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Birds, bees and 'Superbad'

It's lewd and it's crude, but as one father discovers, it also really speaks to teenage boys.

September 10, 2007|Desson Thomson | Washington Post

Was there anything to be learned from a second viewing of "Superbad," a movie that is not only crude and lewd but also makes more casual mention of the male sexual organ within two hours than Alfred Kinsey did in a lifetime? Actually, there was, I found, if you watched it next to someone for whom the movie defines his life and amounts to a birds-and-the-bees briefing -- teen to teen.

That someone was my 15-year-old son. As I sat there with him, the exploits of three socially maladroit high school seniors on a mission to lose their virginity and become cool no longer seemed like the sleaze-fest I had initially thought it to be but an extended empathy encounter for him. And it became clearer why an R-rated teen comedy with no major stars has reaped millions of dollars at the box office in just a few weeks. Over the weekend, the film finished third with $8 million, lifting its total through four weekends above the $100-million mark.

Upon first viewing "Superbad," with a 23-year-old son in tow, it was an often-unseemly comedy about the sexual desperation of teenagers -- no more, no less -- funny in some places, too gross in others. Seth (played by Jonah Hill) was a sex-fixated expletive-spouter with an ungainly Afro. Evan (Michael Cera), the sweeter of the two, was unbearably weedy. And their hang-along dweeb buddy, Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), could barely speak without tripping over his tongue.

Then came the second viewing (the R rating meant my 15-year-old needed a legal chaperon, and I obliged). As I sat through it again, I noticed my son's blissfully innocent face, the way he was so riveted that he barely shifted in his seat. And I was pleased he didn't guffaw at the dirty words. At one point, a girl catches Fogell staring at her visible thong, and in terrified response, the character looks at his wristwatch and tells her . . . the time is 10:33. Then he swings around and retreats down the hallway, dying by the second. It was one of many socially embarrassing moments in the film that made my son laugh knowingly. Clearly, the on-screen awkwardness mirrored the treacherous world of his own school halls.

A "very good" movie, said my son, as we left. Watching Seth, he declared, "I could connect and, like, relate to everything" about him. "That fat kid said everything on our minds we're too afraid to say."


"Like when you're angry and you think of something to say but it would be too rude."

What about all those F-bombs Seth hurls? The expletive, according to the Internet Movie Database, is repeated more than 180 times. To me, that's 179 too many. To my son, "That's what I kinda expected because it's a teen movie about someone who doesn't have any better vocabulary words to say. He's not just saying it to be cool. He's supposed to be a fat, crude guy who has nothing better to say." Gotcha.

He could also relate to Evan because "he displays people's shy stuff, the things we're too afraid to do sometimes. That shy stuff. I don't know how to explain it." Maybe he was recalling a scene in which Evan finds himself in bed, drunk and half-naked, with a teenage girl. As things get hot and heavy, she compliments him on having such a "smooth" organ. To which Evan replies: "Oh, thank you. I'm sure you would too if you had one."

Upon first watching, it was simply a groan-inducing eye-roller for me. But through my son's eyes, that gag -- and the movie in general -- became one of vulnerability, not rudeness. And even unmentionable subjects such as how to conceal an erection when you're in class resonated with a sort of weird gravitas. It was something, after all, that teenage boys would talk about. "Imagine if girls weren't weirded out by" such things, Evan declares at one point, with visionary passion. "And just, like, wanted to see them. That's the world I want to one day live in."

Uh, none of this boys'-confidential business had been covered in our birds-and-the-bees talk about three years earlier -- but maybe it should have been. What was missing was the emotional freight that comes with sexual dawning. What it feels like, for instance, to be overwhelmed with animalistic urges, too little information and about 50 tons of self-doubt, the fears that tourniquet your tongue when you're face to face with a girl. And so on.

Since the 1980s "Porky's" comedies, movies about teenage sexuality have become a screeching banality, and with few exceptions, they have turned the pursuit of sexuality into almost sitcom-funny farce, the most famous being the "American Pie" franchise. Ironic, I thought, that an R-rated comedy tells it like it is for moviegoers who are too young to go see it on their own. Finally, I asked my son that must-immediately-walk-away-from-Dad question: "What did you learn from this movie?"

"I learned that people that age are obsessed with sex -- a little bit too obsessed," he answered. And he didn't walk away.

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