Teen films surely represent some of the best and worst of cinema. It’s a genre that’s brought us the emotional release of freedom at the end of detention, youthful empowerment through witchcraft, and taught us to always wear pink on Wednesdays. Then there’s masturbating with an apple pie.
Charlie Lyne’s debut film, Beyond Clueless, brings together countless American teen films from the 90s and 00s (spanning predominantly his own adolescence). Defined as a “visual essay”, it’s an exploration of the genre that displays undeniable devotion, knowledge and affection. Glossy, colourful film clips are sewn together into a continuous mesmeric tapestry of teen drama, accompanied by an original soundtrack from UK band Summer Camp and a monotonous narration from Fairuza Balk.
Lyne defines the narrative structure of these films through five chapters, including the establishing of cliques, the loss of innocence and moving on to adulthood. The overall narrative is that of the loss and reclaiming of individuality: first teens must adhere to a strict social structure before embracing difference as they reach maturity. It’s a confusing and contradictory world, full of young love, sex, heartbreak and rebellion. It’s also amazing to see how many films fit neatly into this formula, even if some of the films edge into obscure territory.
Yet the film’s main agenda is simply establishing a canon within this formula. It reflects, but doesn’t really examine, the limitations of the genre, such as issues of representation in terms of race, gender and sexuality, and whether the films are a true mirror of reality or a heightened fantasy. Some examples are successfully analysed in depth (for instance Jeepers Creepers as homosexual anxiety), but across the film Lyne works in broad brushstrokes that establish thematic parallels and highlight the formula without truly exploring it. As a result, it essentially amounts to an extended montage of iconic imagery, often presented with little commentary that leaves the audience to revel in apparent profundity.
That said, like the teens in the film clips used, Lyne adheres to his own strict code but does so with flare and individuality. The seamless editing of clips with near constant music creates a distinct film world, lulling us gently into its hypnotic rhythms. This may supress the joy and euphoria expressed in much teen cinema, but it’s also a comforting gaze back at youth. It’s all too easy to lose yourself as Summer Camp’s electronic music throbs and soars, establishing the film's overall mood.
As a pure nostalgia trip, then, Beyond Clueless is an exhilarating watch. Observing closely a specific timeframe, older or younger viewers may feel left out. But for viewers of a certain age, it inspires nostalgia not only for the films themselves but for our own adolescence.
Now excuse me, I’m off to chastise myself for not wearing pink today.
Watch: Beyond Clueless has limited release across the country.