REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) James Dean, Natalie Wood. Dir. Nicholas Ray
“Boy, if I had one day when I didn’t have to be all confused, and didn’t have to feel that I was ashamed of everything…if I felt that I belonged someplace, you know?”- Jim
Well, what better way to start off than with the original teen movie itself. Did you know that? Yep, without Rebel there would be no John Hughes, no 90210, no teen genre would have ever been born. And it’s James Dean’s definitive movie role on top of it. The red windbreaker, the method acting, the original brooding stare- it was all on display here, as the legend of James Dean comes almost entirely from this film. He’s the new guy in town, the outsider and the rebel that the kids at school bully right off the bat. He’s alienated and misunderstood by his parents, misunderstood by just about everyone. He drinks to escape his pain, and soon is joined in his isolation by popular girl Natalie Wood, and shy, sensitive (and closeted gay) Sal Mineo. Wood is perfect on the outside, but tortured on the inside, and drawn to the majestic “coolness” of Dean (who wouldn’t be?). These traits would of course, become the stereotypes and the material for every teen movie ever made in its wake. In the surface perfect 1950’s, it was news that teenagers could have problems just as trying as adults, be moody and irritable and self-absorbed, but for good reason. Nobody understands them, after all. Well, certainly not the parents in this movie, who couldn’t be less caring or sympathetic. The whole exercise makes for one of those overwrought melodramas so popular in the 50’s, but James Dean is mesmerizing throughout, and you really have to see it just for that, don’t you? He died before the film was released, in part solidifying his legendary star status, but what a tragedy indeed. Forever the teenage rebel without a cause, the myth lives on, inspiring millions of teen idols in the decades ahead, from Luke Perry to Robert Pattinson. But they’re all just pale imitators in comparison. Nothing beats the real thing.
Original 1955 Trailer:
JUNO (2007) Ellen Page, Michael Cera. Dir. Jason Reitman
“Can’t we just kick this old school? You know, like I stick the baby in the basket, send it your way, like Moses and the reeds?”- Juno
A pop cultural phenom in 2007, Ellen Page was Juno, that quick witted, sarcastic motormouth 16 year old who finds herself hopelessly pregnant after a one night stand with her best friend. She takes it more or less in stride, deciding to opt for the alternate route of giving the baby up for adoption after chickening out of a “hasty abortion.” The Oscar winning screenplay was the star of this movie, as everyone more or less talks in a quippy wordplay from another planet, including Juno, her parents, and her friends. It’s a dynamite script from first timer Diablo Cody (former undercover stripper), whose voice seemed destined to become as associated with her alone as Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin before her. Despite the unreal hilarity of the dialogue the movie worked like a charm because the characters were warm, loveable and equipped with a sheepish, deep down morality that was exposed in Juno’s ultimate fear of abandonment, masked by an impenetrable, cocky façade. Ellen Page manages to give Juno a real heart underneath all those one liners, and we feel for her as she makes mistakes and is then brought down to size by people who know more than she does. She’s just a kid after all, and the movie never forgets that, while keeping us rooting for her the whole time. Surrounded by an amazing supporting cast that included JK Simmons as her eternally understanding father, Allison Janney as her protective stepmom, and Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner as the adoptive parents with marital problems. Michael Cera though, is the real standout as Juno’s would be boyfriend and father of her child. Essentially the straight man of the ensemble, he’s the only one not equipped with a rapier wit, instead a shy bumbler who simply loves Juno for who she is, and plays the perfect foil for Page’s comedic defense mechanisms. He manages to make a tender, sweet chemistry between them into a real romance that will melt your heart when Juno finally realizes it. A heartwarmer all around.
CARRIE (1976) Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie. Dir. Brian DePalma
"They're all gonna laugh at you."- Margaret White
Here we go, pig’s blood time! This is it- the ultimate revenge fantasy for every bully that ever picked on you in high school, especially of the female variety. Girls can sure be nasty, can’t they? Sissy Spacek was Carrie White, the shy, meek and isolated high school senior who exists in a vacuum due to the, let's say unconventional parenting style of her insane, bible thumping mother who rants, raves, and shames her daughter into hiding. Excellently played by Piper Laurie though. Carrie is so sheltered she’s never been told about her period, thereby suffering a massive freakout in the locker room showers in the famously traumatizing opening sequence. The girls laugh and throw tampons at her, no one aware of the convenient gift Carrie is developing, that mysterious telekinesis that strikes when she gets angry. They don’t know it yet, but they really, really don’t want to make Carrie angry. Amy Irving is the one girl in school that feels sorry for her, and arranges for her boyfriend to take her to the prom as a favor, but her genuinely well intentioned plans are foiled by the class tramp (every school has one), who uses her boyfriend (a young John Travolta) to arrange a cruel hoax to elect Carrie prom queen and then…well, you know the rest. It’s a mistake she’ll live to regret, in a classic, blood drenched, violent climax in the school gym. Brian DePalma stylishly directs this iconic horror classic, but I think of it much more as a parable for the loners, those undeserving castoffs who are cruelly rejected and made fun of for being different. Carrie belongs to them, a hero for every teen who’s ever felt scorned by the popular kids. It’s too bad her own fate isn’t more promising, but hey, at least she goes out on a high note, getting back not only at her classmates but her psycho mother as well, in a spectacularly over the top death scene. Oh, and forget the sequel and the upcoming remake. The original hasn’t aged a bit.
Original 1976 Trailer:
FLIRTING (1991) Noah Taylor, Thandie Newton. Dir. John Duigan
"Suddenly there were much bigger worlds again, and some small place in them for me." - Danny Embling
This Australian gem from the 90’s is criminally little known, but boy is it worth seeking out. Teen romances are often one of the most easily abused genres in film, many of them suffering from, you know…general awfulness. So many are exploitative, badly acted, cliched, unfunny, you name it. This, however is a heartbreaking and precious love story, with two teenage characters who are not stupid or perverse in the slightest, but are in fact mature and intelligent enough to accept the fact that their particular love will likely end, but they can make the most of their time together while it lasts. Set in an Australian boarding school in the mid-60’s, Noah Taylor plays the shy and serious Danny Embling, who stutters and accepts the pain of being different by ostracizing himself from others. Thandie Newton is Thandiwe, the only black student at the school whose family is fleeing the murderous reign of Idi Amin in Uganda. She’s brighter than the other students, who shun her due to prejudice, but she takes it all in stride anyway. The two outcasts are immediately drawn to each other, but obviously face difficult social and political barriers due to race and the fact that Thandiwe’s family might be called away at any moment. The romance is developed preciously and quietly between the two, as they are both more adult than the disapproving adults around them, mature enough to realize that the friendship and connection they feel for each other is the most important thing about their relationship- and that it all might be taken away at a moment’s notice. It’s rare to see adolescent romance treated this way in the movies, which makes this particular find such a treat worth of discovery.
Original 1991 Trailer:
TO SIR, WITH LOVE (1967) Sidney Poitier, Lulu. Dir. James Clavell
"I believe one should fight for what one believes. Provided one is absolutely sure one is absolutely right." - Mark Thackeray
In 1967 Sidney Poitier had already conquered racists in the South (In the Heat of the Night) and interracial marriage (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), so what else was left to defeat? Well, how about a bunch of white cockney teens from the London slums? Of course, who else? The guy could do anything, after all. But seriously folks, in the late 60’s Sidney Poitier was the number one box office star in the U.S., with all three of these classics breaking down barriers and becoming huge hits. In this one he’s Mark Thackeray, or “Sir,” as the kids call him, an engineering transfer to England who takes what’s supposed to be a temporary position as a teacher in a London high school. The kids are roughhouse hoods from the working class neighborhoods of the city, who of course give him a hard time until he eventually figures out a way to win them over. The inspirational teacher movie is a subgenre within the high school movie category itself, but in reality there are only a few really good ones, probably not enough for a top ten of its own. This is one of them. An ultimate figure of moral authority and inspiration, a teacher is one of the roles Poitier was meant to play. And the rest of the film is quite a look into the Swinging London scene of the late 60’s, a quirky time capsule that resembles nothing of today’s society, but remains fascinating for that brief period of hippiedom and the beginnings of rock culture (the Brit-pop band that cameos is a hoot). Then pop star Lulu is one of the students, who gets to croon the title song (really pounded into your head in this one), another nod to the melodic 60’s cadence that would soon be obsolete. What’s not out of date though, are the broken backgrounds and angst of the kids themselves, a topic that began with Rebel Without a Cause and continues to this day, each generation’s troubles a variation on the same theme: the eternal pain of adolescence. With Sidney at the helm though, these kids just might make it through all right. You couldn’t ask for a better guide.
Original 1967 Trailer:
FAME (1980) Lee Curreri, Irene Cara. Dir. Alan Parker
"I mean, if I don't have a personality of my own, so what? I'm an actress! I can put on as many personalities as I want!" - Doris Finsecker
I don’t know if it was intended to be this way, but for sure looking back on it, this movie comes across as downright gritty now. These kids have the usual angst, but couple that with impoverished circumstances, broken homes and dangerous crime ridden city life in what looks like the ghettos of New York. Then again, maybe that really was just New York City in the late 70’s. Either way, the effect it has on the film is to make the lives of its subjects seem a little more high stakes than usual. Set at a school for the arts, it follows several students through their four years of high school, and does a much better job of showing the lives of a multitude of racially and culturally diverse teenagers than your average teen flick (certainly more than the John Hughes movies). The common thread among them is that they all want a career in the entertainment field, either dance, drama or music, but the arts preoccupation seems to serve more as a tool to channel their interests and keep them out of the trouble that most of them would undoubtedly succumb to, given their environment. It’s not about one group of friends, the camera moves between different circles, showing the dramas, romances, and genuine hardships among a host of assorted students, including abortion, assault, drugs, and sex along with the usual “parents don’t understand me” stuff. The somewhat hard edged material is tempered by several musical sequences (Irene Cara gets some standout solos), including the famous dance in the street. The music and brisk direction injects a crucial vitality into the proceedings that fill the movie with brimming energy and passion, along with some sense of hope for these kids in the future. The whole concept was dumbed down into a bland and inoffensive TV show and later a TRULY dumbed down (and truly terrible) 2009 remake that seemed to think the appeal of Fame lay exclusively in its song and dance, "put on a show" (now Disneyfied) mentality. But the original was much more than that, much more effective, and so remains underrated.
Original 1980 Trailer:
CLUELESS (1995) Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd. Dir. Amy Heckerling
“It’s like the painting. See, from far away it’s ok, but up close it’s a big ‘ol mess.”- Cher labeling her rival Amber a 'Monet'
As light and airy as a feather, with a sweet irony that worked better than it had any right to. As many movies are for this month, Clueless is now a pitch perfect time capsule for the 1990’s, starting with following the mid 90’s trend of being obsessed with all things Jane Austen, as Clueless was a modern day reworking of her classic Emma. Alicia Silverstone was Cher, the rich Beverly Hills teen who has everything, but spends her days attempting to better the ones of those around her, fixing their love lives while ignoring her own. The movie was funny all the way through, a satirical look at teen life with pop cultural references at every turn. Silverstone had an air of sweet earnestness, despite being saddled with an essentially shallow nature, the prelude to characters like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. She wasn’t dumb, just ditzy, and yet the movie never mocks her, instead revealing the false and artificial depth of the people around her as well. Paul Rudd is her ex-stepbrother, who similarly puts on the front of the pseudo intellectual, worldly college guy, yet turns out to be her perfect match, because he’s really just as naïve as she is. Clueless was the predecessor to Mean Girls, the more sharply satirical look at teen girls from 2004, but I think this one was the better movie in the long run. Mean Girls may have had higher ambitions, but Clueless will stand the test of time because you care about its characters; Alicia Silverstone was too likable not to root for in the end. And of course, because (and I think this was accidental) it captures its decade at the exact moment in much the same way movies do that tend to look back on a previous one (Dazed and Confused, American Graffiti). Director Amy Heckerling had a knack for that, as she managed more or less the same thing with her earlier classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but I prefer Clueless with all its genuine heart, to the cynical and somewhat detached tone of Fast Times any day.
Original 1995 Trailer:
COOLEY HIGH (1975) Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs. Dir. Michael Schultz
"Son, what is it that you want? Don't you want something?"
"I want to live forever." - Cochise to Mr. Mason
This lesser known movie from the 70’s was the predecessor to the films of Spike Lee and John Singleton, by their own admissions. It also spawned the spinoff TV series What’s Happening? and is fondly remembered today as a classic in black cinema. It deserves to be more widely known however, because it really is an affectionate, realistic look at the lives of a couple of high school friends who end up on drastically different paths. One of the earliest films to be written and directed by African-Americans, it follows the carefree lives of two pals, Preach and Cochise who live Chicago in 1964, and go to the vocational Cooley High (once a real school). The movie takes you through a typical few days in their lives, which includes friends, basketball, girls, drugs and the occasional bout with street violence. It’s a non preachy, objective look at life in the projects, which is tough sometimes, but the kids find joy in solitary events and the same things that kids everywhere else do too. Preach and Cochise are talented in their own ways but face the daunting task of having to get out of their environment if they’re ever going to do anything with their respective talents. Few do, and then there’s the question of if they really want to. None of this is quite spelled out in the movie, but glanced at subtly, in quiet hints save for one more or less defeated teacher who likes the boys but knows all too well where they’re probably headed. Later movies would tackle the same issues in a more direct manner, and it could be argued a more effective one. But Cooley High maintains a lightheartedness on top of its unavoidable themes, and keeps you laughing at the margins (it was often described as the black American Graffiti). The ending is a tearjerker mixed with optimism and hope, and did I mention the awesome soundtrack? Packed wall to wall with classic Motown. Can never go wrong with that.
Original 1975 TV Spot:
THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield. Dir. David Fincher
“You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”- Erica Albright to Mark Zuckerberg
Speaking of movies that define a decade…this Oscar winning film will be going down in history as one of those precious few. Facebook may have been the definitive invention of the 21st century thus far, spanning continents, cultures, languages, and boasting (as of this moment) 500 million users. But this film wasn’t about Facebook as such, it was about the kid who created it, the world’s youngest billionaire (again, as of this moment), Mark Zuckerberg. As a 19 year old Harvard sophomore, he invented “the facebook” in his dorm room, tapping into something that would define the way we live, and more specifically the way we live online. Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant, razor sharp screenplay concocts the story of how Facebook came about by recreating the world of Harvard undergrads that Mark lived in. The social scene, the elite parties and exclusive clubs, and the way Mark was alienated from them, resentful of their exclusivity and his inability to connect with them. He’s the smartest person in the room and he knows it, but that doesn’t help him interact any easier with the jocks who row crew, the clubs who selectively choose their invitees, or the girls who reject him for being arrogant and above it all. So what does he do? He channels that frustration into his idea, his one idea that would forever change the way you interact with people, his one idea that would change the world. Or did he steal it from someone else? And screw over his one friend who helped him along the way, because he was more popular? That’s up to you to decide as you see how it all went down, but the movie is endlessly engaging, challenges you to keep up with the pace and exposes you to the inner workings of a kid who so resented not having friends that he figured out a way to redefine the meaning of the word. It struck a chord, not just for him but for hundreds of millions of others across the world, and made him vastly wealthy in the process. And who’s laughing now?
STAND AND DELIVER (1988) Edward James Olmos, Lou Diamond Philips. Dir. Ramon Menendez
“You’re going to work harder here than you’ve ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is ganas. Desire.”- Jaime Escalante
There’s nothing more inspirational about an inspirational drama, than that little nugget on the screen that tells you it was based on a true story. That’s the case in this one, one of the great teacher movies of all time, one that’s all the more moving given the knowledge of what this guy managed to actually do. Edward James Olmos is outstanding as Jaime Escalante, a math teacher at a rundown, East L.A. high school dominated by local gang violence and impoverished kids of predominantly Hispanic background…who decides to teach them calculus. A seemingly herculean task, but Escalante really did it. How? Well, he’s not there to make a living, he quits his old job because he wants to teach, he wants to help these kids obtain a better future, and he has fairly radical ideas about how to do it. The school is on the verge of losing its accreditation, so Jaime decides to work the kids to college level standards, by having them come in early, leave late, go to school on Saturdays and work through school breaks. He teaches them trig all summer so he can work them through calculus in one year, in order to have them pass the AP test for college credit. We’re talking kids with barely a middle school education here. So why would they do it? They do it for him. This is a movie that celebrates what can come of a motivated and creative teacher who forges a real connection with the students. You sense that these kids are woken up by the thrill that comes from having a goal in life, and someone who believes in you while at the same time understanding where you’re coming from. They connect to him because he’s one of them, who did rise up. When Jaime says the students will rise to the level of expectations he sets, he feels their longing for the sense of having accomplished something worthwhile, something that makes them feel better about themselves, a feeling that higher education can certainly bring you. I mean, come on, how many people can do advanced calculus? Once you’ve got that, you’re probably going to want to go further, and Jaime knows that too. He does make a difference in these kids lives, and benefits their future in tangible ways. Not too many Jaime Escalantes exist in this world. We sure could use a few more of them.
Original 1988 Trailer: