Fans of the Raunchy, Sex-Positive Teen Comedy Blockers (2018) Should Double Back to Watch The To Do List (2013)

Listening to an interview with Kay Cannon promoting her film Blockers on Ira Madison III’s Keep It podcast, it was exciting to hear her acknowledge the film’s intended purpose as a major studio femme subversion of the losing-your-virginity teen sex comedy. The teen sex comedy is just dripping with machismo as a medium, as it’s most clearly defined by the bro-friendly boundaries of titles like Superbad, American Pie, and Porky’s. As many of my recent favorite comedies have been femme subversions of traditionally macho subjects (The Bronze & Wetlands being particular standouts), I 100% welcome Blockers as a continued corrective to the exhausting omnipresence of bro sex humor. However, I do wish Blockers wasn’t being critically framed as an innovator within that corrective, since that claim ignores 2013’s already criminally overlooked The To Do List. Another sex-positive, femme subversion of the raunchy, losing-our-virginity sex comedy, The To Do List was critically buried upon its initial release for its perceived overreliance on 90s nostalgia to sell its humor. Every passing year it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom caring about such a triviality, especially when you consider the film’s other virtues. If we can forgive the cult classic Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion for featuring adult comedians reliving their 1980s heyday in extended flashbacks, I‘d like to think we can accept The To Do List expanding that bit into the next decade, especially considering the level of talent on-hand: Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Donald Glover, Lauren Lapkus, D’Arcy Carden, Alia Shawkat, and (in the starring role) Aubrey Plaza. The To Do List is overdue for critical reappraisal as a modern comedy sleeper, both on its own terms and as an active subversion of the same teen sex comedy tropes challenged by Blockers.

Aubrey Plaza stars in The To Do List as a high school valedictorian who fears her dedication to book-smarts has left her unprepared for practical social interactions. Most significantly, she expects college to be a nonstop orgiastic bacchanal that she will be out of the loop for as a nerdy virgin who hasn’t even shared a kiss. As an overachiever, she attempts to correct this problem by dedicating the entire summer before college to methodical, scientific sexual experimentation. It’s a plan that extends beyond shedding her virginity to include activities most high school students wouldn’t dream of attempting: rimming, motorboating, pearl necklaces, etc. This pursuit of sexual experience leads to inevitable John Hughesian tropes of Plaza’s in-over-her-head protagonist being confronted with the choice between two suitors: the “bad boy” she lusts for and the “good guy” who longs after her. In that moment of crisis, she smartly chooses neither, pointing out the impermanence & ultimate insignificance of most high school flings. Sex is paradoxically explained to not be a big deal, but also requiring careful consideration for your partners’ feelings. It’s a complex, but necessary lesson for high school kids to learn, one coupled with matter-of-fact statements of sexual intent & partners’ enthusiastic consent. A large portion of the plot is also dedicated to three teen girls’ lifelong friendship and their frequently thwarted plans to watch a rented VHS copy of Beaches together at some point during their last summer before college. Blockers explores a very similar friendship dynamic, although it admittedly better spreads the narrative focus around to each member of the group (and the overprotective anxieties of their respective parents). Both films are thoughtful explorations of femme teen sexuality & friendships without feeling at all leering or exploitative, likely in part because they were both helmed by women (The To Do List was written & directed by Maggie Carey).

The charm of both Blockers & The To Do List is that their sex-positive politics & wholesome emotional indulgences are allowed to co-exist with the typical gross-out gags that accompany the raunchy teen sex comedy. Although it tends to cater to straight male sensibilities, this is a genre that owes its space under the mainstream comedy umbrella to the raucous envelope-pushers of John Waters’s early career, particularly Pink Flamingos (even if by way of its influence on the Farrelly Brothers). Blockers goes for broke in its own gross-out moments of teen puke & butt-chugged beers, but The To Do List hits even closer to home in echoing its Pink Flamingos roots by depicting Aubrey Plaza defiantly chomping on a turd. Cinema is beautiful, y’all. Both films also mine a lot of awkward humor from parents being trapped in the same space as their children in the middle of sexual congress, going as far into The To Do List as having them lock eyes with their kids mid-orgasm or shaking the hand of the person currently fucking them. Dismissing The To Do List outright for blatantly adult comedians playing young or for 90s-nostalgic references to things like Hillary Clinton & jean skorts is an oddly reductive way of looking at a comedy that actively challenges the same gendered, double standard sex comedy tropes later subverted in Blockers. It’s even arguable that The To Do List is the more aggressive of the pair in that subversion, as its dedication to gross-out raunch is much more prolonged & pronounced. If nothing else, The To Do List was also prescient of the losing-your-virginity-on-top gag later repeated in the critical darling Lady Bird. That’s gotta be worth something, right?

Blockers is a great film that deserves to be celebrated for its femme subversions of a long-established comedic boys’ club that only gets sourer every passing decade. I don’t at all mean to detract from what Cannon accomplished there. I would just want to stress to anyone desperate to see more of that subversion out in the pop media landscape that The To Do List is well worth a critical reevaluation in the same context (along with the equally underrated The Bronze). If we could be gifted with one heartfelt, femme gross-out sex comedy a year like Blockers or The To Do List, the world would be a better, filthier place. We deserve more movies like them, but in the mean time we should give proper due to the ones we already have.

-Brandon Ledet

Blockers (2018)

Although the recent coming-out melodrama Love, Simon had only a (very) minor impact at the box office, its significance as a safe, middle-of-the-road queer narrative within the larger mainstream filmmaking picture has been discussed at length in nearly all critical circles. An entire episode of the bonkers teen soap opera Riverdale was even dedicated to Love, Simon’s cultural impact on queer visibility, which seem outsized considering the sanitized, post-John Green mediocrity promised in its ads. The consensus argument seems to be that Love, Simon is important because of that mediocrity, that gay teens deserve their own bland popcorn fluff just as much as anyone else. It’s pointless to argue against that perspective, but for anyone who’s not especially interested in that kind of safe, sexless teen romance no matter what its orientation, I’d like to offer the high school sex comedy Blockers as potential counterprogramming. In Blockers, sex is exactly as fun, stupid, silly, gross, and awkward as it should be in a high school-set comedy. The film shifts away from the bro-friendly humor of the teen sex comedy’s American Pie & Porky’s past by approaching the subject from a femme, sex-positive perspective. It even has a remarkably deft coming-out story built into its DNA that matches the sentimentality promised by Love, Simon without the accompanying sexless schmaltz. I don’t mean to suggest that makes Blockers a better film by default or that Love, Simon doesn’t deserve the critical attention it’s being afforded. I’m just saying that if the ads for Love, Simon left you cold, Blockers might just be the trashy teen sex comedy antidote you’re looking for. It might even satisfy your craving for a modernized John Hughes emotional journey in the process.

Set over the course of a single night (prom night!), Blockers details the bungled execution of a “sex pact” between three teen friends who all plan to lose their virginity in tandem. Because they’re young women and not the typical Apatow-modeled dudes who usually helm these pictures, this plan was met with extreme resistance from their snooping parents. Leslie Mann is finally given to something to do for once as a stressed-out Alpha Mom who wants to protect her daughter form repeating her worst mistakes. John Cena, appearing in Pure Dad cargo shorts, is the typical overprotective father who’s terrified of his teen daughter’s sexuality despite his better judgment. Ike Barinholtz is the most nuanced of the three. He generally disagrees with the other parents’ sex-negative paranoia, but also wants to protect his own daughter, who he knows to be a closeted lesbian, from committing herself to a traumatizing heterosexual experience just to feel like she belongs. The heightened delusions & deranged coddling impulses that torment these parents are the butt of the film’s ultimate joke; their fear of young female sexuality is an eternally embarrassing punchline. Meanwhile, the three damsels they attempt to rescue (Kathryn Newton, Gideon Adlon, and MVP Geraldine Viswanathan, who steals every scene she’s afforded) are doing just fine navigating all the awkward, grotesque, humiliating, and absurdly silly pitfalls that accompany pangs of teenage horniness, as countless dudes in losing-your-virginity comedies have in the past. The blatant double standard in question is extensively & explicitly challenged in the film’s dialogue, but Blockers is rarely outright didactic in its sex-positive politics. Moralizing about the policing of femme teen sexuality is instead allowed to be a background flavor that enhances, but does not overpower the usual gross-out gags that steer the genre: butt-stuff, drug-trips, puke, unwelcome nudity – all the standard hallmarks of a post-John Waters mainstream comedy.

Like with most teen movies, the three girls’ personalities are visually established early on by their bedroom décor. The main girl’s bedroom is not as distinctly coded as her two besties’, but it does prominently feature a clue as to where the movie’s heart lies: a Sixteen Candles poster. Both Love, Simon and Blockers are chasing the John Hughes model of capturing the modern teen zeitgeist in a single picture and it’s lovely to see that they both feel the need to include prominent queer narratives in that mission (even if they happen to follow a coming-out misery pattern we’ve seen exhaustively repeated onscreen before). Blockers separates itself from Love, Simon in the open acknowledgment that sex & romance are both hilarious & disgusting, which is always going to be the more attractive route for me as an audience. I don’t think its own mold-breaking challenge to the gendered politics of the typical high school sex comedy are exactly revolutionary. if nothing else, The To Do List already delivered an excellent femme subversion of the trope to a tepid critical response in 2013 and 2014’s Wetlands has set the bar impossibly high for what a gross-out femme sex comedy can achieve. Blockers is a damn fun addition to that tide-change, though, one that’s surprisingly emotionally effective in its own continuation of a John Hughes tradition. Just like how critics are calling for a wave of normalized queer narratives in the Love, Simon vein, I’d love to live in a world where we’re afforded at least one of these gross-out femme sex comedies a year. Continuing to keep prominent queer characters as part of that tradition would also be ideal (which is admittedly something you don’t get in my pet favorites The Bronze or The To Do List), which is partly why Blockers is a shockingly well-considered precedent for how the teen sex comedy genre can remain both modernly relevant and true to its gross-out roots.

-Brandon Ledet

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

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fourstar

“I just had the worst thought. I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with myself.”

Is the world finally realizing that the 90s high school movie was one of the all-time heights of comedy cinema? The last gasp of the genuine Heathers & Clueless lineage might have been Mean Girls in 2004, but we’ve recently seen a few really great throwbacks to the era that repurpose 90s high school movie tropes for a new effect. Cheerleader reinterprets the genre as an abstract art piece. The To Do List transforms it into a raunchy, gender-flipped sex comedy. The DUFF lightly parodies it in a longform homage. The Edge of Seventeen, for its part, follows the basic rules of the 90s high school movie, except it matures the material slightly by portraying its teen girl protagonist as a deeply flawed antihero. Nadine (Hailee Seinfeld) is a mean, self-centered emotional wreck who talks trash a mile a minute as a means to cover up her own anxieties & vulnerabilities. In other words, she’s a realistic portrait of a teenager (or at least how I remember my asshole teenage self). The Edge of Seventeen is a worthy contribution to the high school comedy genre, not least of all because it adds a realistic layer of paradoxical self-loathing narcissism to its young protagonist that taps into a strikingly honest aspect of teen life that isn’t often represented onscreen. Or at least not often enough.

The movie opens with a grizzled history teacher (Woody Harrelson, reprising a less-drunk version of his role in The Hunger Games) shrugging off Nadine’s threat of suicide. She’s in so much pain; you can see it in her eyes as she rattles off a long list of grievances with the world and the details of the way she’d most like to die. Her teacher slowly, methodically deflates her moment of crisis by turning it into a quietly sweet, but deeply mean-spirited joke. This method works in its own weird way as it both slows down Nadine’s panic-mode thought processes, but also matches her own mean-spirited mode of verbally lashing out at people she cares about, but can’t control. Her reasons for being suicidally upset range from legitimate grief over a lost family member to petty anxiety over not being able to dictate the romantic pairings of her best friend, her family, her crush, or the boy who crushes on her. She harshly pushes away anyone who could potentially care about her, yet yearns for genuine interpersonal intimacy. The Edge of Seventeen is an eerily accurate portrait of teenage life that captures both the small details of lazing around watching TV, depending on others for transportation, and puking orange soda mix drinks into your parents’ toilet as well as the larger themes of godlike hubris clashing with soul-crushing self deprecation that makes teens so difficult to deal with, even when you are one. As self-centered as Nadine constantly seems to be, she often breaks down to ask friends questions like “How do you even like me? What’s wrong with you? I don’t even like me.” It’s that exact narcissistic self-conflict and focus on an anxious time where every thing means everything that makes this film so true to one of life’s most unpleasant stretches.

One of the best parts about The Edge of Seventeen is how it accomplishes all this while still feeling like a traditional high school comedy. This isn’t the soul-shattering trauma of The Diary of a Teenage Girl or the indie-minded, slang-loaded melodrama of Juno. In its own muted way, The Edge of Seventeen follows the will-they-won’t-they patterns of any & all high school romcoms and it’s tempting to call the film typical of its genre because of that narrative predictability. Everything outside of the basic plot structure is handled too smartly for me to be that reductive, though. Nadine’s own quest for self-acceptance and friendship is given far more prominence than her romantic machinations. Of all the people she can’t seem to get along with despite herself, she clashes hardest with her mother, yet the two are nearly identical personalities. The movie could’ve made a huge, emotionally cathartic deal out of that tension or out of Nadine’s oddly antagonistic relationship with her favorite teacher. Instead, it lets those relationships exist as they are and allows the audience to catch up with how they’re significant in its own time. It’s also an R-rated teen comedy with a female emotional bully protagonist who’s far less interested in winning people over than she is in protecting herself from yet another damaging blow to her heart & her ego. As much as The Edge of Seventeen feels like a throwback to a genre that saw its heyday two whole decades ago, it also exists as a shining exception of unflinching black comedy & truthful self-examination that doesn’t often touch the teen comedy genre outside an outlier like Election or Strangers With Candy. It’s a rare treat in that way, however bittersweet.

-Brandon Ledet

Barely Lethal (2015)

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twohalfstar

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Sometimes the most frustrating films aren’t the ones that fail outright, but rather the ones that show a great deal of promise but still fall short of success. I really wanted to enjoy the teen-girl-assassins action comedy Barely Lethal despite the mountain of negative reviews warning that I wouldn’t, but the movie at no point makes an effort to distinguish itself as a unique property worthy of praise. Even though I’ve never seen D.E.B.S. (I should fix that soon), I recognize that Barely Lethal has distinct origins in that film’s premise. It wants to be the next link in the Heathers-Clueless-Mean Girls high school clique comedy chain, but even The DUFF from earlier this year is more deserving of that honor. As far as being a female-led spoof of the superspy genre goes, Spy is a much better example from 2015. Hell, it’s not even the worst film featuring Thomas Mann from 2015 thanks to Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl (alternate title Me, Me, Me, and Me). Even the pun in the film’s title (a winkingly violent play on the porny idiom “barely legal”) falls short of establishing any kind of significance as it ends up meaning that the the girls are incompetent as killer spies, which was not at all the intended effect. Similarly, the film itself is barely lethal in its compromised tone, which is unfortunate given the possibilities in its killer teen girls premise.

Early in the proceedings I was willing to buck consensus on this one. The film begins by profiling a “top-secret, government-run school that turns little girls into killing machines”. Samuel L. Jackson (once again proving that he will star in anything) is fairly amusing as the top instructor at this trained killer production facility. His darkly comic commands that toddler age girls (or “Double 0 7-year olds”, if you will) operate machine guns & flamethrowers and to remember that while stabbing combatants”It’s all about putting holes in the subject. Ladies, spring some leaks!” are pretty damn amusing, but the feeling is fairly short-lived. The film mostly follows the story of one trainee instead of the institution as a whole, detailing the life of a teen assassin’s decision to fake her own death & attempt to lead a normal life as an American high school student. There is a lot of promise in this set-up, touched on just a tad when the protagonist complains that the cruelty of high school teens is far worse than being beaten or drowned, but it’s mostly wasted. Because she uses past high school clique comedies teen gossip rags as “intel” for “Mission: High School” (ugh) the film devolves into mostly empty, self-conscious references to films like 10 Things I Hate About You, The Breakfast Club, and (duh) Mean Girls. Even worse, it wastes a vicious rivalry between two teen girl assassins – a concept that should register as a super cool take on the genre – on a climactic catfight over a boy.

Like I said, the worst part about Barely Lethal is that it’s barely unenjoyable. I liked that it worked within the traditional high school rom com plot structure – in this case staging both a Big Party and a Big Dance climax – but it rarely took the opportunity to show its teeth within that frame. The exchange “I’m viral?” (referring to Internet fame, of course) “Like HPV”, a montage of two teens girling  out over guns instead of a traditional dress-up sequence, and a conversation about how they “want the first time [they kill a man] to be special” are all a great start for a first draft, but they’re isolated moments in a film mired in wasted opportunities. Barely Lethal mostly felt like an underutilized cast (including Rob Huebel, Jessica Alba, Sophie Turner, and Rachel Harris) aching for a better movie to emerge in the editing room. With an R-rating instead of PG-13 & a harder edged re-write I could see Barely Lethal enduring as a cult classic As is, I’d suggest that you ‘d skip this one & watch D.E.B.S. instead. And again, just to be clear, I’ve never seen D.E.B.S..

-Brandon Ledet

Before Mark Lester Gazed Into the Dismal Near-Future of Class of 1989 (1989), He Warned of the Much More Imminent Class of 1984 (1982)

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“Teachers sucks!”

If there were any doubt about our November Movie of the Month Swampchat’s assertion that the bizarre technofuture of Class of 1999 was born out of fear of escalating violence among Regan-era youths, you’d have to look no further than the original entry in Mark Lester’s Class of 19__” series. 1982’s Class of 1984 opens with the following warning: “Last year there were 280,000 incidents of violence by students against their teachers & classmates in our high schools. Unfortunately, this film is partially based on true events. Fortunately, very few schools are like Lincoln High . . . yet.” While Class of 1999 pushes the paranoid fear of bloodthirsty, sex-crazed youths to an absurd extreme crawling with cyborg teaching units & mind-melting future-drugs, Class of 1984 gives off a much more distinct feeling of believing its own bullshit. There’s an air of satire in the way Class of 1999 warns of future school systems having to function like high tech prisons in order to survive, while Class of 1984 plays much more like a grim warning of the moral cesspool our country is supposedly becoming as if it were originally conceived during an old curmudgeon’s drunken rant. In their depictions of a crime-ridden future gone to shit, Class of 1999 is the satirical Robocop to Class of 1984‘s heartfelt Death Wish.

Class of 1984 starts by depicting basic teen activities that already horrify parents: graffiti, marijuana use, the donning of leather jackets & *gasp* mini-skirts, etc. The transgressions obviously escalate from there, as the movie goes on to depict an absurdly organized network of gang violence & drug trade, one that eventually includes casual instances of rape & murder. I’m not sure that there’s a single trace of irony or satire in Class of 1984. Its depiction of school systems as surveillance-state prisons & the edict that “Teaching is something you do in spite of everything else” plays as entirely justified, serving as a wake up call in case parents (rightfully) believe that the state of things actually isn’t all that bad. In Class of 1999, teachers are ultra-violent & ultimately in the wrong. In Class of 1984, they’re victims to the rapid teen menace supposedly ruining this country.

Even though Class of 1999 is more of an exaggerated cartoon than its 1982 predecessor, I find that it reads as a much more level-headed & nuanced exploration of the ridiculousness of paranoid fears about out-of-control teens, whether its satirical camp was entirely intentional or not. Class of 1984, on the other hand, is too straight-forward to be read as anything but a conservative nightmare brought to life. It’s essentially the epitome of 80s & 90s inner-city-teachers-in-crisis movies like Dangerous Minds & Lean on Me brought to their most ridiculous extreme. The two films do share a lot of similarities in their details, including unanswered questions about why the teens choose to go to school in the first place, the use of “suburbanite” as an insult, depictions of beyond-rowdy punk concerts, and a climactic, after-hours gauntlet in a high school’s hallways that results in a body count. They even share a performance by Roddy McDowell, but it’s difficult to say if the continuity of his character makes total sense between them. Class of 1984 stands as the more grotesque of the pair, though, extensively fulfilling the rape only threatened in Class of 1999 & depicting the kids as bored, rich teen sadists instead of criminals born of an economic system that left them behind.

With contributions from Big Names like Alison Cooper & a baby-faced Michael J. Fox, Class of 1984 isn’t exactly a dismissible trifle, but it is significantly less . . . classy in its politics than its absurd sci-fi sequel. Thanks to the thoroughly pointless Class of 1999 II: The Substitute it can’t be said that Class of 1984 is the worst of the Mark Lester trilogy, but it was surely outdone by its 1989 sequel. It’s an interesting film, a grotesque insight into conservative paranoia in the Reagan era, but that distinction is not nearly as exciting or unique as the campy Terminator-knockoff shenanigans of the film that followed.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, 1989’s Class of 1999, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the diminished returns depths of its shoddy sequel, and this glimpse of its unlikely Australian counterpart, Future Schlock.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Class of 1999 (1989)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon and Erin watch Class of 1999 (1989).

Boomer: Class of 1999 is a strange little movie. For readers who haven’t had the pleasure, the film is set in the titular year, less than a full decade after its release date. In this “distant” future, inter-gang violence has become so overwhelming that the areas around high schools have become dystopian free fire zones, but these violent, Mad Maxian teenagers still submit to going to campus every day for some reason. The movie’s protagonist, Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg), is a former gangmember paroled and returned to school. Unbeknownst to the student body, the principal (Malcolm McDowell) has agreed to allow an obviously mad roboticist (Stacy Keach) to install three former military androids (Patrick Kilpatrick, John P. Ryan, and goddess on this earth Pam Grier), “reprogrammed” as educators, as new instructors. Culp tries to stay out of trouble, but his narrative arc is complicated by his romance with the principal’s daughter (Tracy Lind). The androids decide that the best way to create a stable educational environment is to rid the school of violence by creating a war between the two rival gangs, even drawing in Culp due to the false flag death of his brother (Joshua John Miller, who was also the annoying kid brother in Teen Witch). As you would expect, this culminates in the two gangs putting aside their differences to defeat the Terminator. I mean the teachers.

I love this movie. It’s a perfect encapsulation of worst case, slippery slope thinking with regards to teen violence, a misplaced jeremiad warning of dark days to come–won’t someone please, please think of the children? Bradley Gregg, star of many of my adolescent fantasies (and one of the dream warriors from Nightmare on Elm Street 3), parades around in an outfit that manages to be both utterly ridiculous and strangely sexy, featuring skin-tight leather pants emblazoned with the word “war” over and over again and a form-fitting tee under an oversized babydoll jacket. He has nothing on Keach, of course, who struts around in this film with a platinum ponytail and matching (painful looking) contact lenses, while still somehow managing to play this ludicrous role as straight as possible. Throw in the other stars in the cast, like Grier and McDowell, and it’s a surprise that this Terminator ripoff made barely half of its relatively low budget back in ticket sales.

The Keach/Culp dichotomy of seriousness and campiness is one of my favorite things about Class. On the one hand, the film features ridiculous gang warfare with oversized vehicles in one scene, followed by dark domestic trouble in the form of Angel and Cody’s mother’s truly frightening drug addiction in the next (before she completely disappears from the film). Somehow, this intermix works for me, although I can admit it probably shouldn’t. What do you think, Britnee? Is this tonal inconsistency a drawback, or a feature?

Britnee: I think the mix of the film’s outlandish features and serious moments made Class the unique and unforgettable film that it is. If anything, the serious moments of the film, such as the mother and son drug brawl, amplified the film’s campiness, and that’s always a good thing. When serious, dramatic situations are placed in such a ridiculous setting (post-apocalyptic 1999), they bring out this sick and twisted type of humor that makes us all think, “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this.” Being able to successfully pull off this type of humor and create such an uncomfortable mix of emotions is the greatest achievement that a film can accomplish. Unfortunately, Class did not have as many of those wonderful Lifetime movie-like moments as I hoped for, but I think that may be the only complaint I have about the film. It was that good.

Something that I just can’t stop thinking about from Class is the gang warfare between the Blackhearts and the Razorheads. The film’s street gangs are made out to seem like these awful groups of mixed-up teens who will never escape their miserable, violent lifestyle, but under their rough and tough exterior, they’re just a bunch of kids searching for a little bit of love and understanding. This really comes through when the Blackhearts and Razorheads stop killing each other and team up to fight the evil robotic teachers. The bad guys (Razorheads) join the not-as-bad guys (Blackhearts) and ultimately become the good guys. At this point, the gang lifestyle actually seems more acceptable and becomes a little appealing. I mean, if I was stuck in some crazy life-or-death situation where I was forced to join a gang, I would definitely let the Blackhearts jump me in. 80’s new wave couture, Nine Inch Nails dance parties with machine guns, and a gnarly black heart tattoo are enough to win me over.

Erin, what are your thoughts on the two opposing gangs joining forces to fight the evil robotic teachers? Was this one of the few heartwarming parts of the film? Or is it just another cheesy moment to add to the list?

Erin: I thoroughly enjoyed the Class of 1999 experience . . . but I’m not sure that I found the gangs joining forces to be terribly heartwarming.  I think that if they hadn’t been in an automatic-weapon fueled fire-fight, I might be with you.  Had they been engaged in an old fashioned fist-fight-style rumble, I think that I would be more sympathetic to their situation.  As it was, it seemed like the gang side of The Warriors and the terrorist robot side of The Terminator got together and forgot to bring a side helping of the humanity from The Outsiders (I’ll take 1980s movie title conventions for $500, Alex).

I think that Class of 1999 is trying to communicate a series of relationships to the viewers: the difference between the viewers and the post-apocalyptic kids,  the difference between the rival gangs, and the difference between all of the kids and the inhuman robots.  I think that the movie does a great job showing us the first relationship, but stumbles with the second two.  The gangland teens are pretty reprehensible, truly living up to the premise of the movie that youth gangs have turned American urban centers into warzones.  The movie makes a very clear break from reality with its set up and presentation of the its own world.

Cody is really the best glimmer of humanity out of the entire movie, in my opinion.  He’s the only example of a multi-dimensional character, with his dark side trying to survive in a gangland and his sweet side of falling in love with a certified Nice Girl.  We don’t get that multi-dimensionality from other members of the Blackhearts, much less from the punks in the Razorheads.  It’s really hard to root for any of them.  Perhaps Cody is supposed to stand out as the Last Sane Man?

In any case, it’s hard for me to see myself in the gang members as they make a stand against the Teachernators.  Yes, they’re scrappy kids coming together to take on psychotic military robots, but minutes earlier they were trying to kill each other with machine guns! On the other hand, the Roboteachers are out-of-their-minds inhuman, which is made evident early in the movie by their behaviors and later in the movie by their physical transformations into walking weapons.

What do you think, Brandon, does Class of 1999 struggle to humanize the human characters?  Is there a clear enough difference between the terrible actions taken by the gangs and the Teachbots?  Does the audience get an avatar to insert themselves into the movie, or are we just supposed to watch the carnage?

Brandon: Simply by the nature of what it’s trying to portray, I totally have to agree that all basic humanity has been stripped from this movie’s ultraviolent teens. Cartoonishly over-exaggerating adult fears about out of control young adult behavior, Class of 1999 poses a grim, larger than life portrait of teen rebellion that is far beyond anything you’d expect to see in any conceivable human being, young or not, even in a worst case scenario, ten years down the road cyberfuture. Yeah, teens can be perilously obsessive over getting their hands on drugs, beers, sex, and cool cars at times, but usually not in the way Class of 1999‘s teens mix those simple pleasures with guns, bombs, landmines, and missile launchers. The first half or so of the film plays like a particularly paranoid parent’s warped nightmare about what their teen is up to while they’re out with their bonehead friends. A great example of this is the warehouse concert scene. I’ve been to quite a few concerts in my time & while many may have involved industrial music dance parties, I can’t remember ever witnessing a gang beating in the moshpit, machine gun fire set off to the rhythm of the songs being played, or the venue being lit by carefully placed barrel fires. I’m sure that as my parents first let me out of the house to experience live music for the first time, however, their worst fears of what was going on weren’t too far off from that image.

The trick here is that Class of 1999 is smart to spoof both sides of the teen rebellion coin. Because teens are perceived as such violent, out of control animals, authority figures take an automatically adversarial position against them. Late in the film when Principal Malcom McDowell complains about his army of roboteachers, saying, “They’re waging war with my students!”, he’s met with the response, “Isn’t that what all teachers do?” If the film indeed has any specific sort of point it’s trying to make & we’re not supposed to just, as Erin suggests, sit back & “watch the carnage”, I think it’s to be found somewhere in that exchange. Even if real life teens are as bad as portrayed in this film (they’re not), they’re still far more sympathetic than the (robotic) adults that brutally murder them by snapping their necks or forcefeeding them glass vials of superdrugs. There’s an oppressive, prison-like atmosphere in the film’s educational system (complete with “RESPECT”, “OBEY”, “LEARN” commands that could’ve been directly lifted from John Carpenter’s They Live) that feels like a direct indictment of privatized, militarized schooling that treats kids like violent threats instead of young, eager minds. The cyberfuturism of Class of 1999‘s killer robot “tactical education units” may not be readily recognizable in today’s flesh-bound educational units (public school teachers), but they do feel like a blown-up, exaggerated version of the way we systematically tend to treat children as a threat & a nuisance.

Boomer, how much do you think Class of 1999 is a movie of its time? Do you think that there’s a bit of historical, late 80s gang violence context here that would drastically change if there were to be a Class of 2025 released in 2015? Or would the same basic adult fears of teen rebellion & a privatized, militaristic educational system be eligible for lampooning today (with CGI bloodsplatter unfortunately subbed for the practical effects gore, of course)?

Boomer: One of the great truths about western culture is that each generation that reaches the level of becoming “the establishment” seeks out and pontificates about the fatal flaws in the generation that follows. This is nothing new; adults of today are “concerned” about the isolating effects of handheld devices, just as my parents were “concerned” about the isolating effects of the Discman, or their forebears were concerned about the invention of this thing or that thing, going back to concerns that the invention of the phonograph would lead to fewer people being interested in learning to play instruments. There are a lot of sociological and anthropological reasons for this, but most of it boils down to the universal constant that we will only get older, coupled with the fear of obsolescence and fear-mongering about “the youth,” and treating them, as Brandon notes, as a threat or nuisance.

The other major factor in the genesis of 1999 is that the late eighties and early nineties saw a very visible rise in gang violence, something that couldn’t simply be dismissed, so the news media had to address it. However, the “establishment” couldn’t acknowledge that disenfranchised people turn to crime because of systemic problems related to class and privilege, especially not when people were basically walking down the street accidentally poking others with their raging pro-wealth Reaganomics hard-ons. As a result, the majority of Americans, ignorant of the real causes of gang violence and its apparent meteoric rise, had nothing to cling to but their filtered and incorrect understanding of social problems, reinforced by the cyclical nature of youth-blaming.

What’s so interesting to me is how 1999 manages to be both an indictment of that mindset and the apotheosis of it at the same time, and, although I may be giving it too much credit here, I think that this is intentional. The darkness that permeates Culp’s world represents all the things that the parents of 1989 feared about the future, a horribly violent place where those nasty (scary) teenagers with their loud music and their dirty fingernails rule over a scorched suburbia because no one took a stand against teenage skullduggery when there was a chance! But it also holds up a mirror to that absurd frame of mind, pointing out the flaws in that kind of fearful, conservative nightmare by showing how unrealistic and silly such a future would be. Also, there are killer robots, because who doesn’t love that? And, if your kids are running around doing drugs, they probably learned it from watching you, mom or dad!

So, the answer is “yes,” 1999 is a very much a product of its time and of the politico-cultural environment from which it sprung, and there would have to be significant updates to remake this movie, although I could see how it could be done in a couple of different ways, depending upon which of Joann and Cletus’s fears you wish to highlight and mock. Political correctness is often a good place for conservative muckrakers to stir up some passion: “In the future world of 2025, schools no longer teach facts, they teach feelings. They no longer teach science, they teach sensitivity. And they only teach the ‘corrected’ version of history.” And, like, instead of robot teachers, there’s an AI that seeks to “purge” students of their hopefulness or individuality or whatever by teaching them about all of American history, atrocity alongside progress, and by teaching them self-control and tolerance. Cody Culp would be a secret bigot who teaches his androgynous and sexless peers, long having been made soft of mind by those damn SJWs, to fight back against the machine of liberal indoctrination by being politically incorrect and proud, or whatever. To be honest, though, I don’t know that this would be recognized as a satirical interpretation of a conservative’s nightmare of the future; it would be more likely to be seen as a prescient vision of a world to come, ruled by the “libtard.” Or maybe I’m just on a tangent; who knows.

The real truth is this: the way education is enforced in the west is not the best method for schooling, and we all pretty much know that. The priorities are all skewed, and the eight-hour, rigidly-structured schoolday that has been the model for a long time isn’t based on the best pedagogical or psychoeducational practices but on the model of a workday; it forcibly instills in children a willingness to accept the drudgeries of pyramid capitalism, essentially, rather than encouraging critical thought, technical acumen, interest in knowledge for its own sake, or any kind of prioritization of variety in educational forms. You can see that small changes are taking place today, but for the worse; as an educator, I toured a new charter school just a year or two ago that was filled with classrooms that didn’t look like classrooms. They looked like call centers. So even if Class of 2025 were to be made in the way that I poorly pitched above, a Republican nightmare of social justice gone mad, it would still be nothing like the schools of the future, just as my school in 1999 was not a war zone of apocalyptic proportions.

Britnee: What do you think about a Class of 2025? Does your conception of what Class of 1999‘s thesis was differ from mine, and if so, how do you think your interpretation would be updated for a contemporary audience?

Britnee: When watching Class of 1999, I did realize that there was a connection to the large amount of youth gang violence occurring around the time the film was released, but I really didn’t think much of it. I saw the film as being loads of stupid fun without much depth, but your perspective really got me thinking about the whole “youth-blaming” and “conservative nightmare” aspects that the film definitely illustrates. Loud music, fast cars, leather jackets, heavy eyeliner, and funky haircuts were a conservative parent’s nightmare in the late 80s/early 90s, and the teens in 1999 are an explosion of this stereotypical degenerate youth. The whole film actually reminds me of a lost Billy Idol music video. It’s just so “Rebel Yell.” These types of teens were going to cause the world to become a post-apocalyptic cesspool of crime, violence, and pure filth. Unfortunately, the world did not become that exciting by 1999. There were many changes that occurred within those short 10 years, but at the same time, much remained the same.

Now, to think of what my interpretation of 1999 would be for a contemporary audience. 1999 did play on the fear of what the future would be like for the youth of that time, and now it seems as though one of the biggest fears for today’s youth is the lack of importance placed on quality education. A modern 1999, or as Boomer stated, 2025, would deal with the absence of general education and the emphasis on some sort of super strict social class-based structure. Children will be sorted into military, white-collar, or blue-collar positions at birth, like in the movie Antz when newborn ants are assigned to be workers and soldiers. Who knew that such a horrible movie would be so insightful? Each group would have their separate type of school, but they would be more like training academies. Only the elite would receive a quality education, and they would use it to coerce obedience and conformity on the youth. Those that do not have elite status would live in squalor and have all sorts of chemicals in the air and water that dope them up, making them ultra submissive to authority. I feel as though the teen rebellion wouldn’t be as violent as one would expect. They would rely more on outsmarting the authority and only shooting them up from time to time instead of a constant machine gun blowout like in 1999. At this point, weapons would probably have lasers instead of bullets, so the battle scenes would be a little more on the calm side.

Erin, speaking of weapons, did you think that it was strange that the weapons in 1999 weren’t very futuristic? Come to think of it, not much was futuriscitc about this film that was set in the future. Is the budget to blame for this or is it something bigger?

Erin :  Britnee, someone remarked during our viewing of Class of 1999 “Oh no!  They didn’t invent cell phones in the future!” as two characters were forced into a situation with no way of contacting each other.

In some ways, yes, I think that budget has something to do with why the weapons and other parts of the film weren’t very futuristic.  Clearly, the bulk of the effects budget went to the Teachbots and their final set-chewing rampage.  Honestly, I think the bulk of the general budget may have gone to that last scene.

In other ways, I think that a few things inhibited Class of 1999‘s presentation of the future.  First of all, it could make logical sense that the teen gangs in the movie only have access to older, out of date technology and weapons. Teens in 1999 might have had pagers, but in my community were only on the cusp of common cellphone ownership.   Admittedly, this theory falls apart a little in the way that the administrators are not seen using futuristic technology either.

Secondly,  one of the difficulties of setting a movie in the near future is hitting the right pitch for technological advancement.  I think that the rapid development of computer and internet culture, where even impoverished  families have internet access and at least one computer, and the ubiquity of personal electronics such PDAs and cellphones might have been impossible to see from late 1980s.  From where we stand, it seems obvious and inevitable that the future would look like it does (or did, in 1999).  For the writers and audiences at the time, that might have seemed as outlandish as Star Trek’s communicators and tricorders.

And thirdly (and most likely, I think), placing Class of 1999 in the near future is a nice way to hand wave away the complete ridiculousness of the world that the movie inhabits.  The future setting means that the filmmakers have to take much less responsibility for portraying any kind of real life anything, from the physical sets to the interactions of the characters.  Honestly, I think that’s a sloppy use of what can be an effective story-telling tool.  Science Fiction as a genre is also used as a means of giving us the distance needed from reality to discuss difficult issues.  By setting Class of 1999 in the future, the filmmakers were able to explore both the dual fear of out-of-control youth and out-of-control education institutions with removal from the actual educational landscape of 1989-90. (I’ll insert here that I think Class of 1999 is more a fantasy rather than a proper Science Fiction movie.)

The unreality of the movie not withstanding, there are some moments that resonated with me as “real”.  When Cody’s mother and brother fight over drugs, I was reminded that the late 80s had seen crack cocaine strike urban areas like an epidemic.  Many cities were still suffering from botched urban renewal plans and the hemorrhagic flow of residents to suburbs.

What do you think, Brandon, where do you see realism in this movie?  Is searching for reality even relevant?

Brandon: I feel like we’ve already run through a great deal of the film’s startling realism here: the cultural context of 80s gang violence (as portrayed in the media); the broken, unnecessarily adversarial education system; the shocking jolts of harrowing drug addiction & attempted sexual assault that break up the fun, etc. Something that does stand out to me, though, is the budding romantic relationship between our beloved teen protagonists Cody & Traci. Okay, it’s a little ridiculous that that the movie made time for a romantic subplot in the midst of battle droid educational units liberally murdering teenagers in the guise of discipline, but it’s also a somewhat believable ridiculousness. If you combine already heightened teenage libidos with the kind of tumultuous situations that naturally tend to bring people together (say, your gym teacher removing his arm to reveal a subdermal rocket launcher, for instance) it’s only logical that a romantic bond or two will arise. Thankfully, the one delivered here is accompanied with such great exchanges as Cody coolly responding to the question “You gonna call me or what?” with “Yeah. Both.” and hilariously teasing Traci to “Open up those suburban eyes” to the danger they’re facing. I’ll make no guesses as to how realistic that exact dialogue is, but the situation is at the very least more believable than an army of robotic teachers that get away with viciously spanking (not to mention disembowling & setting aflame) their students with out so much as a peep from the PTA.

Lagniappe

Erin: The least believable part of this whole movie is that these kids are still showing up for school.  With the exception of Cody’s probation requirement, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to show up. Why?  Why are they there?

Britnee: Of all the strange yet amazing moments in Class of 1999, the one that I just can’t forget is when Mr. Hardin (John P. Ryan) exposes his claw machine hand for the first time. As he sinks his creepy claw into the skull of an unfortunate teen, he says one of the greatest lines in the film: “I love to mold young minds.” Those obnoxious arcade toy machines will never be the same!

Brandon: One of the oddest details in a movie where they’re in no short supply are the ordinary objects of a banana & glass of milk. Character actor Stacy Keach does an excellent job of chewing scenery as the evil “Megatech robotics specialist” Dr. Robert Forrest, who provides the technology for the evil teacherbots. He gets obvious perverse pleasure from watching his creations discipline their students (which is especially alarming during one particular robospanking), deriving even greater joy when their “discipline” escalates to murder, and he just generally looks like an evil lab rat that killed so many other lab rats that he was honorarily dubbed a scientist because people were afraid to put him down. What I love most about Dr. Forrest, who is an all around great villain, is that on top of these unwholesome characteristics, he seems to enjoy incongruously wholesome snacks. Watching someone so evil & so fake-looking casually chew on a banana & gulp a glass of milk is a hilarious, unsettling sight gag that beautifully complicates his character in a way that’s almost too good to have been scripted. I like to imagine that Keach came up with his own onscreen snack regimen himself, insisting on enjoying his milk & his banana (surely obtained from craft services) on camera in order to give his character a whole other layer of perversity. No matter whose idea it was, though, it totally worked & after the movie I ended up thinking just as much about those snacks as I did about the film’s roboviolence, which is really saying something.

Boomer: The DVD for this movie is as light on special features as you would expect for a niche-but-not-quite-cult classic film such as this, but it amuses me that the DVD cover foregoes the Terminator-esque cover of the VHS in favor of an image that looks like Shaq in Steel. Almost every trailer on the disc, however, is for some film that echoes Terminator in some way, however, which is good enough. Also, nothing tells you more about the film-makers’ misconception of the teaching profession than Traci’s comment that women never buy just a sexy bra or pair of panties, that they treat themselves. Because teachers make soooo much money with which to treat themselves, am I right? That’s why I’m still a teacher–no, wait, I quit because even working a second job didn’t net enough to get by on. Sorry, Traci, not all of our academically employed fathers are getting grant money from crazed scientists.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Brandon presents The Independent (2000)
January: The Best of 2015

-The Swampflix Crew

The DUFF (2015)

fourstar

Every time a teen clique comedy is released it suffers by comparison to the towering examples that came before it. By now it’s pretty much been accepted that Heathers was the genre’s prime example of the 1980s, Clueless ruled the 90s, and Mean Girls stole the heart of the 2000s. But what of the current decade? What’s the 2010’s link in that evolutionary chain? Who will step up & take the teen clique torch? Although it’s received little love since its release I was pretty enamored with the 2013 sex comedy The To Do List. It was smart, crass, and above all hilarious, but that doesn’t seem like the exact logical choice. Set in the summer after high school (in the 90s), The To Do List was more concerned with the sexual self-discovery of one character instead of the hierarchal structure of an entire student body. If anything The To Do List was a descendent of the raunchy teen sex comedy, following films like Porky’s & American Pie, and probably the best example of that genre yet. So what of the teen clique flick?

Enter The DUFF. Much like with Heathers, Clueless, and Mean Girls, The DUFF’s main concern is how petty & mean-spirited high school hierarchies can be and just how easily they can be broken down. The only problem with its secession in that chain of teen clique media is that it is very conscious of updating the genre for the 2010s, instead of letting the connection happen naturally. Using cultural markers like YouTube, Instagram, and Tumblr, The DUFF is seemingly dating itself in its own time period on purpose. It also intentionally looks back & borrows so many tropes from high school teen comedies of the past that I’m tempted to say it’s doing it for a laugh. Not only is the protagonist tutoring The Hot Guy in exchange for a makeover that will reveal that their really is a beautiful girl under all the geekery, but there’s also a Big Dance at the end, the Hot Guy totally falls for her, AND she’s writing a big expose about the entire experience for the school paper. Instead of aping just one teen comedy trope, The DUFF goes all in and tries to capture every single one it can.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t funny or original in its own right. With a little help from the always-dependable Allison Janney & the frequently funny Ken Jeong, The DUFF star Mae Whitman has found herself a breakout role here. She is just so damn funny in this movie. After years of watching Whitman kill it in small background roles, (literally fading into the background in the case of Arrested Development), it’s refreshing to see her get so much screen time here. And she owns it. Even with all of the high school movie clichés determining a rigid structure for the film, Whitman finds a way to make it work. A lot of people will be understandably turned off by the idea of the wonderfully talented Whitman starring in a film with a title that translates to “The Designated Ugly Fat Friend”, but the term is treated as an ugly thing within the film and Whitman does not take that shit lying down. When it’s revealed that she is the DUFF of her social circle, less because she is “fat” or “ugly” (she’s not and the movie doesn’t try to make her out to be) and more because she’s a B-Movie dork who’s obsessed with folks like Vincent Price & Bela Lugosi, she strikes back. She breaks off from her group & attempts to find herself with the help of her dumb, hot jock neighbor & eventual love interest.

The meanness of the film’s title matches the meanness of high school in a lot of ways & the script has a smart way of making light of it. Whitman isn’t the only DUFF in the film. There are also goth DUFFs, car DUFFs, and all kinds of DUFFs really. Once the protagonist discovers what she’s believes herself to be seen as, she starts to see other DUFFs everywhere. Her path to self-discovery may be a mere collection of throwback genre clichés, but it’s a tried & true formula that mostly serves as a platform for an onslaught of hilarious jokes. Sure, Whitman gets a makeover she didn’t need (including a straight-faced trying-on-clothes-at-the-mall montage), but she also threatens to murder & castrate anyone who tries to block her path to getting the life & the boy she wants. She’s bullied online, threatened by peers, and told to accept her place, but none of it kills her spirit. In the long run it’s hard to tell if The DUFF will be remembered as a decedent of the Heathers & Mean Girls pedigree (it certainly didn’t make a huge splash at the box office) or of admirable, but lesser teen clique fare like She’s All That & Ten Things I Hate About You, but it’s an easy pick for the best candidate at least since 2010’s Easy A.

-Brandon Ledet