Film discussion

Clueless (1995) – Teen Movie Rewind

In our Teen Movie Rewind series, we explore coming of age stories and teen cinema, looking at the impact of the films themselves and the careers that they made.

The 90s was an interesting time for the teen movie genre. While the decade still gave us some wonderful movies on the big screen, (a few of which are still being quoted, and prove popular with Generation Z audiences discovering them for the first time, as well as Millennials wanting to indulge in nostalgia), the genre was going through an interesting period of creativity, while television would also give audiences a steady diet of coming of age stories, many of which would be influenced by John Hughes.

On the small screen, the 90s was the decade that would give audiences a weekly dose of television series such as My So-Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and Party of Five. One year before the release of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, Alicia Silverstone had auditioned for My So-Called Life but lost out on the lead role to Claire Danes, who would launch her career off the back of the show. Silverstone would eventually be cast as the protagonist in another of the decade’s most iconic teen movies, but one that was a million worlds away from the middle-class world of Angela Chase and her angsty voice-overs and melancholy nature.

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On paper, Clueless is a film littered with the potential for problems, not so much in quality but more in terms of what it was presenting. Here is a film led by characters drenched in privilege and living very much in a rich person’s world, but instead of taking the depiction of privilege seriously, director Amy Heckerling would grasp the story of Cher (and with that name, you have a clear message of the film’s intent) and run with it in a delirious satirical fashion, yet never losing sight of making her a three-dimensional character. That’s a hard balance to get right, yet Clueless manages it.

Heckerling wasn’t a stranger to the teen movie genre, having directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982, paving a successful career in comedy throughout the 80s and early 90s. She would score a box office hit with Look Who’s Talking in 1989, and with it a franchise that would run for three films, before taking the reins of Clueless.

It was an interesting decade and period for the genre, being guided away from the hand of John Hughes who had opted more for writing and producing works with even younger protagonists (Home Alone, Baby’s Day Out). The genre itself was now starting to take a more expansive reach away from the comedy-dramas of Hughes, and take teenage protagonists into other genres and filmmaking styles.

Teenagers were now the lead characters in Richard Linklater indie flavoured comedies (this would be the decade that the independent movie scene would explode thanks to Soderbergh, Tarantino and the rise of Miramax Pictures), to John Singleton’s superb Boyz n the Hood, while Silverstone herself had gotten early roles in the erotic thrillers The Babysitter and The Crush, a genre that would also give Reese Witherspoon and Mark Wahlberg early roles in 1996’s Fear.

The same year that Clueless made its way into cinemas, a film at the completely opposite end of the filmmaking spectrum would be released under a controversial cloud. Larry Clark’s Kids was a million miles away from John Hughes and Amy Heckerling, taking teenage characters into the realm of something more approaching a down and dirty exploitation movie that courted much controversy due to its explicit content and confrontational storytelling. Teen cinema was no longer just the realm of the obvious box office hits; they could be films about characters of colour who lived in a world that was barely touched on or referred to in a John Hughes film (Boyz in the Hood), or characters who had sex with each other and had HIV (Kids).

Clueless was almost like a return to a style of film that had gone away for a bit, but unlike Hughes who liked to turn his view away from the vastly rich kids to those who were more in the realm of the middle class (although Hughes’ characters were still very well off financially, with only Pretty in Pink daring to go to the other side of the tracks), Clueless very much embraced the rich and privileged, filtered them through a story that would modernise Jane Austen’s Emma, and actually had fun with the genre and those style of characters.

It’s also a film that was refreshingly sold based on its central female cast. Look back at many of the films of this genre from the 1980s and while some of those movies were centred around female characters (famously those with Molly Ringwald), they still relied on the female lead being surrounded by her male co-stars. The theatrical poster for Clueless gave the audience no indication that Paul Rudd, Jeremy Sisto, Donald Faison, or Justin Walker were in it unless you read the credits in the small print. Instead, the film sold itself fully on the presence of Silverstone, Stacey Dash and the late Brittany Murphy, and with a script and direction from Heckerling, it managed to be one of the very few female-driven films of the genre.

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Not through lack of trying to change the film to a more male-flavoured one; the script had originally been in development at 20th Century Fox, but they wanted more male characters leading the picture, and when the film went into turnaround, it eventually landed at Paramount Pictures, a good fit given that they distributed not only Hughes’s films the decade before, but also Footloose.

The film is brash and colourful in a manner that screams ‘this is the 90s’ and is anchored to a wonderful central performance from Silverstone that is arguably one of the most iconic of the genre. In lesser hands, the character could have just been a vacuous airhead, and Cher is for all intents and purposes that type of character, but instead of simply making her the mean girl, which she very easily could have been a decade before in Hughes’ films, possibly making the life of a Molly Ringwald character hell, Silverstone imbues Cher with likability even in the face of exasperating behaviour.

Films that drench themselves in stories of the rich and privileged make the audience want to live in that world, while the film becomes almost a form of consumerist porn, but there’s none of that here. Everything is there as the basis of a joke or for satire, and while the film gives its characters their happily-ever-after style endings and never fully commits to anything too dark or off-putting, it’s done so well that it’s hard to take a dislike to it.

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