So, after this post and this post, we finally come to to what I said I'd cover in the first entry--which movies were actually good? Which ones sucked? Why? And would it be illegal to kill a fictional character?
Why do some movies suck and others rock?
TV, books, movies, music--at some level, once you cover basic levels of competence and present things well, it's up to the audience. Some things resonate, and others just don't. Some people relate to a character, others want to shiv him in the kidneys with a rusty car key (Hi, Duckie). So, with the emphasis on subjectivity in mind, I'm abandoning objectivity a bit here to focus on what I liked and didn't like in these films. Instead of focusing on individual characters, movies, or plots, I'm going to pick and choose from tropes.
Strong, three-dimensional female protagonists. They aren't all good girls, and they don't necessarily trade up their dreams for love and a magical weenie, either. Diane in Say Anything, Kate in Ten Things I Hate about You, and of course, Veronica from the The Heathers were my personal favorites. Cady from Mean Girls was pretty good, but she had too many wishes fulfilled for me to appreciate her--same as Cher in Clueless. The actresses did really well with their roles and brought a lot of complexity, including both positive and negative traits. The girls are ambitious, determined, and sometimes borderline insane, but they're no-one's pet Manic Pixie Dream Girls, charging in to fix a boy's life or walk by his side like a loyal, obedient collie. And, of course, there's Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, with one of the best performances I've ever seen in any movie. I couldn't take my eyes off of her, really. She's got some MPDG traits, but she's also a wrecking ball, damaged, and she ain't there to fix up her faithful, subtle boyfriend's life. Naturally, I loved that.
Interesting, complex love interests. Lloyd in Say Anything, J.D. in Heathers, Patrick in 10TIHaY; they're all far more than just smooth-faced, mop-haired, clean-cut boy-next-door types. They're messy, they're a little dangerous or disorganized, and in J.D.'s case, he makes a pretty good Mephistopheles analogue to Veronica's lady!Faust. Paul in BaT is okay, but is mostly interesting because he, like Holly, is basically a sex trade worker of a sort. Still, it's a far cry from Richard Gere's character in Pretty Woman, and I prefer the difference, the equality of their characters' roles.
Snappy writing. These films are immensely quotable, even the worst of them. Mean Girls is in the memetic DNA of the internet at this point, and after a rewatch, I understood why. When I first saw it, I disliked the "popular" girls too much to empathize with them. Now, I had chance to catch all the little details and the tiny hilarious one-liners. That's Tina Fey for you. Sure, the plot is contrived in the last quarter, and these movies all tend to be a bit contrived, but damn, they're funny and clever. Heathers, 10TIHaY, Mean Girls, Clueless, and BaT were particularly good examples of fine, witty writing. The Graduate also was well-written, but it was the cinematography in that one that really got my attention. That being said, these teen movies are often really nicely, even beautifully shot--downright lavish, saturated, and rich.
The darkness. It goes almost without saying--gods, I love it when terrible things happen to characters. Murder? Social ruin/ Exploitation? Wonderful! Throw it at me. Suffering characters are challenged characters, and challenged characters can do more than people who are mildly inconvenienced.
This is how I feel every time it seems like the films will move away from a cliche...and then they don't.
The plots. Oh god, the plots. So many of these movies have interchangeable plots. First day at school, new friends, Christmas, big house party, mall, dance, school gym, random dancing scene, drinking/drugs scene, big fight, finale--not necessarily in that order. It's hard to create a compelling plot when the perimeters are so restrained, but the directors often try, and some of them manage to break out of the rote structure. TBC and Say Anything are probably the best examples, TBC being a locked room movie. Footloose also escaped the structure a bit, and so did Dirty Dancing and Flashdance--but those are all dancing movies. Even then, they have extremely similar plot structures, just without schools as the backdrop.
Profoundly meh love interests. FBDO is a good--or bad--example of this, and so is The Craft. Interestingly, the boyfriends are ususally much flatter than the girl protagonists in these movies, which is a callback to Shakespeare's youth comedies such as Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Clueless is based on Emma, and Easy A (cheating, I know) is based on The Scarlet Letter. All of these have much better female characters than male ones. And boy oh boy(friend), can you tell. Even the good performances tend to be a bit bland.
Abusive love interests. Holy hell, was this a problem. Duckie, the obnoxious, abrasive, sphincter-clenchingly unfunny, friendzone-whining rape ape from PiP was one of the worst examples of this. John Bender in TBC was a bit hammy but generally very well-played, but KEEP HIM AWAY FROM YOUR DAUGHTERS AND SONS AND PROBABLY ALSO YOUR NONBINARY CHILDREN. Seriously. He's destructive and abusive, and that we're supposed to be happy that he...nails, I guess?...Claire, is very disturbing.
Tokenism. Godsdamnit, these movies have more tokens than a Chuck. E. Cheese with three simultaneously occurring birthday parties. The Black Kid, The Suspiciously Erudite Non-Sidney Poiter Black Teacher, The Smart Asian Dork, The Sassy Latino/a, The Hideous Fat Girl (did you know that all fat girls have puffy, meaty facial features and thin, limp hair?), and a few other characters break up the sparkling monotony of middle and upper-class whiteness. However, the casting is usually pre-global climate change arctic tundra-level blanc. The films are pretty embedded in white culture, too, so you can tell who they're filming these for. Still a crappy excuse, though, and some of them are downright racist. Also, I hope you love condescending shots of the protagonist hanging out with these fat, diverse, sometimes wheelchair-bound losers to prove that they've become Better Human Beings! But not so good that they've learned to speak "Mexican", of course.
Rape jokes, gay jokes, and other fun stuff. Mineral water is magic gay juice. Gay people exist only as failed boyfriends and sidekicks who are too gay to function. Lesbians and bisexuals are party sluts or rare, mythical, nonexistent unicorns. I'm pretty sure that every single one of these included something homophobic or intensely awkward gangbang jokes, something the John Hughes movies had in abundance. Ugh. Also, how do you like your gender roles? Sorry, we only serve traditional ones here. Nonbinary people don't exist in the teen movie universe.
Conformity as the key to social success. I hated this deeply. Sure, there are different flavours of conformity--for me, the geek community was a good tribe to join because my interests pointed me in that direction anyway, but there's a uniformity to the characters' choices that drives me mad. Alison in TBC sheds her cool, gothy clothes for boring pink cupcake wear and normalcy, and it's the other reason I still hate the ending of TBC. Ty in Clueless also sheds her identity. It's unclear whether Holly Golightly trades in for normalcy, but at least Veronica of The Heathers does not. She does have a somewhat condescending ending--but she doesn't go off to a big dance, she ditches her abusive boyfriend, and she treats the fat chick like a human rather than just tossing her a showy compliment for the audience's sake. She also ditches her popularity, and that was subversive and refreshing after the other movies.
So, those are my main insights. However, there's a lot to cover in these movies. Which tropes and elements worked for you? Which ones inspired the use of terrifying metaphors to vent your hapless frustration? Tell me in the comments!