The ‘teen’ film – be it in the guise of romance, comedy, horror, coming-of-age drama or a combination of all of these and more – is one of those anomalies in the cinematic canon; often openly beloved by audiences, they rarely if ever receive much backing from the critics. The ones that do tend to earn respect the hard way; through the nostalgia of time passing, or they’re praised for being in some way ironic (cf Scream and it’s post-modern coming-out party). It’s not alone in this (see also the musical, romcoms etc.), but one wonders whether this lack of respect is to do with the subject matter rather than the films themselves. Do critics disregard teen movies because they disregard teens and their self-centred problems? Is that surprising? Do any of us really miss those problematic years?
So the prospect of Charlie Lyne’s Beyond Clueless is an intriguing and refreshing one. Assembled as a constantly running 90-minute clip show set to a propulsive original score ala Room 237, Lyne attempts to gather together the different shades of the teen film in order to present us with their vast spectrum. Maybe we’ll see them for what they are at their best?; a heady if not always subtle platform for discussing universal issues of development and insecurity (among other things). The teen film uses the familiarity of high schools and suburbs as a playground for reflecting ourselves. Like a giant group selfie trying to squeeze the whole class in (except maybe the geeks and the weirdos obvs). But even this is not the case. As often as not the outcasts are the central figures; how they succeed or fail to define themselves in society is usually the point.
Narrated in icy tones by Fairuza Balk (Return to Oz, The Craft), Lyne’s film divides itself into chapters, even allows itself a prologue and epilogue. Lyne’s editing is pacy and he rifles through an enormous scrapbook of material with evident glee, taking time out to summarily smash together a more distilled flickering of the teen movie’s more iconic tropes (prom, frat parties, the surprisingly constant role of the swimming pool in mating rituals). Yet very quickly it becomes uneasily apparent that, while Lyne is enthused on his subject, Beyond Clueless isn’t that interested in taking us much further beyond.
The material used here, for one, is almost exclusively culled from around ’95 to ’05. That title, one assumes, is meant literally. Anything before Amy Heckerling’s 1995 cult classic isn’t fit for discussion (or Clueless itself, for that matter). This is a major disservice to a genre which dates back as far as the 30’s and 40’s, runs right through the exploitation era (High School Hellcats – 1958, Teenage Crime Wave – 1955 etc), and arguably had its heyday in the 80’s. John Hughes, Cameron Crowe…? Forget about it. This also means that provocative recent entries (Excision, Detention, Palo Alto) – which have all taken the template and refracted it – are also dismissed outright. And as for anything from outside the US? Good luck. Blink and you’ll miss a clip from Y Tu Mamá También.
Lyne’s focus, then, seems to be purely on his favourites. Okay, fine. But what of them? While he is happy to outline the broader metaphors of the teen horror choices (Jeepers Creeps was about repressed homosexuality; The Faculty was about conformity) he as often as not merely provides plot as cliffnotes (She’s All That, Mean Girls, Boys & Girls). Before you realise what’s happened, we’ve moved onto the next movie. Did we miss something? Was there a point there? Frequently Beyond Clueless is about reminiscing as much as anything else. “Hey, remember this movie?” And while, yes, it is a fun trip down memory lane, and it is amusing to see actors before they were famous, all this largely adds up to is a deluge of spoilers for the uninitiated in these films. Their issues are itemised, but not explored.
Some of the finer – and more diverse – teen films from this era are glimpsed but not addressed. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant in particular is mined for a number of shots here, and it’d be interesting to see how this sobering re-imagining of a high school tragedy tessellates with the more carefree spirit of high school crushes and after school work, but Lyne doesn’t go there. Similarly, the psychological scars of Donnie Darko and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me become so much montage-fodder. An overwhelming sense of missed-opportunity rises. Anything set outside of this 95/05 framework is also cut. So while the film’s opening song mines dialogue from The Virgin Suicides, the film’s 70’s setting removes it from inclusion. See also Richard Linklater’s seminal Dazed And Confused.
Looking at everything that’s been omitted underlines Lyne’s apparent real intention here; to rhapsodise his own DVD collection. Will the unconvinced be swayed? It’s hard to imagine so. And yet, regardless of what I personally feel might’ve been missed or overlooked here, and despite the relative lack of depth in Lyne’s insights, Beyond Clueless is a fun watch. Breezy and charming and infectious in it’s enthusiasm. But that’s all it is.
So, like prom, Beyond Clueless may be fun, but it’s a bubble of an experience, and not one you’re really likely to want a do-over on. Which is a shame.