Teenage stream: how Netflix resurrected the high school movie
Since a defining John Hughes-led era in the 80s, spearheaded by The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, and a resurgence in the 90s, with Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You, teen movies have become a slightly rarer breed. Many of the most notable recent teen flicks have had some genre or franchise trappings to lend them a boost – for example, Spider-Man: Homecoming – but that hasn’t always been a surefire recipe for success. The planned Divergent series, for instance, was essentially curtailed after taking a precipitous dive in box office grosses (the third entry in the series made less than half what each of its predecessors did). And even critical acclaim hasn’t helped: The Edge of Seventeen, which was near universally well received, didn’t make that much of a splash at the box office. It grossed less than $15m in the US, a far cry from the $70.1m earned by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in 1986.#
And that’s where Netflix comes in. Lately, the streaming service seems to be doing its level best to resurrect the genre. While it’s true that the company was reported to be spending upwards of $8bn on content in 2018 alone, it’s clear that a considerable chunk of that programming is being geared towards a teenage audience. According to the Atlantic, teenagers and young adults are “abandoning movies faster than any other group”, and Netflix is trying to pick up the slack. Its original content includes teen-aiming TV shows, including 13 Reasons Why and On My Block, but it’s also got an impressive roster of movies geared to that audience as well. Dude and Candy Jar, both about specific anxieties inherent in adolescence, premiered on the platform at the end of April, and The Kissing Booth, Alex Strangelove and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before are all set to debut in the next couple of months. “In the on-demand world, there isn’t a place where there is lots of great scripted shows and movies that are catering to that audience,” said Erik Barmack, Netflix’s vice-president for global independent content, stressing that the company was trying to fill a pop cultural void.
Though Netflix’s original movies have been a bit of a turkey shoot in terms of quality, the teen movies released on the service are comparable to their wide release contemporaries. Dude feels like a corollary to the teen half of Blockers, while Alex Strangelove comes off as a spiritual sibling to Love, Simon (which is itself remarkably rare as a recent teen movie that has proven to be a box office hit). They’re also breaking the kind of ground that’s rarely trod on the big screen.
It’s rare that teenage girls are allowed to let loose like they do in Dude, and it’s rarer still that those stories are told well. That novelty had everything to do with the handful of positive reviews given to Neighbors 2: Sorority Uprising, which hinged on girls behaving badly, and plays a big part in why the more recent Blockers has done well. The film doesn’t shy away from letting its teenage stars embrace their sexuality and vulgarity, and more importantly, from trusting the characters to take care of themselves rather than portraying them as helpless. And it’s exactly that kind of spirit that buoys The Kissing Booth, which, while not quite as raunchy, addresses the ups and downs of firsts (first kisses, in this case), and maintaining friendships through high school and late-blooming romance.
Dude picks up the thread a little later down the line, and is accordingly a little wilder. Though the film is a bit of a mess, which feels inevitable given the way it tries to cover every teen movie trope at once, it gives its four female leads the license to drink, smoke (and bake, and smoke), and fall in and out of love however and whenever they want. That the cast is diverse – Lucy Hale, Kathryn Prescott, Alexandra Shipp and Awkwafina star – is also a sign of how Netflix is progressing faster than the big screen. (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is particularly exciting for that reason as well, as the film features an Asian American lead, and was adapted from a book by an Asian American author.)
Alex Strangelove is a neater film, and just as notable for being a romantic comedy that’s built around a coming out story. One of the reasons that Love, Simon was such a hit was because it told a story that hadn’t yet been seen in a major blockbuster and did so in a completely ordinary way. Like every other mainstream teen romantic comedy, it’s fluffy and predictable – it just happened to center on a gay teenager and his coming out. Alex Strangelove pulls off a similar act in that it has just as light a touch, and doesn’t treat its main character’s struggle as stemming from his sexuality. Alex (Daniel Doheny) isn’t afraid of being gay; rather, he’s afraid of the way that that might change his relationships with his friends.
Unlike Simon, however, Alex is still in the process of figuring himself out when the movies begins, and it’s there that the film’s premiering on Netflix is to its advantage. As Alex, who is dating his best friend Claire (Madeline Weinstein) and planning on losing his virginity to her, realizes that he has a crush on a boy, he confides in his best friend that he thinks he might be bisexual. It’s impossible to imagine that particular storyline making it into a blockbuster, but its inclusion here feels like a welcome nod to anyone watching who might not fit into one category or the other. Alex Strangelove is also simply raunchier than Love, Simon (ie raunchier than what might be allowed with a PG-13 rating), in part because a platform like Netflix doesn’t have to worry so much about ratings, and can delve into slightly harder content. (The same goes for Dude, which leans into vulgarity as well as copious amounts of recreational drugs.)
The film ends with Alex recording a coming out video, which quickly becomes part of a mosaic of coming out videos made by other teenagers. It’s a nod to vlogging and YouTube culture that feels especially contemporary, and tailored specifically for a teenage audience. As if to drive that point home, Netflix itself has adopted a more modern approach to previewing its new movies and series to its users.
In April, Netflix launched a new feature on its mobile application that offered previews of new and trending releases in a format similar to Snapchat and Instagram stories: circular icons, if tapped on, play brief snippets of the things they’re meant to tout, and tapping back and forth will take the user from one to the next. Like Instagram stories, they’re also vertically oriented and cropped, instead of offering the full image that they would if properly viewed.
As the sheer range of movies and shows offered by different streaming services changes, Netflix has proven itself ahead of the curve in appealing to a teenage audience, and essentially resurrecting the teen movie. It’s made an effort to be as modern as possible, not just in its programming but in its actual application, and has a roster of films that address the kinds of problems faced by the modern teenager that might not necessarily find a home on the big screen. And, luckily, the movies themselves are charming offerings, instilling some hope in the idea that the genre, like its protagonists, is growing apace.
This article originally appeared on The Guardian