January 24, 2006

It's all wrong, all wrong


The high school movie is one of my favorite genres, and one I've given a lot of thought to — largely because I think not enough people have (someday I'll write a long article, or even a book, on this rich subject). One thing that fascinates me is the hot young girls purity of the form, how the genre has standard conventions and characters that can be played in so many different ways. The best high school films (Rushmore, Election, Fast Times, Heathers, Dazed and Confused) manage to perform a kind of alchemy with those conventions, using them to trandscend themselves and create a genuine American artwork.

The other night I rented last year's underappreciated high school film Pretty Persuasion. It's flawed, to be sure, but utterly fascinating and absolutely essential if you're a fan of the genre. What almost none of the critics got is that the entire film is about the last 15 or 20 minutes. Indeed, lots of critics even complained about the ending. They hated the shift in tone from dark comedy to simply dark. But without that shift, you don't get the point, which is to turn the film against itself, to expose genre conventions to scrutiny they were never built to withstand, and force you to question them and confront what they're really saying.

I'm convinced that this is a movie about high school movies, the way Unforgiven is a Western about Westerns. Not that revisionism is unknown in this genre, but Pretty Persuasion's particular approach is shockingly effective. Unfortunately there's no director's commentary to confirm my opinion (how spoiled DVDs have made us!), but maybe if enough people rent it, we'll get a special edition someday.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I as well am a fan of genre films and the high school genre that you talk about here. I haven't seen Pretty Persuasion, but after having read this, I'll have to check it out.
What I wanted to clarify however, (and I just watched Fast Times, one might argue the progenitor of this genre, although it is more likely the teen romps of the studio era, which made me think about all this) is that even in revisionist genre films like Unforgiven, a failure to play by the rules set forth by earlier films usually results in critical confusion or rejection, as you mentioned, and a general lack of interest by the audience.
I think that Fry from Futurama summed up the whole of genre theory best in the episode about the aliens who attack Earth to see the end of a show about a single female lawyer.
"Clever things make people feel stupid and unexpected things make them feel scared." By and large (and of course there are exceptions) movies that try to transcend a genre or turn generic conventions in on themselves end up getting bitch slapped at the box office. Either way, I'd like to see this film. There aren't many truly revisionist high school films (I think you listed a number of them above) so i'm interested to know how Pretty Persuasion fits into the grand scheme.

I'm happy to see a reference to Morphine lyrics in a headline

Well, it's more specifically a reference to REM lyrics, which may be less hip but is also less random, given the title of the film.

Just watched this myself (inspired by this post.) I didn't think much of this angle at the time, but you're right that it does take bits and pieces of those earlier movies and recycles them; putting just enough spin on them to throw you off guard.

I was most struck by this at the beginning with the obvious parallels to Clueless, with Wood as sort evil twin of Cher. Not a great movie, but definitely interesting.

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