to really appeal to either – but as a nostalgic throwback to a time when double denim was the height of fashion, it’s camp, stupid, unintentionally hilarious, and very entertaining. I’m Not a Girl is still a terrible song though.

film 100 burlesque

Next up: Britney’s rival, Christina, in Burlesque. Capitalising on the sudden resurgence of burlesque as a female-empowered, ultra-glamorous performance art, the film sees Ali (Aguilera) packing her things and leaving her small town for the lights and sights of LA – whereas Lucy’s journey ends at the City of Angels, Ali’s begins there. We learn nothing whatsoever about Ali’s homelife – she doesn’t appear to have any family or friends, for example. In LA she tries to make it as a singer-dancer, but isn’t having any luck until she happens upon the outwardly understated Burlesque club (that’s what it’s called, apparently) and instantly falls in love with the razzmatazz and spectacle of the whole thing. Luckily she walks in just as the club’s owner Tess (Cher) is singing a conveniently informative song all about burlesque and what it can offer you. Determined to make it, Ali becomes a waitress at the club, learns all the routines, befriends hunky (possibly gay) bartender/songwriter Jack (Cam Gigandet wearing some guyliner) and waits for her chance. Luckily the club’s lead dancer is an unreliable, spiteful alcoholic, and it’s not long before Ali is saving the day by singing live rather than lipsynching to songs.

Burlesque has one massive, glaring problem: it has almost no burlesque in it. The club is not a bump-and-grind venue, but a cabaret show – the girls don’t take their clothes off, because this is a 12A-rated movie; instead they perform vaguely risqué dance routines to famous songs, while wearing glamorous, moderately revealing showgirl outfits. It’s burlesque for the High School Musical generation – clean cut and harmless, inoffensive but slightly titillating. In many ways, Burlesque is most reminiscent of Coyote Ugly – it follows a very similar storyline and also makes the seedy reality of “making it in Hollywood” seem glamorous and empowering.

Where Burlesque works, however, is in its campness. It seems to embrace this wholeheartedly; it’s like Chicago, but cheesier, with Stanley Tucci stealing the show as Tess’s gay best friend/ right hand man, and Alan Cumming channelling Joel Grey’s compere character in Cabaret. Plus, it’s got gay icon Cher at the helm. She swans around in super high heels and high-cut leotards, sings heartfelt songs without moving a muscle in her face, and looks strangely younger than people twenty years her junior – it’s truly bizarre to think that she was sixty-four in real life! The shame of the movie is that she never gets to sing with Christina. Like her or not, Aguilera’s voice is incredible, and the second she opens her mouth to sing the star quality shines through – she puts Britney to shame, by the way. Meanwhile the songs are frequent – this is far more a musical than Crossroads – and energetic, with the whole movie taking on a far more light-hearted, upbeat tone than Britney’s soul-searching tour de force.

That’s not to say Burlesque is necessarily a good film – there’s plenty that doesn’t make sense. Like Crossroads the screenwriters seem to have a really strange grasp of time: events seem to take weeks, yet actually happen in an evening; others seem to take minutes but span months. Also like Crossroads, it involves the man-candy writing a song for the pop princesses, and like Crossroads the song sounds absolutely nothing like any of the other songs that man either listens to or plays. And, whereas Britney’s Lucy is saccharine sweet, Christina’s Ali is frequently a bit of a brat. But Burlesque works because it has more established actors who are clearly enjoying their roles and embracing the cheesiness, and generally the film feels less overwrought than Crossroads – it’s designed to be fun, and fun it is.

So, in the epic battle between these two former superstars, who comes out on top? Christina’s voice is better, Burlesque‘s narrative is marginally more coherent, the acting better simply because of its self-awareness, and the spectacle is definitely better. It also has one of the most outrageous seduction scenes. Yet Crossroads also has a ridiculous seduction scene, and it’s got Britney’s trademark cute-but-sexy thing working for it, and it’s so stupid and so incoherent, and the songs are pretty dreadful, and the characters equally rubbish… To be honest, it’s a tough call, but together they make for a truly epic double bill.

Film #71: Bring It On (2000)

film 71 bring it on

Rating: 3/5

“You are cheerleaders. Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded. What you do is a tiny, pathetic subset of dancing. I will attempt to turn your robotic routines into poetry, written with the human body. Follow me or perish, sweater monkeys.”

Six years before Step Up brought mainstream success to dance movies, there was this – the cheerleading equivalent of the dance movie. All the elements are there: the two rival teams separated by race and class, the fledgling romance, the competitive spirit (demonstrated through a series of “cheer-offs” rather than dance-offs) and – of course – the epic showdown at the end. Bring It On celebrates the culture and skill of cheerleading, proving it’s not just about bitchy girls in short skirts and gay men (although, naturally, they feature), but that it’s a sport, and one that is not easy to master.

Kirsten Dunst stars as Torrance, newly appointed head cheerleader at the Rancho Carne High School, whose world begins to crumble when she discovered bitchtacular former head Big Red (Lindsay Sloane) had been routinely (ha!) stealing ideas from a less fortunate inner city school who also have a new leader. Confronted with this horrible revelation, as well as a disgruntled team, a moronic college boyfriend, and an unhappy new team mate in the form of former gymnast and cheerleading-cynic Missy (Eliza Dushku), Torrance is faced with the seemingly impossible task of keeping her team together and securing the cheerleading championship trophy once again.

It is, of course, a familiar story. For non-American audiences, however, the world of cheerleading is rather alien and, in all probability the primary source of information on the sport is from the movies. Here, the inclusion of big name stars such as Dunst (this was released at a time when the young actress appeared in practically everything) doesn’t actually compromise the routines as much as, say, early dance movies like Save the Last Dance where it’s blatantly obvious a stand-in is doing all the impressive steps. After all, cheerleading is a group activity, and there are plenty of entertaining small scenes, building up to an excellent final showdown, fully showcasing the talents and athletic abilities of the teens.

The plot is basic and rather generic, but it delivers exactly what it promises and has some engaging and, ultimately, very likeable characters to follow. Dunst’s Torrance is at times manic and overacted, but cheerleading is her life and she reacts accordingly, and it’s hard not to warm to her enthusiasm and sincerity. Dushku’s Missy acts as the perfect foil to Torrance – although she gets caught up in Torrance’s world, her initial disdain for the “sport” allows her to keep more of a distance from the drama. The story is also helped by the snappy language and quick-fire, scathing, silly humour that permeates the film, which actually does twist some of the more conventional aspects of a high school movie to suit its own needs. In particular, the school’s football team turn out to be utterly incompetent, making their insults and jibes towards the cheerleading squad tasked with trying to get the crowd excited at the latest overwhelming defeat seem even more pathetic – they may be jocks, the film suggests, but they’re still idiots.

The actual rivalry between the East Compton Clovers and the Toros is the film’s real weak point – its class/race divide, so prevalent in early dance movies, is clichéd and more than a little cringeworthy. It’s an encounter between Torrance and the Clover’s captain Isis (Gabrielle Union) that results in the now-parodied “You’d better bring it”/ “Oh, I’ll bring it” exchange – accompanied by stern faces and snarky raised eyebrows, of course. Yet the generic elements, while largely unoriginal, do work, and are presented with confidence. This is a film that understands its role and is happy to fulfil it. It also has a trump card up its sleeve – no, not the boyish, puppy charm of love interest Cliff (Jesse Bradford), but the bitchy, dismissive “artistry” of the ridiculously named Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts). Sparky, filled with disdain for the cheerleaders he’s tasked with helping, responsible for the quote that opens this review, and the sole champion of the lost art of the “spirit fingers”, is a wonderfully scathing, hammed up and utterly indulgent character, whose brief cameo easily steals the show.

Since its cinematic release in 2000, Bring It On has spawned an impressive four sequels, all straight-to-DVD – none of the original cast returned for even the second instalment, arriving rather late (2006) and featuring Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) and Solange “younger sister of Beyonce” Knowles. I assume I’m not alone when I say that I’ve not bothered to watch any of the later movies, but the original remains a bona fide guilty pleasure, and one of the most entertaining, albeit silly, high school/ dance movies of the 2000s.

Film #64: Jawbreaker (1999)

film 64 jawbreaker

Rating: 3/5

“Ok, reality check, Liz is in the trunk of this car. And she is dead. That is a sad, fucked up thing, but you are going to walk into that school and strut your shit down the hallway like everything is peachy fucking keen.”

Written and directed by Darren Stein, Jawbreaker is the film Mean Girls would be if it were truly mean. It’s a sharp, biting movie, a fast-paced black comedy with a delightfully 90’s female-centric grunge-punk soundtrack. Frequently compared to Heathers, it is perhaps too caustic to have ever enjoyed a wide audience – it barely recouped its money on release – but, as a fan of high school movies, I remembered it reasonably fondly from my youth and wasn’t disappointed on second viewing.

Rose McGowan stars as Courtney who, along with her friends Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), Marcie (Julie Benz), and Liz (Charlotte Ayanna), rules the school. Everything begins to crumble when Liz, the one who “ruled with kindness”, accidentally meets her demise following a birthday prank gone wrong. Desperate to avoid trouble, the remaining three queen bees, with Courtney at the helm, plan to cover up the death. A twisted, seedy tale of perversion and deviancy is devised to explain the cause of death – a giant jawbreaker sweet lodged in the throat of the lovely Liz. Enter gawky, geeky nobody Fern Mayo (Judy Greer) to spoil the plans; Fern’s adoration for Liz – who once helped her pick up some dropped books – veers significantly into girl-crush territory, but her silence is quickly bought with promises of popularity and a makeover.

Yes, Jawbreaker is that kind of movie – the kind with almost no mention of parents, where the prettiest girls not only rule the corridors but are completely capable of inventing a new classmate. Fern becomes Violette, a creation of Courtney’s (as Courtney likes to remind her) who instantly grabs the attention of everyone in school. Apparently either no one has noticed, or cares, about Fern’s sudden disappearance. Of course, realism is not particularly relevant in Stein’s film; the girls take centre stage. It’s not, however, without its surprises – it may appear that hapless Fern, whose voice-over introduces the movie, will nonetheless retain our sympathy, but her sudden fame creates a monster, and the “good” girl is someone else altogether.

McGowan is an excellent choice to play Courtney – there is never any doubt as to the monstrous bitch within, and Courtney is grade-A sociopath. She’s a truly nasty piece of work; as Fern/Violette remarks, “She’s so evil, and she’s still in high school!” There are no limits to what Courtney will do to stay out of jail and never really shows any sign of remorse for her actions; there is no redemption here. Her actions, however, do enable one of the most entertainingly sleazy cameos – shock rocker Marilyn Manson (McGowan’s squeeze at the time) pops up as her chosen patsy, complete with receding hairline and 70s porno moustache.

Jawbreaker races along, somewhat fetishising its four stars: there are several obligatory slow-motion shots of the girls striding down their school corridors in their high heels and provocative outfits; their morning makeup ritual is shown in extreme close-up. The male cast members feature largely for eye candy – they are dominated (quite literally in some cases) by females, from McGowan with her cult appeal right down to the mostly pointless inclusion of Pam Grier (Jackie Brown) as hardened Detective Vera Cruz – I kept expecting some lesbian action, but it never came. Throughout the film, however, there message is always blindingly obvious: these females rule the roost.

Although the plot is wafer thin, and the concluding prom showdown inevitable, Jawbreaker panders to the high school clichés with a knowing respect, playing with the conventions with gleeful, spiteful abandon at times but never forgetting them. Thanks to some snappy editing it rushes along, not allowing much time to contemplate on the stupidity of the whole thing; it’s alternately over acted and flat at times (any scenes that require McGowan to play anything other than predatory or passive-aggressive reveal the limitations of her performance), but it’s not trying to be an Oscar winner. Glorifying bitchiness, revelling in camp, caustic comedy, Jawbreaker is no work of art, but it’s an entertaining departure from the 12A-rated meanness of most high school movies.

Film #32: Clueless (1995)

film 32 clueless

Rating: 4/5

“Okay, so you’re probably going, ‘Is this like a Noxzema commercial or what?’ But seriously, I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl.”

It’s hard to remain objective about Clueless. I can’t think of a single slumber party of my youth that didn’t include this (or The Craft, though usually both); I first watched it when I was ten, didn’t understand half of the language or references, and developed an early crush on Paul Rudd that has continued to this day. Along with Zoolander, it’s easily the most quotable movie I know. Safe to say, I consider it a modern classic.

Loosely based on Jane Austin’s novel Emma, Clueless is the ultimate chick flick. Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is a fifteen (almost sixteen) year old living a charmed existence in Bel Air; her father’s an angry, high-flying lawyer, her mother died in a freak accident during liposuction. Cher passes her time shopping, socialising, and manipulating the people around her, but she’s not a nasty person – she’ll blag and beg and bat her eyelashes at teachers in an attempt to improve her grades, but it’s never out of spite or malice. It’s surely this fact that keeps our sympathy: as perfectly blonde, rich and popular as she is, she means well. She’s a likeable character, so it’s possible to watch her root through her incredible revolving, colour-coordinated, gigantic closet full of clothes and have only the slightest pang of jealousy. The fact is, although she seems self-assured and fully capable of recognising other peoples’ naivety, she is utterly clueless, and it’s endearing rather than annoying.

It’s strange watching Clueless now, with its huge mobile phones, flash convertibles, and micro-mini skirted ensembles, because everything looks so dated (and, it’s only fitting that the film was watched on good, old fashioned VHS). The boys have floppy hair, Cher’s pen has a fluffy bobble on top, and Ren and Stimpy ruled television. In fact, the only thing in the film that hasn’t aged is Paul Rudd who, almost twenty years later, looks almost identical. But it’s a nostalgic delight – even for those of us who never enjoyed such luxuries as a Bel Air lifestyle. Like Cher, the film seems to be firmly situated in its own little microcosm. Are there really schools like hers, where fifteen year old girls compare nose jobs and the rich, pampered, spoiled brats ignore their teachers and learn nothing? Well, to be honest, maybe. But while the reality sounds more depressing than appealing, Cher’s life is inviting. It’s ludicrous – the clothes alone are a thing to behold – but it does look like fun. Hollow, but fun.

What makes Clueless so good – genuinely good, not guilty-pleasure good – is that it is actually rather clever. It’s got a great 90’s soundtrack and a razor-sharp script, filled with quick wit and humour. Writer-director Amy Heckerling’s dialogue is filled with pop-culture references, so much so that it becomes almost a language of its own, with its Betties (pretty girls), Barneys (ugly boys) and Baldwins (eligible men). Its cast, including Breckin Meyer (Rat Race, lots of stuff with Seth Green), the late Brittany Murphy (8 Mile), Donald Faison (Scrubs), and Wallace Shawn (the voice of Rex from Toy Story), are all a delight, while Silverstone is the perfect combination of wide-eyed innocence and precociousness. Without a strong performance from its lead, Clueless could flounder, but she excels in the role; her voice-over musings are catchy and hilariously empty-headed, but she is sympathetic throughout. Her complete lack of awareness of the havoc she’s wreaking around her, from her disastrous driving lesson (in which her most “responsible ensemble” consists of micro-mini, see-through shirt, and platform shoes) to her constant meddling with other people’s romantic lives, is thoroughly entertaining to watch, especially when we are safe in the knowledge that, this being a chick flick, she will learn a valuable life lesson and find romance for herself just in time for a happy conclusion.

I wonder, do teenagers still watch Clueless at slumber parties today? Perhaps it is no longer truly appreciated by these new generations, who look at Bella Swan as being aspirational (and I say that as a Twilight fan). Cher may be “totally clueless” in many respects, but she’s actually a rather strong character – she won’t submit to peer pressure, she looks after her father, she’s saving her precious virginity for someone worthwhile and, despite her misguided belief that the survivors of the Pismo Beach disaster need caviar and skiing equipment, she means well. She wants to be more than an air-headed shopper – quite a respectable ambition, considering the hoards of desperate females parading themselves on reality television, being praised for their ignorance and sluttiness. But, I digress. Because really, Clueless is great because it’s so much fun. It’s constantly entertaining and endlessly quotable; silly, but not too silly, clever, but not too clever. And, let’s not forget, its adaptation style paved the way for the likes of Ten Things I Hate About You. Now, I’m off to the mall.