Rebel Girls

Inspired creation of comic cool or cartoon of contrived Hollywood quirk? Seems like every conversation I’ve had with someone about the movie Juno quickly devolved into a debate on the merits of our fast-quipping, hamburger phone-toting heroine — yup, there’s nothing that riles up a hipster audience quite like that tired old issue of authenticity.

For the most part I loved the film, and Ellen Page — I mean, she turns up to premieres in flannel and jeans, that’s hot — and so invariably found myself defending Diablo Cody’s right to hyper-real teenage caricature. After all, I protested to one self-appointed tastemaker: “Wouldn’t we have loved a character that opened up a world of Sonic Youth and Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter films if we saw something like this when we were 13?”

The more I thought about Juno, though, the more I got a lingering sense of déjà vu. Hadn’t we seen her kind before? Wasn’t there an era of sassy, alternative tomboys cracking wise and dropping pop culture ephemera in American teen movies — before the dark times, when airbrushed poppets again ruled tween screens?

Soon I was ransacking my memory, those hazy recollections of years spent devouring the video store’s dusty cult section and the movies of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; before long, faded impressions of torn denim, leather and flannel-clad girls were drifting back like so many adolescent crushes (was there ever anyone dreamier in oversized flannel than Ione Skye in River’s Edge?). Nonchalant, jaded and, oh yeah, cute — these were the girls you’d be just as likely to want as best friends or big sisters.

With her short-cropped hair, androgynous features and husky voice, Martha Plimpton became the late ’80s teen movie tomboy du jour: smart and brazen, she was the kind of girl who spoke her mind and wasn’t afraid to appear offbeat and intelligent off screen, too. Who could forget Martha razoring her and Keanu Reeves’ hair short in Parenthood (1989), or her battered denim jacket slung over a thrift store dress and topped with a black felt hat?

The iconic breakthrough, of course, was Winona Ryder’s unsurpassed black comedy gunslinger in 1989′s Heathers. Feeding off her doom-and-gloom wiseass in Beetle Juice, Ryder’s social misfit Veronica Sawyer was the movie alterna-girl par excellence. No mere girlfriend victim, she went one-better against Christian Slater’s devil without a cause, wreaked suicidal havoc on high school’s popular clique to establish a new deviant utopia, and was blessed with an arsenal of catchphrases that would make Juno blush. Seriously: “Honest-to-blog” versus “Dear diary, my teen-angst bullshit has a body count”?  You make the call.

It was a watershed moment in teen cinema, and for a fleeting, glorious second it almost appeared like the misfits might inherit the playground.  A year later, Samantha Mathis caught the crest of the wave of mutilation in Pump Up The Volume. From the first glimpse of her shy-yet-brassy Nora — sashaying down the school hall in her army boots, black bob, floral dress and mismatched black punker jacket — you knew that one of teen movie’s coolest girls had arrived. “I know you,” she teased Slater’s dysfunctional pirate high school DJ. “Not your name, but your game — the true you.”  It felt like she was talking to us; to every teenage wastoid who secretly hoped the nerdy girl that stamped books at the school library was the subversive muse who understood who we really were.

Like the girl you once passed in the street and never saw again, however, that moment couldn’t last. Once alternative became pop and ‘grunge’ the all-purpose catch-cry for demographic marketing and catwalk anti-glamour, so the eccentric movie teen graduated into the calculated whine of the dreaded Gen-X twentysomething. Bridget Fonda looked uncannily like Samantha Mathis in Cameron Crowe’s Seattle-set Singles (1992) — which is to say, pretty great — but Winona Ryder’s rom-com-in-slacker disguise Reality Bites (1994) was the beginning of the end; the girl had become a type, a purchase incentive, and the smart-mouthed, über hip teen had checked in to detention.

It was left to the independent film actresses to carry the dwindling torch: Fairuza Balk and Iona Skye, trailer-park swoon in Gas, Food Lodging (1992); Juliette Lewis’ jagged drifter in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993); even Natalie Portman’s precocious urchin waif in Léon (1994). And then there was the irrepressible Parker Posey, who kept effortless alt-cool at her disposal in Hal Hartley’s Amateur (1994) and Richard Linklater’s slacker drama subUrbia (1996). As late as 2001, Thora Birch’s cynical, droll Enid in Ghost World was arguably the last of the true savvy alternative teens — the missing link between the alt-comic world of the past decade and Juno’s wry observations.

Yet these were blips on the indie fringe, and by the end of the decade the alternative high school teen had been replaced, via Clueless, by a new litter of ohmigod bimbettes and worse, reduced to a sideline stereotype or laughable geek (did anyone actually buy Rachel Leigh Cook as a socially-maligned dork in She’s All That?).

In recent years we were asked to accept as outcasts actresses who’d have no problem swanning in to any popular sorority. Remember 2004’s Mean Girls, in which Lindsay Lohan was allegedly the social pariah and the “alternative” girl — played by Freaks and Geeks alum Lizzy Kaplan — is marginalised as a dyke-Goth anomaly in the service of a punchline?

Which brings us back to our dear old Juno. Okay, so maybe she isn’t the overnight sensation we’ve never seen before — there’s more than a bit of Thora, Samantha and Winona in her for sure, and you can guess that Diablo Cody owns a well-thumbed copy of the Heathers screenplay. But then I’d argue that’s exactly what works about Juno: by taking an era, a style, and a way of speaking and popularising it — the film has grossed more than any of those old cult classics combined — the movie has introduced the tomboy, alternative girl for a new generation of kids.

“Come on, teens don’t speak like that,” someone will predictably protest, to which I say, well “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw!” Do teens act like Hilary Duff, or Vanessa Hudgens, or Amanda Bynes, either? I’ll take Juno’s pop culture dumpster mouth and art-directed thrift store threads over those girls’ bobble-headed text-speak any day, thanks. Sure, the girls in the ’80s and ’90s were infinitely cooler — but who’s complaining if just a little of their spirit infects the malls and multiplexes of the future?

March 2008

Originally published in RUSSH

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