I’m much too young for the Andy Hardy movies, which flourished just before and during World War II. Andy (played by Mickey Rooney) was an amiable small-town adolescent. He was always getting into scrapes involving money and girls, then afterward learning the error of his ways through chats with his father, the kindly but upright Judge Hardy. This was an adult’s-eye view of what growing up ought to be.
Since then, the high school years have been presented in vastly different lights. The 1950s saw the rise of teen problem films, including 1955’s Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, that spotlighted young people who felt isolated from the world around them. Teenage characters in these films -- Sidney Poitier’s Greg Miller and James Dean’s Jim Stark among them – were viewed with sympathy, even when they misbehaved. But these films left us feeling that help for these lost souls would come through interventions from good-hearted adults, like Blackboard Jungle’s dedicated teacher and Rebel’s remorseful father.
When George Lucas made American Graffiti in 1973, he pretty much wiped adults out of the picture of a small-town cruise night among a group of new high school graduates. The young people in this film deal with their problems among themselves, without adult interference. This approach had great appeal to the youthful viewers who were being courted by studios in the post-Sixties era. And American Graffiti has a winning frankness about the role of drinking, sexual attraction, and car culture in the lives of teenagers. Still, Lucas set his film back in time (“Where Were You in ’62?” was the film’s nostalgia-inducing catchline), and so the bad behavior we see on screen seemed slightly dated, even when the film was new.
In the 1980s it was John Hughes who captured the sense of what it’s like to be a high school student, in such widely popular films as The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Again, the focus is almost entirely on young people whose support systems among parents and teaches seem to have broken down. The Breakfast Club, especially, concentrates on deeply troubled teens whose campus misdeeds have led to official punishment. But nothing they’ve done (pulling a fire alarm, playing a prank, skipping school) seems, to our modern eyes, all that bad.
Then there’s 2007’s Superbad, which takes the misbehavior of graduating high school seniors a giant step further. The cringe-worthy acts of the two central characters and their friends seem to have the ring of contemporary truth, maybe because screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg started creating the project while still in their own teens, basing some of the shenanigans we see on screen on their own lives (and, I assume, their own fantasies). The seniors played by Jonah Hill (as Seth) and Michael Cera (as Evan) are not shown to be troubled in any dramatic way. Rather, they’re presented as realistically horny adolescents, obsessed with male and female body parts and stoked by the possibility of getting laid before they go off to pursue higher education. Says Seth, early on, “The point is to be good at sex before you go to college.”