In Which We All Made People Miserable in High School
The 90’s were a flourishing time for a great variety of film: the violent crime picture, the tony historical epic, and the techno-thriller. Each in their own way defined the cultural perspectives of the time: reminiscent of the past, uncertain of the future, and starkly cynical of the present. And then there’s the fourth pillar, a grouping of films that combine elements from all the above and shoot them straight towards the most profitable demographic; the 90’s teen movie.
Now movies for adolescents were nothing new by the time the last decade of the 20th century rolled around. The form had been honed and refined for nearly 40 years, but the concluding years of the millennium felt like the genre reached a certain peak. An apotheosis that combined what made everything previously great with its own flavor and style. Add in a smidgen of diverse formats that these films could take (rom-coms, cyber thrillers, nostalgia pieces) and you’ve got the heady stew of a film genre.
That’s not to say that these films were all winners, some of the entries covered here (Hackers and Reality Bites come to mind) are at best flawed nostalgia trips for a modern viewer. But they do painted a picture of a broad cinematic landscape, a place where the young could profess and express ideas about the world today and how they fit into it. The teenage (and young adult) landscape of the 90’s was vast and influential. A group of creators and consumers bred on the crumbling world order of the past, and able to exert enough clout to skyrocket unique and left-field artists to the mainstream. This posture left the genre exposed to empty cynicism and pat cliche: nothing matters, drop out, start a failed band, and couch surf through life. An attitude that the 90’s supported.
What surprised me about David Mirkin’s 1997 teen-adjacent comedy Romy and Michele’s High School is how effectively it powers through the angst that other films found themselves entrenched in. It’s a flick that has all the beats that seemingly signify the attitude of “fuck all” 90’s America, but it cleverly elides them. Instead we get a film about the strength of friendship, transcending the boundaries imposed on us as teenagers, and realizing that progress can be made without totally blowing up the world around you.
So Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow) are two friends dithering away the days in sunny LA: hitting up clubs, looking for work, and spending time trashing Pretty Woman together. It’s a dream of 90’s cool disaffection, until a former classmate Heather (Janeane Garofalo) steps in and reminds them of the impending ten year high school reunion in Tucson. This revelation causes Romy and Michele to reflect on their lives as teens, realize they were social outcasts from basically everyone, and set to prove their former classmates wrong by pretending to be important businesswomen (ones who invented the Post-It Note). Of course the scheme blows up in their face, but valuable lessons are learned along the way.
Mirkin (fresh off his tenure as Showrunner for The Simpsons) brings an unusual bit of bracing flair and sincerity to what could have been a rote mockery of high school traditions. Mockery is certainly found here, but Mirkin goes the extra step, digging deeper to find weirder places for his film to go and more thoughtful resolutions to the normal problems presented in such a story.
The first step is with a sense of style that graces the comedic notes of the film. Take for example the gorgeous flying shot of the beach that elegantly glides in R&M’s apartment at the beginning. It’s not needed, but it’s cool and properly sets the mood. Such tricks are recurrent through the whole movie. Cameras’ snake through night clubs and gymnasiums, allowing the viewer to luxuriate in the bland excesses of 90’s LA while picking up on sights and gags along the way. Transitions between past and present are achieved with clever match cuts and living pictures. Overall it’s a more vibrant way to present a comedy than one is used to.
But it’s Mirkin’s handling of the character dynamics here that really set things apart. Romy and Michele are both the stock type of friendly losers. They are incomplete without each other but success seems out of grasp. When they try to rush development through losing weight and getting boyfriends the movie doesn’t treat their actions as trivial, but just humorously misplaced.
It also connects with the films undercutting of standard tropes. Romy and Michele split up after a fight, but are quickly reunited after their ruse proves fruitless. Their unnecessary lie is also exposed immediately at the titular reunion. Even the heightened world of a silly comedy the barest explanations used in sitcom plots won’t fly or be accepted. And then there’s the end. Romy and Michele realize that their social stigmatization wasn’t exactly fine, but a part of the ups and downs of school life that they participated in. That not getting a job and ragging on movies might not be the best way to acquit oneself, and even a job at a lower wrung is worthwhile if you make it worthwhile with your friends. And yes the continued life they share together is odd, but not necessarily a source of pity or tossed of cool. They have each, and can do better, progress doesn’t always necessitate elaborate shifts to a person’s life
This rejection of the cynicism sometimes inherent to the teen comedy is why High School Reunion stands out a little more from it’s compatriots. Mirkin is able to rib at the tropes and expectations while also enjoying some genuine emotions. It is both a great representative of the form, and a sly undercutting of the entire structure.
Odds and Ends
- The small recurring gag of Justin Theroux as a hick cowboy really got a good chuckle from me.
- I’m not usually one for a big musical finish in a non-musical film, but the final dance sequence between Romy, Michele, and Sandy (Alan Cumming) is both very funny and very sweet.
- Very good observation, as Romy and Michele head out to LA they note that everything is going to happen to them there, it most certainly doesn’t.
Next week we go back in time over and over again with Run, Lola, Run.