Sep 22, 2008

The Teen Movie

It’s back to school time, and for many screenwriters that means time to finish the spec script that will be your calling card to the big shots. One of the first rules of success for screenwriters is choosing a story form Hollywood wants to buy. Certainly one of those forms is the teen movie, as popular now as ever, in television as well as in film. To write any story form well, you have to study how it works under the surface, that is, structurally.

The first thing to understand about teen movies is that they aren’t actual genres. They are stories about a major kind of character change. In the Great Screenwriting Class, I talk about the five great character changes in storytelling, and this particular one is known as “coming of age.” Here someone changes from child to adult – not physically, but emotionally and morally.

All fiction asks the basic question: how do adults grow? Teen movies focus on the first stage of becoming an adult, which usually involves learning how to break free of conformity and become an individual.

What’s changed over the years is the nature of that conformity. In the original teen move, Rebel Without A Cause, it was the conformity of the parents’ world, the 9-5 job, the man in the gray flannel suit. The Graduate (essentially a teen movie even though the hero is a college grad) continued this basic contrast, with the parents’ world portrayed as even richer and more morally bankrupt (“plastics”). American Graffiti, probably the best teen movie ever made, was a turning point. Within the strict confines of small town America, the conformity changed to being primarily among the teens themselves.

This opposition of individual vs. conforming teens was then codified in The Breakfast Club, still the model for teen films today. There conformity among the students was pushed so far that even the few differences that existed within the student body were themselves stereotypes and categories: the jock, the nerd, the princess, the bad boy outcast, the bad girl outcast, etc.

Looking at the current teen movie, you might not realize that the form is as old as storytelling, going all the way back to the myth stories of the boy becoming king and the girl becoming queen. Teen movies are always connected to some genre, usually comedy (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Porky’s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, American Pie) or romantic comedy (Superbad, Juno, Clueless, She’s All That, Legally Blond, Risky Business), but also straight drama (Rebel Without A Cause, Romeo and Juliet) and even horror (Carrie) and fantasy (Back to the Future, Harry Potter).

But the deeper foundation of all these teen films – what connects them all – is the fairy tale form. The fairy tale is one of the major variations to organic story structure (see the Great Screenwriting Class for the 10 special story beats of the fairy tale). In the teen movie version, the kingdom is high school. The ball is the prom where the new king and queen are crowned. Because teen movies are about crossing the threshold into adulthood, the prom becomes nothing less than the archetypal rite of passage. Especially for high school girls becoming women, the prom is like a practice wedding, with the dress taking on almost magical, talismanic powers.

Normally we think of high school as that place and organization where the student must learn the intellectual tools that are supposed to prepare him/her for working in the adult world. But teen movies tell us that the real learning in high school is social, and it involves trying to reach the highest status within one’s own gender and “scoring” with the most attractive person from the other gender.

Fairy tales are about extreme success. Applied to the modern life experience of high school, teen fairy tales show that even in a democracy, all people are not created equal. Some students have great beauty, wealth or athletic ability. Most don’t. But the first lesson in teen fairy tales – the hero’s self-revelation – is that while people aren’t created equal in talent, they are equal in rights, including the right to be treated with decency and respect.

The deeper lesson of these stories is how one learns to become a unique and moral individual. This element is easiest to see when the teen movie is done as a romantic comedy. The male hero’s goal is sex, preferably with the prettiest girl in school. But his need is to learn to leave his male friends and their reptilian views of all women behind and form a new community with one woman, who will show him the power and value of intimacy and actually help him find and take pride in his true individuality.

The lead female in teen romantic comedies has usually been the beautiful object of affection for the boy. Or, in a slight variation, she appears to be a nerd but is really a beauty underneath. In true fairy tale form, the ugly duckling turns out to be a princess.

Especially in teen romances of the last ten years, the heroine has erased the classic distinction between the smart outcast and the pretty bimbo. Instead, the outcast and the pretty girl are one and the same. Most prominently in Legally Blond (a teen movie even though it’s set in law school), the lead is both smart and pretty. This girl embraces her great looks and femininity and is proud to use her unique strengths as a woman. She is often opposed by other beautiful teenage girls, but they are petty, jealous, glammed-up and lack the one trait that the lead has always had, compassion.

These teen love stories are often about the difference between true class and false class. False class comes from looks and money. True “class” comes from character. These stories say it is okay to want beauty and money in life and to try to get them, but you have to go after them in a decent way.

If you want to write a coming of age movie, focus on modernizing the fairy tale form. Connect the story to one or two genres to pay the genre dues that Hollywood demands. But above all, transcend the form. As you can see, the teen movie has a long history, so you must tell your story in a unique way to have any chance of standing out from the crowd.