*This review was originally posted at The Film Experience as part of my coverage of the Hot Docs Film Festival.
In the history of cinema, there are few genres that receive as little acclaim or critical analysis as the high school film does. British critic Charlie Lyne’s (of Ultra Culture blog fame) visual essay is therefore a treasure for enthusiasts of recent film history. In Beyond Clueless, he examines teenage characters in a wide variety of films produced between 1996 and 2004. Little of the titular film is shown, though its influence over the films that came after it looms large. From The Craft to Mean Girls, from The Faculty to Rules of Attraction, via Spider-man, Final Destination and everything in between, the high school student is analyzed through the tumultuous process of entering that period of adolescence and exiting it unscathed and transformed.
Beyond Clueless itself takes on the narrative arc of a teen movie. Divided in five chapters that are designed to embody the high school experience, it begins with ‘Fitting In’ and ends with ‘Moving On.’ No new material is added to the clips taken from the films discussed, but crucially, the lengthy essay is narrated by Fairuza Balk, star of The Craft, whose somber but familiar voice instills the film a teen personality of its own. Although the study is academic in approach, what is beautiful about this documentary is it doesn’t rob its subjects – the epitome of plastic pop culture – of their romantic and nostalgic charm. It is as loving toward them as it is critical.
The framework for the experiment is the thematic similarities that connect the films: stories about being outcast, misfit, repressed or misunderstood. Sexuality plays as big a part in Beyond Clueless as it does in many depictions of teenagers in the films of the era, from the high-minded likes of American Beauty to allegorical camp like Idle Hands. Formal similarities are also explored as the film charts visual tropes and even shot by shot resemblances between the subjects – in one particular sequence, more than a dozen passionate kisses in swimming pools across different films highlight in equal measure the creative bankruptcy and the glorified fantastical ideas of romance in the high school film. Ultimately, Beyond Clueless is an incredibly personal experience to its young director. Having spent his adolescent years watching these films, his genuine enthusiasm for the material shines through the screen. Here are films that defined an era for cinephiles of a certain age, yet never receive a retrospective examination. That this director does so with such passion is a triumph, made all the better for its deep insight, sharp humour and careful structure.