The last good movies about high school were Superbad and Mean Girls. Since those two, there have been movies about high schoolers, and there have been movies that high schoolers have liked, but true high school movies — ones about high schoolers, whose jokes and proposed social rites were emulated by actual high schoolers — have been rendered obsolete.
Recent films that are ostensibly high-school movies have received rave reviews and have generally tended to “crush at Sundance,” but no teen has ever even heard of them. Take a look at Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the 50 Best High School Movies Of All Time. Lots of classics on there, but let’s restrict our analysis to films released 2013 and later. There are four of them: The Edge of Seventeen (2016; $14 million at the box office); The Spectacular Now (2013; $6.9 million, nice); Me and Earl and The Dying Girl (2015; $9.1 million); My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2016; $69,000, also nice). If you can’t tell by the overwrought titles and the fact that that last one definitely made less money than Insane Clown Posse’s self-distributed 2010 western, Big Money Rustlas, these movies were not designed to entice teens to spend their hard-earned Juul-pod-flipping money.
Last year’s Booksmart, though, was a clear attempt to update the classic format. Directed by Olivia Wilde and starring two charismatic female leads, the film received a litany of A-list celebrity endorsements — Taylor Swift, Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Portman — and extensive, glowing coverage in the press before its release. Even still, the film performed poorly at the box office, earning less than $10 million in its opening weekend, losing out to such movies as Detective Pikachu and Brightburn (whatever that is).
One of its primary problems is that rather than creating a world that might be emulated by its desired teen viewership, it takes place in a universe that adult liberals wish they were in. Per the New Yorker’s review, Booksmart is a “wish fulfillment” film for liberals masquerading as a teen-hijinks movie — “a counterfactual comedy about a world minus Trumpism, in which ostensible blue-state values prevail, without the slightest whiff of hatreds, enmities, or hostilities, except for those caused by personal misunderstandings.”
The classic high-school movie is no less fantastical, but has no such pretenses. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) is obviously fiction, and American Pie (1999) is basically just a visual recreation of a series of gross-out and sexual urban legends that teens themselves created. Booksmart does not try to reflect and exaggerate the real (messy, confused, unhealthy) lives and perceptions of today’s teens. Its purpose is didactic, a much riskier social move: it very clearly thinks it deserves to be imitated, both by teens and by future films. It fails.
This striving for, and failure to achieve, social approval is an archetypal example of cringe.
An activity becomes cringe when it violates a social norm, often one against being weird or awkward, to the degree that those watching it derive a sense of social superiority. An excellent recent essay by Joshua Citarella, published in New Models, briefly explores the political implications of this concept by arguing that reactionaries try to paint any earnest political action as “cringey.” He’s right, and I want to supplement his analysis by explaining the origins and social power of cringe.
All societies have codes of propriety (more commonly called “manners”). In more hierarchical societies — say, Victorian Britain — these social codes were elaborate, explicit, and extremely important. People had well-defined social roles, and acting out of accordance with their station was shocking and provided cause to be shunned. It wouldn’t be “cringey” for a servant in that time to stroll into the gala and eat a canape; it would be an outrage that would prompt an institutional response.
Western society has been moving away from this model, and while it is a boon for human flourishing to be able to move between social scenes and opt into groups of different norms, this fracturing can be confusing. Recall the experience of first joining a new club or starting a job where everyone else already knows each other. There are various norms of behavior that can’t just be told to you; you can only learn by observing, and you’re likely to make a few mistakes. If you’re eventually accepted into the group, you might one day look back at the time you tried to pull off the team handshake and instead hit the captain in the face… and cringe.
Ironically, the Hollywood production that perhaps most closely mirrors the experiences of teens today isn’t a teen movie at all. It’s the American version of The Office, which aired from 2005 to 2013. How relevant is it? Billie Eilish, Gen Z’s first bona fide pop star, claims to have watched the entire show 12 times. The conceit of the show, borrowed from reality TV, is that it is a documentary in which shaky cameras follow the employees of a fictional paper company called Dunder Mifflin; the characters also give “confessional” monologues about inter-office drama and the vagaries of their jobs. On Reddit, fans theorize that the extremely uncomfortable awkwardness of Dunder Mifflin boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) is a result of the character always being on camera — which is, of course, how today’s teens experience their social worlds, with ubiquitous social media-linked camera phones ready to turn any social failure into cringe content that lives forever.
The Office succeeds with teens because it’s the inverse of Booksmart. While the latter appeals to adults (mostly the ones who were really stoked about Hillary Clinton in 2016) by projecting their current selves onto a past that never existed, the former resonates with teens because it imagines a future in which their present social dynamics have not changed. It’s a high school dramedy populated by adults dicking around and starting drama, with their actual work as transparent a sideshow to the social conflicts as the classes are in canonical teen dramas. (Somehow, before the Great Recession, this scanned.)
Audiences are meant to identify with the will-they-or-won’t-they couple Jim and Pam (John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer), the least cringey, and arguably most normal, characters on the show. Although senior salesman Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) is certainly “weird,” his self-assurance and idiosyncratic motivations — beats, beers, Baywatch, you know the drill — make his weirdness lovable. It’s Scott, the boss who just wants to be loved but doesn’t know how to pull that off, who brings the cringe, with his audacious attemps to increase his social standing and fail again and again. Cringe.
The key innovation of The Office is that it decouples power and social success. This is typically an impossible situation following the logic of the high-school drama, but Michael is the Regional Manager of his fictional world. His institutional power gives him the inexorable right to involve himself in group social dynamics and get his way. Instead of melting under the weight of his faux pas, he powers through them. He drives a Chrysler Sebring, the only car that has ever been less cool for being a convertible, and yet he retains the power to make the cool kids talk to him. Michael has mass appeal because he achieves a rare balance of being well-intentioned enough to be likeable, powerful enough to be relevant, and yet socially fallible in the way that high schoolers fear more than anything.
As high schoolers have more outlets through which they can create their own media that reflects their lives, products of the Hollywood machine which attempt to do the same have lost relevance. Note that teens still love superhero movies, and Hollywood has been doubling down on their comparative advantage: we have not seen a democratization of the production of films about the Joker. New media outlets, from Instagram to TikTok, do not determine the kind of media that is produced, but shift the locus of this determination from film studio executives to teen creators.
In the old model, the cost and difficulty of producing video made it a centralized medium, broadcast from one to many. The teen audience for teen movies could only measure their own experiences against those portrayed on the screen. Watching The Breakfast Club in 1985 — and knowing that everyone else had seen it — produced common knowledge about the way that high school was supposed to work. When the viewer experienced a disconnect, they were more likely to identify themselves as inauthentic or insufficient.
Teens have so much more information about the lives of their peers than ever before — and so the filmatic version of their lives rings hollow. Consider the phenomenon of the “promposal,” in which high schoolers stage elaborate “proposals” asking their crushes to go to prom with them. These are inherently public events, made to be recorded and uploaded online.
The promposal is an inherently dramatic event, with one of two outcomes. If the promposer is accepted, the video is considered “wholesome” (a thriving genre of online content in its own right). The inverse, a rejection by the promposee, is a brutal example of cringe. Although ostensibly individual, the public (and thus recorded and posted) nature of the promposal pulls the act of asking someone to prom further in the direction of the social, even just logistically; there’s always an invisible third person involved, the one who takes the video. The promposal has become so ritualized that there are “promposal compilations” on YouTube with hundreds of thousands of views. In some cases, as we get to the money shot, the promposee’s tweet announcing the promposal is superimposed on the screen.
The social conventions governing our lives used to be far more universal, spread by mass media and helping to forge a society where, regardless of age, we were all sort of on the same page. For teens, this mainly meant taking cues from movies about high school, whose formula was to exaggerate mainstream culture as it appeared to teens. When they succeeded, the plot points and character archetypes got incorporated into real life in a sort of cultural feedback loop. Think the Burn Book from Mean Girls, or the entire existence of McLovin in Superbad. Your parents might not have been interested in watching these movies, but they at least knew what movies were. But smartphones and social media create a gap in not just content, but actual technologies themselves.
The speed of the internet has contributed to this dynamic significantly. Hollywood just can’t compete with those pesky teens, whose online savvy allows them to create and destroy trends at a blistering pace. When adults even so much as try, they’re rewarded with complete and utter cringe. In other words, the modern promposal wasn’t ripped from the pages of a John Hughes script; it’s a meme that built upon itself. High schoolers make their own movies now, and Rotten Tomatoes will never be able to keep up.