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Talkin' About Their Generation

An expert on teenagers in the movies shares what she's learned about the real-life adolescent set.


Amy Heckerling has directed two teen zeitgeist classics, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982) and "Clueless" (1995), as well as the popular "Look Who's Talking" (1989). In her new film, "Loser," which opens July 21, her characters are nearing the end of their teens: They're college-aged. Calendar asked for her thoughts on the enduring teen genre, her movies and a few other things.


Since I directed "Clueless" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (combined, they grossed less that "Porky's"), people mistakenly think I know about youth culture. Through the years, I've managed to maintain that frightened, alienated "what the hell is going on with everyone?" attitude that made me so invisible as a teenager, but now I'm more experienced at it. So with those credentials, here are my insights into commonly asked questions about "The Kids Today."

What's with all the crappy music?

Of course, I don't mean Blink-182, the Offspring or Everclear. You know who we're talking about: 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and all the other overly choreographed, pre-fab wunderkinder. A normal grown-up might say, "Oh my God! I don't get it! I must be getting old!" Relax, this too shall pass. In 1969, what was on top of the Billboard chart? The Beatles? The Who? Led Zeppelin? Nope, it was "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies. So, not to worry. They will either go away, get reinvented or, possibly, evolve.

What are they talking about?

From "Whatdayahear . . . Whatdayasay?" to " 'zup?," one way for generations to separate themselves is to have their very own language. "Cool" has been through coolsville, way cool, totally cool, super cool, rilly cool and on and on. The more words the better. Remember "Newspeak" in "1984"? The government controlled people's minds by eliminating words. All superlatives were reduced to good, double good and doubleplus good. One warning: When speaking current slang, if you're not the right age, in the right clothes with the right attitude, color, height, weight and background, you can look like a complete moron.

Are high school movies getting more or less realistic?

That depends on reality. Is there a place on Earth where a "weirdo," a "princess" and a "jock" could all have detention together ("The Breakfast Club")? I guess. Is that more or less plausible than finding apple pies sexually gratifying? They're both more realistic than Frankie and Annette on the beach. How about gangs of different ethnic backgrounds at war with one another in the inner city? That can definitely happen. So, in a way, "West Side Story" is as true to life as "Cruel Intentions" or "Varsity Blues." And it has inspired more khaki commercials.

Why are there so many teenage movies?

First of all--they're cheaper. Excluding Leo, most actors in that age range are up-and-comers. Their salaries are smaller, and they're easier to light than older stars. Second of all--dates. Young people go on dates. Adults settle down, have jobs and kids, get tired and say stuff like "I'm in for the night" when you try to get them to go out. But kids have to go on dates. They need a reasonably priced diversion that will keep them relatively close and be less humiliating than sports or dancing.

A few words on trousers.

When I hit my teens, no ensemble was complete without bell-bottomed jeans that covered your shoes and dusted the floor as you walked. I can only imagine how ridiculous they looked to my elders. My daughter's guy-friends wear jeans so baggy it looks like they're wearing denim ball gowns. How can my poor kid look at boys and possibly be attracted? Then it occurred to me that she can, but I can't. Fashion is not just to attract but also to repel. Grown-ups should not look at teens sexually. Their clothes should be silly to us and a secret code among themselves. It's probably some biological instinct to ensure survival of our species.

What do you tell your teenager about sex and drugs?

I like to quote the wisdom of "South Park" and tell my daughter, "There's a time and a place for everything, and it's called 'college,' " as Mr. Garrison says. She assures me that was fine "in the day" (meaning, the olden days) but "high school is the new college," just as gray is the new black, 40 is the new 30, SAMe is the new St. John's wort, etc. In other words, "Shut up, Ma, me and my friends invented sex and drugs and you really don't understand."

What about reality versus responsibility in teen movies?

I have always tried to create a cigarette-free universe in my films. I know it's not realistic, but if the cute, young movie stars are not smoking, maybe it will send a subliminal message. If an actor states that their particular character would smoke, one can argue that their character also goes to the bathroom, but there are some things we're just not going to see. The script is what happens to them between cigarettes.

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