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The New Generation of Teen Movies Is Nicer (and on Netflix)

With major studios no longer making teen comedies, the genre has migrated to streaming, where it’s also adapted to the values of its current demographic

Netflix/Ringer illustration

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.

At first glance, The Kissing Booth has all the timeless hallmarks of a classic high school film. Like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Bring It On, the teen romantic comedy that premiered on Netflix in 2018 takes place on a palm tree–lined campus in sunny Southern California. Like Clueless, it is narrated in a voice-over by its main character, Elle (Joey King), whose mother—just like in Save the Last Dance and 10 Things I Hate About You—is deceased. There is a raging party in which Elle winds up dancing on a table, like her forefathers in 10 Things and Can’t Hardly Wait.

Like too many films to name, there is a plotline involving an Ivy League school and a lot of time spent in the boys locker room. Molly Ringwald, teen queen of the John Hughes era, plays a (different, living) mom; “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” plays nostalgically and referentially at prom. There are secrets kept and loves professed and big decisions to make and a few too many scenes of one person storming away while another one yells out hey, wait!

There are also oddly contrived scenarios, such as the very existence of the titular kissing booth, or the decision that Elle makes, after ripping her school uniform pants, to wear an old skirt a few sizes too small that is so short it reveals her underwear while she walks around campus to catcalls. A woman being ogled is, unfortunately, nothing new in the teen movie universe. Fast Times includes a dream sequence in which Phoebe Cates sheds her bathing suit top. In Varsity Blues, a bunch of football players are enjoying a dance at a strip club when they realize they’re watching their teacher perform. “Look at the bobos on Superfreak,” one dude says to another in She’s All That, eying Rachel Leigh Cook on a beach. (We won’t even get into Cruel Intentions.)

But all of this leads to a scene that doesn’t have quite as much of a precedent. Following a short-skirt-induced skirmish, Elle finds herself in the principal’s office with her crush, Noah, who got in a fight defending her honor. “Wearing a skirt like that is asking for it,” he remarks as they await punishment. “Seriously?” she replies. “You want to go down that road?” Noah thinks about it and realizes he definitely doesn’t. “I kind of just played the whole sexist conversation out in my head,” he admits, “and it always ended with me sounding like a dick.”

The Kissing Booth, which derived from a story posted on the website Wattpad by a teenager in Wales in 2011, has been such a runaway success for Netflix that it will soon be a trilogy. And it is just one of a seemingly endless number of high school movies that the streaming service has developed and unveiled over the past few years. (Slowly but surely, others like Amazon Studios are joining the fray, too: “The Godfather meets The Baby-Sitters Club” is one hell of a hook.) Stepping into a once-robust mid-budget space that has been all but abandoned by major Hollywood studios over the past decade in favor of mega-blockbusters and teensy indie films, these streaming services are seeding what feels like a new golden age of teen programming. They merrily indulge in the familiar, even soothing, longtime rhythms of high school cinema; they gracefully (mostly) sidestep some of the more problematic aspects of the genre’s past. And they deliver this to a generation of viewers who would much rather be watching movies on a tablet than in a theater, anyway.

Netflix’s director of independent films Sheroum Kim was working at STX Productions in 2016 when it produced The Edge of Seventeen, a film that was marketed as “a new coming-of-age movie in the vein of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.” The film was a critical success—The New York Times said it “takes teenage movies to a higher place” and called it “one of the best films about high school students in 25 years”—but struggled to gain traction at the box office, finishing seventh on its opening weekend. Still, for Kim, the project was motivating on several fronts.

One encouraging factor was that it featured a main character named Erwin Kim, played by Asian American actor Hayden Szeto. “It was so amazing for me,” says Sheroum Kim, “as a girl that grew up on Long Duk Dong, to be able to see Erwin Kim, and to see the reactions from Gen Z.” When viewers were polled on their reaction to the movie, “everyone found Szeto to be so incredibly attractive,” she says, “like, more attractive than [costar] Blake Jenner. So I just thought about how open Gen Z is, and how open they are to diversity.”

The other thing that excited Kim, and ultimately contributed to her decision to make a move to Netflix a few years later, was that The Edge of Seventeen “was released theatrically, but really found its audience on streaming.” The same year the film premiered, Netflix was in the early stages of beefing up its arm of original kids, family, and teen entertainment. In the years since, it has followed through at a remarkable clip.

There have been movies at Netflix that turned into franchises, like The Kissing Booth, or like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before—one of many projects in which Netflix worked with the studio Awesomeness, whose mandate is to develop material that appeals to Gen Z viewers. There have been a whole bunch of titles that starred Noah Centineo, who became a sort of avatar for the streaming teen film era with his appearances in To All the Boys … as well as The Perfect Date and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser. (Netflix VP of independent films Ian Bricke compares his appeal to John Cusack’s in Say Anything …) There have been films that center on same-sex crushes, like The Half of It, and films like the dance-off flick Work It that are a fresh update on old movies like Center Stage. But what is most notable is the fact that these movies exist, period.

Just as the 1980s had their John Hughes films, the late ’90s and early 2000s saw their own teen movie boomlet. Perhaps we have Neve Campbell to thank and blame: Her 1996 movie The Craft was a sleeper hit that became a cult classic, while Scream, released later that year, grossed $173 million. Studios took notice that there was a market for low-budget films about teens. In the late ’90s, Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah’s screenplay for 10 Things I Hate About You wound up at the Disney-owned studio Touchstone Pictures, where at the time “they were making more of those kind of like, $15-35 million comedies,” Smith tells me. (The studio didn’t make her change the movie’s title, as she feared they might, but they did have one other request having to do with the family situation of the feminist character played by Julia Stiles: “Her parents were married and together in the first draft of the script,” Smith says, “and they said that it would explain her edge, her attitude, if we had her be a product of divorce and having a mother not present.”)

That same year, Varsity Blues, She’s All That, and American Pie were all box office leaders at one point—a trio of films that all together cost $37 million to make and ultimately grossed $393 million. There would be such a glut of high school content—from the Othello-inspired O to the winking Bring It On—that it spawned the 2001 pastiche-satire Not Another Teen Movie. (Made for $15 million, it performed even better than Varsity Blues had.)

But these projects would become fewer and further between, part of a broader industry trend in which major studios moved away from mid-budget movies and toward the extremes. Mid-aughts flops like EuroTrip, which earned $20 million but cost millions more than that, sure didn’t help. “A few teenage movies didn’t do so well,” recalls Smith of the market, “and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘This is not a viable genre anymore.’” Even the successes that would have once had Hollywood executives high-fiving now had them mentally calculating opportunity costs. 2010’s Easy A, Emma Stone’s subversively charming take on The Scarlet Letter, cost just $8 million and turned a $67 million profit. A lovely return! But not as alluring to a studio as some other films premiering that year, like Toy Story 3, which netted over a billion dollars, or Avatar, which more than doubled that. Even Tron: Legacy earned $230 million more than it cost.

Bricke, who joined Netflix in 2011, says that when the company began building out its original feature-film content, it already had insights into how well the old classics were performing on the streaming service. “As we started making different shapes and sizes of original films,” he says, “we were looking at: Where are those pockets where there is a hungry and consistent audience but the films aren’t getting made anymore?” They leaned into romantic comedy generally and then began to branch deeper into the realm of teen films.

“The themes and the story structures and the tropes are all kind of evergreen,” Bricke says, “but the bet on our part was: Is there a new version of this, that either because of who’s in the stories or how the stories are told, feels fresh and distinctive?” The bet, he says, has paid off.

The appeal of stories about high schoolers never actually went away. Why would it? Being a teenager is about as universal an experience as it gets: No matter who it is you are, high school is about the confusing process of trying to figure out, well, exactly who it is you are. It’s about being alternately stifled and inspired by adults; it’s about disappointment and shooting your shot; it’s about when to fit in and when to stand out. Smith says one thing hasn’t changed since the 10 Things I Hate About You days: Being a teenager ought to involve some degree of “rebellion.” Judging by the material in a number of teen films, though, even rebellion can feel expected these days.

“Have you started a social media movement?” asks a college counselor, with exasperation, to a Stanford hopeful in Sierra Burgess Is a Loser. “Something that inspired social change?” In The Perfect Date, in which Centineo plays a guy who starts a (chaste!) escort app in order to earn enough money to go to Yale, he gets similar feedback. “You talk about creating the next big thing,” his counselor tells him. “What thing? And you want to be a game-changer. What is the game?”

And in Work It, a movie about competing dance teams at the same high school, an overachiever named Quinn who wants only to go to Duke is given some real talk by a blunt admissions officer. “Have you read a newspaper lately or even looked at the news?” the school rep says. “The world is burning. I am looking for applicants that are change-makers, risk-takers. You know what I mean?”

Alison Peck, who wrote the Work It screenplay, says that one of her goals was to portray these small nuances of high school. “I didn’t want to do trope characters,” she says, “like: ‘Oh, she’s the cheerleader, he’s the nerd.’ Because especially in my experience of being in high school, it didn’t feel like people really fit into those molds as much. The cheerleaders were smart! And the popular kids were often the valedictorian.” One thing that stands out about Work It—well, other than its inventive dance routines, which have a decidedly TikTok feel—is that its two main characters, Quinn and her best friend Jas, are neither super popular nor total losers. Like most high school students out there in the world, they just … are.

“We’re kind of taking that genre and bringing it into modern day,” says Liza Koshy, who plays Jas. “A little bit, you know, like that more Gen Z dry kind of humor.” Work It is one of Koshy’s first movies; she got her start on a slightly different platform—making six-second videos on the now-defunct social media network Vine. Some of the actors in Netflix teen movies have seen enormous growth in their online reach when they appear in a film; since the premiere of the Kissing Booth 2 on July 24, Taylor Zakhar Perez, who plays a new love interest, went from having 65,000 followers on Instagram to having 4.6 million. But Koshy was already a successful YouTube star, with more than 17 million subscribers watching her dance routines and character-driven bits, by the time she was cast in Work It. “These content creators!” says Kim, smiling wide over a Google Hangout. “She is a producer, an actress, a dancer, a director, a showrunner, a writer …”

Now, Koshy is trying to leverage her (and Michelle Obama’s) platform to get out the vote in the upcoming election. “I’m actually living in Houston right now with my parents,” she says, and between the location and the fact that she’s been creating content again recently, she feels a lot like she’s back in high school. “Our world has changed,” she says, “and my world has definitely changed.”

Koshy isn’t the only person connected to the teen film universe who is working to ensure fair and representative voting for all. Before the pandemic limited them to campaigning from inside their home, Chad Klitzman and Sami Gayle—the screenwriter and female lead in the 2018 Netflix high school debate film Candy Jar, who are also brother and sister—traveled around Florida, knocking on doors and visiting all 67 counties for research. It was all part of Klitzman’s decision to run for local office in his home state.

That office? Broward County Supervisor of Elections, a position with more than a little bit of history. Klitzman’s campaign’s slogan? “Chad Won’t Leave You Hanging.” The current outcome of the primary vote, which took place last week? Well, it wound up in a recount—“I know it’s irony on top of irony,” Klitzman says in a phone conversation with me and Gayle. Out of 207,595 votes cast, he trails by 607, a total tight enough (0.3 percent) to have triggered a machine recount. (It confirmed the initial result.)

This is real life, but it feels like it could exist in the Candy Jar universe, so vividly is the movie imbued with both Klitzman and Gayle’s clear sense of purpose. It follows two striving high school students (one wants to go to Harvard, the other to Yale) whose extracurricular of choice is a style of debate in which competitors speak as rapidly as possible, the better to jam in more arguments and talking points. (The result is that they sound like the guy from those old Micro Machines commercials.) But they are stymied by two women on a competing team who—rather than just talking—actually say something, eschewing speed to focus on telling meaningful personal stories of struggle and inequality.

Like Koshy, Gayle is 24 years old, but both are already struck by the behaviors of the cohort of kids and teens behind them. “The self-awareness of an 11-year-old right now is ridiculous,” says Koshy. “Their EQ is through the roof.” For Gayle, working with teen volunteers on her brother’s campaign was an illuminating experience. “They’re more willing to speak their mind,” she says. “Throughout the campaign we would take the interns to all sorts of virtual events that were happening. And we had 15-year-olds who were on the calls who were not afraid to call people out for something that they didn’t agree with, or to comment upon something that they thought was wrong.”

The beauty of developing content to appeal to these confident and skeptical teens is that they can make generous viewers. “I’ve been so heartened by the open-mindedness of this generation,” says Kim, “and how they’re able to see themselves and relate to those universal emotions and experiences across cultures, language, race, ableism. They’re really able to connect to, just, the human experience.” The risk, though, is having the work feel, as Bricke puts it, “preachy or heavy.”

But the simplest way to avoid that is to seek out and collaborate with creators who, just like those effective opponents in Candy Jar, arrive with a clear point of view and a personal story to tell—like Klitzman. Or like Alice Wu, the writer and director of The Half of It, whose celebrated and soulful spin on the exquisite pain of infatuation weaves together small-town living, queer characters, religion—and, yes, a widowed dad. And as Wu told The New York Times, her hope in working with Netflix was that, by the nature of its distribution, she’d be able to reach viewers in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. The 15-year-old-liberal-political-campaign-intern-raising-hell-on-a-Zoom-call demographic is valuable, but the ability to reach, say, a closeted kid, or an adult who would never be caught dead seeing a progressive story about teens in a theater—that’s powerful.

In Work It, a character who is trying to convince a former dance team champion to choreograph for her ragtag squad attempts to look on the bright side. “According to my research of every dance movie ever made,” she says, “we have a very important ingredient for winning: a can-do spirit.” This is one of several references throughout the film to its theatrical predecessors; another comes when a character sighs: “We would have a better chance at building a time machine and kidnapping Channing Tatum,” who starred in 2006’s Step Up.

“Something that I like bringing into my writing,” Peck says, “is like, I think these characters would have seen Center Stage. They would have seen Bring It On; they would have seen Step Up.” And they probably would have seen at least some of them on Netflix.

The result is a respect for and comfort with the existing teen film story structures—but also a need to evolve and differentiate within those constraints. In The Half of It, this means putting a twist on the ol’ Cyrano de Bergerac story; the movie’s main character is a young woman trying to help her male friend woo Aster, the beautiful, smart girl he digs—but then she winds up crushing on Aster too. Wu is sometimes asked how she captures high schoolers so clearly; how she makes them sound so real. “The thing is,” she tells me in a Twitter DM, “teenagers are just people. They’re just people who go to high school.”

In Work It, this means showing a female friendship, between Quinn and Jas, that is wholly anti-catty and unconditionally supportive. And in The Kissing Booth, it means depicting a friendship between a high school boy and girl that is just that. “One of the things that fans of the [Kissing Booth] films really connected to,” says Netflix’s Bricke, “was the platonic lead friendship. As much as the romantic plot is a big motive for those movies, they’re really, really invested in this platonic boy-girl friendship. And, you know, I think we’re always looking for that: Where are those notes that feel underrepresented but that are part of life?”

In an ongoing attempt to answer that, Netflix continues to roll out original series for teens. One of them, called Trinkets, is based on a YA novel that Smith published about three high schoolers from different social circles who are brought together by a shared love of shoplifting. (Season 2 of the series, which was produced in part by Awesomeness, premiered on Tuesday; Smith notes that there are cameo appearances by former 10 Things I Hate About You cast members.) And when it comes to feature-length films, there’s no sign that Netflix is slowing down. On Friday, Netflix will premiere a drama about a teenage girl struggling with homelessness called All Together Now. Another upcoming film called Night Teeth is like a neo–Lost Boys. And further down the road is the release of There’s Someone Inside Your House, which Bricke describes as “sort of our version of a Scream—like, a self-aware Gen Z riff on the classic teen slasher movie.”

Which reminds me that, for all the similarities that persist between these older projects and today’s content, from the single parents to the dancing drunk on tables to the college applications, there’s one puzzling omission: I cannot find any evidence that this current generation has its own counterpart to the great Matthew Lillard, whose wraparound sunglasses and clownish grins and (fictional) Real World infamy provided recurring comic relief in some of the finest turn-of-the-century teen films. I have no doubt that there’s someone out there on TikTok who has been training his or her entire life for the opportunity to be the Oh It’s That Funny Guy Again of a new era. On the other hand, maybe there really are some things that just can’t ever be improved upon.

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