There’s a moment in The Perfect Date, Netflix’s latest Noah Centineo teen rom-com, in which Centineo’s character – a normal 17-year-old boy – asks his best friend “what is a Reddit?”. In another, he mocks his love interest’s awkward dancing by saying “I can’t tell if you’re doing a Chandler Bing or a Napoleon Dynamite”. She replies “Bing, obviously”.
In those moments, the movie committed the greatest sin that could possibly be committed in a teen story: shining a bright flashing spotlight on the fact its creators probably don’t actually care about teens at all. They certainly don’t respect them.
It’s not that teenagers in 2019 can’t reference Friends or Napoleon Dynamite, or be clueless about Reddit. However they’re not the most natural cultural touchstones for a group of people who have grown up with the internet, and who were toddlers – or not even born – when the TV shows and movies that millennials get nostalgic for were released. For these nods to be included, they need to make sense for the characters. And they definitely shouldn’t be the only pop culture referenced within the script.
It might seem superficial, but getting such basic details right can mean the difference between a movie that tells an authentic and engaging teen story and one that falls flat and hollow. Because they’re a good indicator of just how connected the creators are to their characters, and whether they really give a damn about telling stories for today’s teens.
F the Prom, also on Netflix, is another example of a teen movie that fails to represent actual teens. It Frankensteins together empty visual homages to classics like The Breakfast Club while putting phrases like “laughing out loud” in their characters’ mouths, without a hint of irony. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you wondering “who is this even for?!”. The answer seems to be that it’s for the creators. Certainly not the audience. Why else would they give so little attention to depicting the real lives of the people the movie is supposedly for and about?
Interestingly, both F the Prom and The Perfect Date were written and directed by men, and tell stories of outsider boys who get hot girls and live out their revenge fantasies against the douches who looked down on them. The character development is minimal across the board, but pretty abysmal where the female characters especially are concerned. The scripts are the equivalent of the dad’s speech in 10 Things I Hate About You, when he says “I’m down, I’ve got the 411, and you are not going out and getting jiggy with some boy, I don’t care how dope his ride is.” Except the daggy attempt at teen slang is inserted into the actual mouths of the teen characters, as if nobody involved in these movies has ever had a conversation with anyone under the age of 20.
Successful teen movies do one simple thing right, above all else: they treat their characters like human beings, and not just human beings, but teens. Not aliens who speak a language adults could never possibly understand. And certainly not adults in youthful bodies, with all the same interests and thoughts an average 30-something would have.
Take To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, the Netflix phenomenon that made Noah Centineo the internet’s boyfriend in the first place. Main character Lara Jean (played with oodles of charm by Lana Condor) is an introverted homebody with a romantic heart. She loves reading books and staying in to watch The Golden Girls and John Hughes movies with her little sister. It makes sense for her character to have these obsessions. She’s an old soul. Centineo’s character, Peter Kavinsky, on the other hand, is a jock who’s never heard of Sixteen Candles, but who nonetheless agrees to watch it for Lara Jean. It’s a small moment, but it feels real and natural, and is one of the many things that make the movie so magical – and so authentic.
There’s a reason why John Hughes movies became classics, after all. They spoke to teenagers on their level. They didn’t speak down to them, or about them for an adult audience. And it’s that essence that the best teen movies today capture. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and other movies like Love, Simon connect because they understand what made Hughes so great. And, unlike what F the Prom would have you believe, it wasn’t just some random guy wearing flannel and doing a fist pump.