The movie Beyond Clueless opens at high school’s gates, signaling our venture into teenage life. We are cast “under a spell of a parallel universe” by a cool, soft incantatory voice that describes yellow buses as they curve and “glide into the parking lot.” Like a meandering bus, the stem of a yellow pencil spins steadily before our eyes, as a student carefully drills the tip of it into her classroom desk. This is a movie often set in slow motion, delaying action so that we catch the hesitation in teenagers’ eyes or the glow of a girl’s perfectly shaven leg. In these moments, we’re left contemplating the characters’ silent, sensual gestures; teenagers reveal themselves with their bodies because they have yet to grow into their own voices.
Instead, Fairuza Balk — who once starred in the 1996 cult classic teenage movie The Craft and is now an adult — narrates the lives of the inadequate, inarticulate teenagers of Beyond Clueless, a kind of collage of over 200 American teen movies from the 1990s and early 2000s. Charlie Lyne, the movie’s creator, deftly interweaves the selected footage. The resulting narrative about coming of age, which oscillates between documentary and experimental montage, divides into four sections: “Fitting In,” “Acting Out,” “Losing Yourself,” and “Toeing the Line.” In her voiceover, Balk applies the teen psychology we’re all mostly familiar with to each section, drawing on the chosen movies as examples.
Truth be told, I was unfamiliar with the majority of the movie selections. But this didn’t seem to matter, for individual characters quickly lose their significance in Beyond Clueless. There isn’t just one mean girl, or one loser, or one heartthrob. The edge of each of these characters dissolves as several of their kind come to share a common ground. Though this would seem to reinforce stereotypes, it achieves the opposite. The overwhelming number of girls wearing lip gloss, boys on skateboards, and nerds on PCs precludes each from being particularly sexy, intimidating, or victimized. Characters become more ordinary and vulnerable, and therefore more human.
There is a subtext to the movie that we, the viewers, have all gone through this before. But it is a largely white and heterosexual world, where becoming a teenager is all about sex. This relative narrowness of vision is partly to be expected, given that the grand majority of movie selections are mainstream. Lyne, it seems, tries to compensate by drawing on a number of grotesque sci-fi and horror films that are perhaps less thought of when it comes to the American teen movie. Though unusual, the results can be underwhelming. Beyond Clueless takes a particular focus on Idle Hands (1999), in which the severed, bloody hand of a sex-crazed teenage boy assaults the objects of his desires, as well as on Ginger Snaps (2000), wherein a girl’s transformation into a werewolf becomes a gross stand-in for puberty. These blatant metaphors, which Balk takes the time to spell out, fall short of relating the excitement, awkwardness, and fear of sex for the first time.
Beyond Clueless is most compelling, and original, when it threads together commonplace experiences in simply shot scenes, like a girl drinking alone in the corner of a room at a party or lovers kissing in the shadows. These are the least heavily narrated, and move more quickly and imaginatively between clips that are partly held together by music, all originally composed by Summer Camp. Each track maintains a consistent beat, often low and ominous or slow and seductive, to which the clips flash and shift. When the songs have lyrics, they express teenage lust, angst, and insecurity (“I hate you so much it makes me sick”; “You take yourself too seriously”; “Don’t be who they want you to be”; “Haven’t you ever wanted to disappear?”). These are the scenes that hypnotically draw us in, leaving us somewhat clueless, perhaps beyond clueless, as we relive the heartbreak, exhilaration, and confusion of being a teenager. In comparison, when Balk pontificates on teen nature (the movie has been called a “cine essay”), she can be engaging in her well-voiced insights but also push us out, as we look at a scene rather than inhabit it.
Throughout Beyond Clueless, Balk’s voice reminds us that we are in a “teen utopia,” a fabricated world of social cliques and forced conformity. We are also in a world partially fabricated by the movies. When the film is at its best, it becomes difficult to distinguish between what we actually experienced as teenagers and what the various movies tell us we have. In the end, this is a story about life told with movies, which, however illusory, have the ability to feel familiar and real.
Beyond Clueless premieres in New York this Friday at Videology (308 Bedford Avenue #1, Brooklyn).