While I try not to use the term “guilty pleasure” – because it implies that there are things we should feel bad about liking – I admit that I don’t quite understand my enjoyment of teen romantic comedies. With a few notable exceptions, I hated most of the movies targeted at me when I was a teen. They didn’t really speak to me about my own life experiences, and often rang quite hollow.
But as I have grown older, I have managed to find something appealing in movies for and about teens. To some extent, it’s the distance – these are not my problems anymore, and that’s kind of refreshing – but I also think there’s a level of quality in at least some of these movies beyond what I saw in the movies of my youth. My generation had John Hughes and the brat pack, but other than The Breakfast Club, I can’t recommend many of that era’s movies for the quality of message or story. In some ways, our movies were the best when they parodied rather than preached, which is why I think Better Off Dead is the perfect teen movie.
In my research for Rockalypse, I have been watching movies that focus on music in some way, and there have been some teen movies that have surprised me with the depth of their writing. I wanted to share a couple of these in case other folks are looking for decent movies (ostensibly) for teens.
My appreciation of teen movies does not extend to the High School Musical series or any of its lookalikes. That shallowness I despised in 80s movies is all over the place in HSM. So I was a bit wary when approaching Bandslam, which looked like it was going to be just a Vanessa Hudgens vehicle.
What I found instead were incredibly complex teen (and adult!) characters, many of whom were coping with real trauma and grief beyond the usual drama of being a teen. Since this is something I understand from personal experience, I was heartened by how well it was handled by both the script and the acting. (By contrast, the Disney original Lemonade Mouth also tries to handle grief, but the script doesn’t understand subtle and doesn’t believe you do either.) Bandslam is one of the most emotionally mature teen movies I have ever seen. And it was even a decent high school band movie on top of that, so there you go.
Let it Shine
I decided to give Disney a chance at redemption, and this movie actually made me glad I did. Like many other teen movies over the years (10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless, Easy A, and so on), Let it Shine makes no secret of its literary roots, specifically Cyrano de Bergerac. The story of Cyrano seems a pretty natural fit for a teen romantic comedy, but in this case the skill of dueling is expressed through rap battle, which ends up being a fairly clever choice. It makes for a very solid throughline into the romantic plot, keeping the dueling skill important in ways that it isn’t in other Cyrano interpretations (such as the otherwise well-done Roxanne).
There is also some acceptable music in Let it Shine. Most Disney original movies in recent years have aggressively embraced the conventional teen-pop sound (I’m looking at you, Camp Rock), and honestly at least half the music in Let it Shine is in this vein. But the mixed-genre gospel tunes manage to present something a little more unique than other Disney offerings. And Tyler James Williams as Cyrus brings a surprising genuineness to his own musical performances, and that’s really all I’m looking for in a teen musical.