By Sam Inglis @24FPSUK 24fps.org.uk
Beyond Clueless is not a documentary, rather it’s an example of something that has lately become fashionable in film criticism; the video essay. Writer/director Charlie Lyne uses clips from every mid 90’s to mid 00’s teen movie you can think of (and several you can’t) alongside narration, read by The Craft’s Fairuza Balk, to advance his theories about how they depict teens and high school.
Before I get into this review I should say I have always loved teen movies and have recently been doing research into them for a future project, so I speak from a more specialised position than most of the people who will end up seeing Beyond Clueless.
Beyond Clueless is a teen movie case study for a film studies 101 class. In that respect it’s fine. Lyne’s analysis is always valid, but it is rather surface level. Much of the voiceover, well written and delivered as it is, is little more than description with a veneer of analysis. The film sets out this approach early, with its opening analysis of The Craft setting out, in purely chronological fashion, the surface themes of cliques and ways of breaking the ‘rules’ of high school, as part of a clique and, eventually, the rules of that clique as an individual. If this is a new way of looking at film for you then it’s all valid and interesting, but for me it was frustrating that Lyne never digs into what lies behind these surfaces.
He’s good at pointing out recurring motifs, be it in close analysis pieces or in montages. One amusing section hammers home how often first kisses in teen movies take place in swimming pools at night, while another shows us the many different films that have establishing monologues about the ‘tribes’ of high school. The issue is that, outside of these montages, Lyne generally looks at films in isolation from each other and always in isolation from the wider context of cinema. The analysis of She’s All That, in terms of how Lainey’s status as a total outsider is what presents a challenge in making her prom queen, is original and well founded. Still, how one analyses it without touching on either the Pygmalion plot or the many ludicrous examples of ‘plain Janes’ in 90’s and 00’s teen movies is quite beyond me.
Beyond Clueless concentrates completely on the teen movies of the mid 90’s to the mid 00’s; a decade which forms a definable period in the history of the genre. The problem is that the film never defines what it is about this period in particular that makes it different. Few, if any, of the specific analyses it offers are absent from the subtext of the genre in the 80’s, the 70’s or even further back. Look, for example, at cliques and how Grease’s Pink Ladies compare to Mean Girls’ Plastics. More problematically, Lyne chooses not to acknowledge the dominant defining type of 90’s and 00’s teen movie. In this period classic literature was, again and again, reset in a high school milieu, even the source film – Clueless – does this (with Jane Austen’s Emma) and it’s a huge aspect of the genre in this period. Why refuse to engage with it?
The one thing I liked about Beyond Clueless without reservation was its score, by indie pop duo Summer Camp. Their sunny pop sensibility works for much of the film, but they also prove adept at finding menacing melodies to underpin some of the darker ideas that are advanced. I suspect I’ll find myself revisiting these songs much more frequently than I will the film.
The fact that Beyond Clueless doesn’t work for me doesn’t make it a bad film. That’s not to say that the film isn’t flawed, but in a lot of ways I am the problem here. Having spent a long time and preparing to spend more time researching teen movies, I’ve already engaged with almost all of the ideas discussed here, and of course I wish that Beyond Clueless had been more comprehensive in several ways.
However, that’s not an entirely fair way to look at the film. It would be more effective at certain points if it went a bit deeper, but the idea of making film analysis accessible to a more general audience is a good one, and Lyne does it pretty well here. I hope the purpose here is to give the viewers of these films a nudge and say ‘Here’s what’s just beneath the surface of these films. Now it’s your turn to dig deeper’. It’s certainly a push that most general audiences could do with and, while I have issues with Beyond Clueless both as an essay and as a piece of filmmaking, that’s a noble goal and one the film should achieve.
Beyond Clueless is on general release from friday 23rd January.