Hormonal pyrotechnics 101

“I’d rather see what young people are going through,” says Amy Heckerling, “than see things explode.”

For the director of Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982) and writer/director of Clueless (1995) — shining examples of what teen movies can be — teenagers provide more than enough combustible subject matter. Ostensibly a comedy, Fast Times is also a serious exploration of the suburban angst only hinted at in John Hughes’ escapist fables. This anomaly — a Hollywood film with a conscience — dealt frankly and honestly with the repercussions of the adolescent search for identity, something the 46-year old filmmaker
hasn’t seen much of in recent teen films.

“There are so many things about life that you’re just figuring out at that age,” Heckerling explains, “and it’s all new and exciting and heartbreaking. A teenager has to decide what they’re going to do with their life, and that’s one of the most important decisions that you’ll make. To try to figure out who you are, how good you are at various things and how happy you are doing them, nobody deals with that unless it’s about somebody who wants to sing or dance.”

“Also sex, of course,” she continues. “That’s a very big, important area of life, and it’s dealt with a lot of times like this happy, giggly free-for-all. ... I have a 14-year-old daughter, and I don’t think she ate anything yesterday. Body image — what we’re supposed to look like — is made so unattainable that all girls are put in this position of feeling inferior. That’s a horrible thing. None of these movies deal with that. It’s all these beautiful people deciding who they should be going out with.”

That’s an interesting attitude from the woman who made Jane Austen’s Emma into a shallow Beverly Hills teen who narrowly defines the perimeters of cool. But the central character of Clueless has more than a change of heart: She gets the kind of transformation which brings not only insight, but the ability to utilize her intelligence beyond coordinating the perfect outfit.

Few filmmakers are as in touch with their inner teenager as Amy Heckerling, even if her own experience is diametrically opposed to those of the California teens in her best films. The Bronx native attended the High School of Art and Design in nearby Manhattan, where she focused on photography, and eventually moved on to New York University to study film.

This was the early 1970s, when status was measured by political awareness and activity. “If you didn’t have an opinion,” she says, “and at least knew some catchphrases if not actually being well-versed, you were out of it. That was a much more popular thing then. Apathy was uncool.”

What she utilizes in films about the teen years are the extreme emotions the hormonally fueled pyrotechnics of adolescence.

“First of all, there’s no perspective,” she states, “so something sad could seem like, ‘That’s it, and now my life will be this sadness.’ What you think you want or who you think you’re in love with or what you think you’ll die without. It’s so in the moment, and it’s a very live or die moment.

“This is also hormonal, there are chemicals in your body that will make you nuttier than you will ever be, and it’s hard to understand it, but you won’t always feel like that.”

Her new film, Loser, has more autobiographical elements. Like her principal characters, Heckerling had to struggle through her college years (both financially and emotionally) while confronting the baffling expectations placed on newly self-reliant young adults.

Loser follows two social misfits through their first semester at NYU as they discover their outsider status is a valuable asset.

“They’re not part of any bigger social group,” she explains. “They’re alienated, they’re lonely. I was influenced by movies ... like Marty, about people that aren’t doing so well until they find each other. I turn on the TV and everyone’s at the MTV Beach Party. I can see that’s a part of being young, you’re accepted into a certain clique and that helps you find your identity. It gives you a little confidence and prevents all that loneliness and angst, but I didn’t have that.”

“I’ve always tried to figure out what people think of themselves,” she continues, “and what they think they’re projecting. We walk around all of us revealing so much. I don’t have any interest in doing anything that’s humorless, but I don’t really think of what I’m doing as comedy.”

Heckerling doesn’t see equality when she observes the lopsided ratio of men to women in the Directors Guild of America, but she believes that female filmmakers today are less likely to be pigeonholed into gender-specific genres such as the coming-of-age film, where maturity is achieved via one life-altering epiphany.

“I think you come all sorts of ages,” she asserts, “and hopefully keep coming of age. It would be sad if somebody figured it out at 17 and then just glided through the rest of their life.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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