Charlotte Palmer reviews the documentary which looks inside the world of teen movies
Beyond Clueless is a documentary by Charlie Lyne, made up of clips of over 200 different American teen movies. It is narrated by Fairuza Balk, perhaps best known for 1994’s witchcraft high-school drama The Craft, which is the first film featured here. In exploring the themes, meanings and connections between these movies, Lyne goes – and the clue is in the title – above and beyond adolescent stalwarts such as Clueless or Mean Girls, scenes from which flash up on the screen for seconds, before being submerged and surrounded by lesser-known and sometimes obscure films. Some are gems, some stinkers. Lyne uses the clips and the narration to explore the motifs of these movies – the documentary is divided up into different sections – ‘fitting in’, ‘evolving’ and so on, which culminate in graduation and ideas of how to cut one’s ties with adolescence.
Lyne’s narration is conscientious and thought-provoking. He explores films about characters between 13-18 years old, which mostly take place in the airless, oppressive realm of the US high school, although not always – memorably Bubble Boy (2001), in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays a teenager with no immune system, forced to live in a large transparent sphere and whose highly religious mother allows him no contact with the outside world.
It might sound like a backhanded compliment, but one thing at which the film is excellent, through the skilful juxtaposition of clips, is evoking the sheer amount of repetition in these movies – of themes, of images, of aesthetic, while showing how this is by no means a sign of the genre’s triteness or clichéd nature, although some of the films given screen time here are truly awful – Idle Hands, anyone? Rather, Lyne implies that teen movies are, as he mentioned in the Q&A after the screening, probably the most temporally unique of all film genres: you watch them at a particular time in your life when you are experiencing the very place, trials, tribulations, and gut-wrenching swings of emotion that are being detailed on screen, even if the British secondary school doesn’t ever look quite as glamorous as its fake American counterpart. Aside from the usual shots of rows of lockers, scenes taking place in canteens, classrooms and swimming pools, as well as the sex scenes and moments of unrequited love, the repetition of some particular tropes can be particularly amusing and telling. The sight of the popular girls walking down the corridor in slow motion as the waves of plebeian pupils, looking on in horror and envy, part and halts altogether, is an almost hilariously stock scene.
While all these scenes mashed together illustrate the democracy of teen movies, how the experience they portray trumps whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Reinforced by explanatory narrating, there could perhaps have been more discrimination between the good, bad, and frankly offensive, comically ugly movies, of which many were included. This indiscriminate approach does let you make up your mind about what you want to take away from the documentary – again, it’s not so much the quality in this genre, as so much as how it makes you feel and the message gained. Even though Idle Hands and the early Justin Long endeavour Jeepers Creepers (just don’t) are truly terrible, they make valid, perhaps even relatable points about male sexual dread, and are made the stronger for being looked at together with other, thematically and aesthetically, similar films. As Lyne said during the Q&A, someone has thanked him at every screening for including a different movie, however ‘bad’ or obscure – they are all so personal that they mean something to someone.
What is also disconcerting is how such considered, passionate comments are made about such trollop – but it works. The effect is meant to be jarring and works well with the lo-fi production of the documentary, and of some of the films. The extremes of quality are also quite refreshing. When you watch Beyond Clueless, you’re liberated from making snap judgments or binary relations between good and bad, and instead allow the narration to tie them together, masterfully. You end up just going with the clash of classic and trash, but subjectivity is key. The film is also tonally magnificent: juxtaposition is crucial in a documentary which consists of clips, and whose narration is sporadic. The mash of solemnity, bathos and everything in between is pitched marvellously. Relatability and intimacy are what is at the heart of teen movies, and this intriguing, virtuosic documentary.
Image Reference: Image Still: Beyond Clueless