Learning from 90’s teen films

Learning from 90’s teen films


The nineties seem to be a source of fascination for today’s teens. All hail the beloved scrunchy! It should be because in the nineties the teen reigned supreme and it was the century for top teen films. You know, the kind of thing you wanna curl up to watch with a cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon like a warm cosy scene from Party of Five.

There were so many in the nineties and despite a few duds (hormonal teen boys, stoner shit mostly) many are still highly watchable. Their plots lack subtlety and often embraced stereotypes but even though the messages are often miss-judged and repeated there is something to learn from this fun genre. Here is how and what we can learn from them…

She’s all that 

I bloody love the Sixpence Non the Richer soundtrack and deafened my family for months singing it in the shower. Rachel Leigh Cook is an elfin beauty on par with Natalie Imbruglia and Winona Rider and I couldn’t decide which I wanted to ‘kiss me’ more, her or classic smoothie Freddie Prinz Jr. The soundtrack, stars and outfits are the best things about this film because what seems like a pretty basic and cliche tale actually is a lesson in total conformity.

Rachel Leigh Cook’s character, Laney, has a pretty good life. She has cool geeky interests, a lovely Pa, cool lil bro and a strong dungarees collection but along comes Mr Wet, Freddie Prinze Jr’s character Zack, who makes her part of his cruel and invasive scheme. Before we know it Laney is giving up the cool glasses, black onesie swimsuit, band tees and plaid shirts and is sporting a red mini dress and red lipstick. Love of god, why?! Did I mention I like the soundtrack?

What we can learn: The character of Zack probably grew up to work in Foxtons, spend a quarter of his income on hair wax and drive a new style Mini. It is never worth giving up your dungarees for a greasy wide-boy capitalist.

The Craft

Nancy is the ultimate teen girl villain and the fascinating performance by Fairuza Balk means that she is still my hero. Her character is like much more destructive and creepy Rizzo to the film’s Sarah, who like Sandy in Grease is a dull newbie ripe for the kind of games teen girls like to play. This film is not really deserving of any of the feminist credentials it often gets assigned because the “asking for it” love spell is perpetuating rape culture, especially as Chris attempts to rape Sarah. The power of this group of ‘Wiccans’ is a good reminder of how strong and dangerous groups of girls can be and how this power needs to be directed towards something healthy, supportive and positive.

What we can learn: Embrace dark lipstick and form a coven with your girlfriends. Don’t spend all your time talking about boys and have each other’s backs’.

10 Things I Hate About You

Another great soundtrack and this film’s stars, Julia Stiles and Larisa Oleynik, who are brilliant. Stile’s character, camo wearing sarcasm maestro Kat Stratford, the “shrew”, is a straight talking feminist, who seems to be unshakeable in her values but often contradicts herself over the course of the movie. Sadly she does use her body rather than her brain and is a bit too quick to forgive and conform after becoming aware that she was part of a male plot. Also, the fact that being shamed when younger is given as the reasons for her prickly demeanour in the film is disappointing. Why can’t women just be strong and angry without it stemming from some kind of vulnerability?

This film may be a bit predictable but the fluidity of its often unpredictable characters make it a good introduction to Shakespeare’s classic. Plus, Kat has some good lines; ‘I still maintain that he kicked himself in the balls’.

What we can learn: Be a shrew and never be tamed.

Cruel Intentions

Another film based on a literary classic,  Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Cruel Intentions is a sex obsessed film about a pair of over privileged teens and has one of the first ever subplots in a feature film about somebody’s nudes getting leaked on the Internet. Again, the plot revolves around how another transfer student called Annette, Reese Witherspoon, becomes a part of a devious plan by a bored horny teen boy, Sebastien played by Reese’s now ex-hubby Ryan Phillipe and his sister Kathryne (Sarah Michelle Gellar). The siblings are dark and manipulative, driven by blurred boundaries and frustration at having grown up with every material asset but limited emotional intelligence. The film’s star, Ryan Phillipe, accurately summed up the film: he goes, ‘When you break down this movie, it’s really about me wanting to have anal sex with my sister.’ (step-sister actually but still…)

There are some great supporting performances by Selma Blair and Joshua Jackson. It is a dark  teen film that pushes sexual boundaries and once again explores how dangerous bored teens can be.

What we can learn: Don’t have anal sex with your sister and erm, don’t do loads of coke.

American Pie and all its spin offs were embarrassing lessons in how masturbation jokes and gross out comedy can make for totally misogynistic and unwatchable shit. Check-out Systad Jacobsen’s 2012 film “Turn Me On, Dammit!” for an unbridled exploration of the female teenage libido.

Watching these films is a sugar coated reminder of how bloody awkward being a teen was and how fascinating young people are and how often adults don’t get it. Also, the best friend characters are always the coolest.

The coming of age experience has often been portrayed using various metaphors – the best being the horror in Buffy – but it can be a bit samey, plus there is a lot missing from the genre – films about young women of color are few and far between.

Nowadays, I am personally more interested in Freddy Prinz Jr’s cookbook than his former ‘heartthrob’ status but I’d still eagerly watch a film that explores (however misguidedly) teen issues. What would a modern day teen film be like? Well, one thing is for sure, the clothes and obsession with popularity will not have changed all that much.