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How Teen Movies Speak to Us

Films like ‘Heathers,’ ‘Romeo + Juliet,’ and ‘Brick’ use the teenage experience to get weird

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Tied to the 20th anniversary of Bring It On, we hereby dub the next five days Teen Movie Week. Dig up your varsity jacket, pull up to your cafeteria table, and relive your adolescence as we celebrate the best coming-of-age movies ever made.

Following the pomp of its opening crawl, Star Wars greeted its audience with scale: the daunting, nearly ludicrous size of a Star Destroyer in pursuit, itself a signal of imminent danger in equal proportions. After its own hazy credits sequence, Heathers—a smaller kind of war movie—begins with the disaffected Veronica shuffling through a crowded high school hallway, narrating the most recent entry in her diary.

“Heather told me she teaches people real life,” Veronica says in her internal monologue. “She said real life sucks losers dry. If you want to fuck with the eagles, you have to learn to fly.” She then scrawls these words on paper in cartoonishly oversized lettering while wearing a monocle. Veronica is quickly summoned by the Heather in question, Heather Chandler, who shows herself to be even nastier than movie teenagers are generally allowed to be. It takes only minutes for Heather to engineer a cruel prank on a less popular student, show up an old friend of Veronica’s just because, snipe at another girl’s cardigan so casually that her target mistakes it for a compliment, and lash out at virtually every person who comes into her orbit, her closest friends—also named Heather—included. When Veronica dares to suggest that they might include some of the less popular kids in a class poll, Heather responds with the closest thing a teenage girl can muster to a miles-long war machine hurtling through space.

Fuck me gently with a chainsaw,” Heather sneers. “Do I look like Mother Theresa?”

Teen movies walk familiar ground—through locker-lined halls, past the cafeteria, and into the classrooms of our collective memory. We already know the jock, the loner, and the queen bee. We have our own reference points for lunch-table politics and teenage longing. Most genre tropes are made familiar through repetition; it takes only a few horror movies to program you to pick out the Final Girl. The teen movie milieu, by comparison, comes lived-in. Our familiarity with what it means to be in high school gives screenwriters room to experiment with everything else—starting with the way the characters talk.

Language is the material teen movies use to build their worlds. That infamous Heather Chandler line was a declaration: “This,” says Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters, “is the universe you belong to.” High school is its own form of heightened reality, but Heathers immediately establishes itself as something beyond it. That’s made all the more clear by the fact that none of the teenagers sound anything like teenagers. And why should they? “There would always be the people who would get a tape recorder and go to a high school or something and try to record the way teens really talk,” Waters says. “By the time they transcribed the tape, they’re talking a different way.”

Waters steered away from the realistic in search of a different kind of authenticity. Heathers was written as a direct response to the growing teen movie canon, much of which drew from the sensibilities of John Hughes. Those movies have their own particular vocabulary—wielded in clever slang and big speeches—but steered around the cruelty that can be central to the teenage experience. “I thought the teen genre needed to be given a scalding acid bath,” Waters says. So he wrote a satire of teen suicide in which the kids themselves were culpable, and their parents just oblivious. The students of Westerburg High School served each other cups of drain cleaner, shot two homophobic jocks and fabricated a relationship between them, bullied a girl to self-harm and then mocked her after her attempted suicide. It’s a comedy.

The only way a movie like that could work is by choosing its words carefully. Some of the characters are written to be dumb; Ram, one of the aforementioned jocks, at one point says—through a mouth full of cafeteria food—that if he won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes, he would pay Madonna a million dollars to sit on his face. Others, like Veronica’s old friend Betty Finn, are written rather plainly. Everything vicious and clever is reserved for the likes of Heather Chandler and Veronica, whose every line is sharpened by the wit of the staircase.

“From the point of view of an audience watching it, they’re gonna assume that when the elite of the school talk, they have their own language,” Waters says. “So it almost plays realistic to them that they talk in a different language from the poor mumbling that they have to do to get out their own vague feelings. There’s no vagueness with the powerful.”

One specific line from Heathers—“What’s your damage?”—has turned up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ER, Gilmore Girls, Bumblebee, Mr. Robot (which also stars Christian Slater), iZombie, and dozens of other projects. In many cases, it’s an acknowledgment of a certain debt; the prickly, elevated banter that Heathers brought to life has become part of the life blood of film and television, and of teen movies in particular. Most just leave out the venom. “I even see Heathers in movies about lawyers and journalists,” Waters says. “Everybody seems to be talking like they’re in high school—an elevated, smart-ass, arch high school.”

It’s not an accident that so many teen movies end up so quotable. To succeed, they almost have to be. Heathers, The Craft, and Not Another Teen Movie were all shot at the same Los Angeles-area high school. All three are separated by genre, clearly, but also by dramatic differences in speech. Dialogue is the genre’s great differentiator, to the point where even in a world of copycat Heathers riffs, nothing quite manages to capture the artful bite of the original. That’s a credit to Waters, who put poison to page; director Michael Lehmann, who took the story at its words; and a cast led by Winona Ryder, who fought to keep lines as written while on the set. There is a commitment to even the most adventurous lines, and a trust in the audience to find its way.

“I hate going to Shakespeare because that only gets you in trouble, but here’s my thing,” Waters says. “If you have somebody say something crazy and overarticulate out of nowhere, then it’s jarring. But if from the get-go you kind of set up that this is the language, that this is the way people are going to speak, then you can just keep it going.”

Curiously enough, Shakespeare has become a patron of the teen movie genre—or perhaps not so curious, given teenagers’ natural tendency toward farce, melodrama, and tragedy. Never was his influence more explicit than in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo + Juliet, which sought to modernize the classic tale in every way but the dialogue. It is a bewildering and exhilarating experience: at once a spaghetti Western, a romantic comedy where the best-friend characters are a nanny and a drag queen, a gaudy musical production, and a love story about teenagers making out in swimming pools. All of it is carried in iambic pentameter. It may be the most ambitious teen movie ever made.

“Baz always used to say that the first 15 minutes of the film was crucial,” composer Marius De Vries said on a commentary track. “In that at the end of that 15 minutes, you were either on board or you were overboard.”

What’s notable about those first 15 minutes is that the film’s two wildly charismatic leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, barely appear. Audiences would have to parse scenes carried by dialogue they likely didn’t understand, absent the young stars they likely bought their ticket to see. Somewhat miraculously, it works; your mileage may vary on the hyperactivity of the editing and camerawork, but the opening confrontation between the Montagues and Capulets is intelligible even for those who can’t understand a single word said. The performances (especially from John Leguizamo as Tybalt, portrayed as a flamboyant matador of a gunfighter) are big and broad in service of the moment—and Luhrmann’s house style.

“We failed in many of these regards, but I would like to think with every single choice we were making, we had a hard and fast philosophy which was that it had to illuminate the language,” Luhrmann said in commentary. There is a shoot-out, a gas station explosion, and a police captain brokering a ceasefire from a helicopter, and it all tracks. By the time Romeo makes his entrance, the movie already makes its own kind of sense.

From that point on, audiences can follow the rhythm of Romeo + Juliet’s beating, teen movie heart. Until the tragic turn, this adaptation is a story of stolen moments; the hushed flirting at the back of a party isn’t so different from what you might find in any portrayal of a secret fling, an established standard of the genre come full circle. Once you have that touchstone, it doesn’t really matter that Romeo goes on and on in describing his lips as “blushing pilgrims.” The chemistry tells the story, and Shakespeare fills in the gaps.

“My interest has always been in the universal,” Luhrmann told British Vogue when talking about the film in 2018. “Shows that play through time and space.” And what could be more universal than young love?

An argument could be made, perhaps, for young love’s ending. Brick, the first feature from writer-director Rian Johnson, is a movie about a high school breakup, only told—dialogue and all—in the style of a Dashiell Hammett noir. “We got a lot of notes back asking if they had to talk like that,” Johnson told Vulture in 2019, “which I guess is a fair question.” In retrospect, it’s almost impossible to consider; the central mystery of Brick—the disappearance and murder of Emily, ex-girlfriend of Brendan, our hard-boiled teenage detective—is built through that stylized conversation. The investigation tips when Brendan, like us, hears a few names and words he doesn’t understand. When he questions an old flame in the drama club, the fact that the audience has to parse her words carefully makes her motives harder to read. The language is disorienting in a way that brings us deeper into the story.

It’s a showy choice, but one that guides us. “We weren’t going to be able to create expressive sets,” Johnson said. “We weren’t going to be able to go to town with production design. It was just going to look like a high school movie, until somebody opened their mouth. Once they did, you then knew this was something different. You had to prick up your ears and figure out what this world was.”

What drives the story is a distinctly high school feeling: that everyone around you knows something you don’t, and is talking about you the moment you leave the room. All of that is facilitated by the language, which brings our story the seriousness and intensity of adolescence even as Brendan gets called into the assistant principal’s office. To its credit, Brick never shies away from what it is—or where it’s rooted. Who Emily sat with at lunch becomes an important line of questioning. Two of the most important conversations in the movie take place on the empty football field. The farthest Brendan really wanders from school grounds is to confront a kid smoking out by the dumpster behind the coffee shop.

Once you allow the characters to speak in their particular way, Brick merges its genres to even greater effect. There is a savvy, popular teenager somewhere in every femme fatale, and a femme fatale somewhere in every savvy, popular teenager. Toying with the language just brings those elements into alignment. It forces us, somewhat counterintuitively, to find the gravity in the conversation between two students out by the lockers, none quite sure if they can trust the other.