Beyond Clueless (2014)

Review first published in Sight & Sound, February 2015

Synopsis: Restricting its visual material to a montage of clips from teen movies circa 1992-2006, this documentary explores both the experiences and cinematic representations of adolescence, in five headed sections (plus prologue and epilogue), all with a voice-over commentary.

Review: If the title of Beyond Clueless alludes to Amy Heckerling’s impeccable youth comedy Clueless (1995), then it also promises to take us further and deeper. Indeed, much like Heckerling’s Austen-inspired exposé of contemporary teen mores, Charlie Lyne’s feature debut has the rituals and routines of adolescence in its sights, although it universalises them not through the frame of a nineteenth-century novel, but through the tropes and clichés of cinema itself. For this is a postmodern portrait of growing pains filtered through their past presentations in teen movies, that “parallel universe” which has in some way accompanied, modulated and influenced all our rites of passage.

Beyond Clueless is a documentary, but it plays like a fever dream, capturing all the wide-eyed disorientation that comes with coming of age. With admirable purism, its visual palette is confined entirely (apart from credits and captions) to a selection of clips from over 200 teen movies made between 1992 and 2006 – their very datedness inflecting them with the nostalgia of lost youth and passing time. These teen films would have formed the background to Lyne’s own adolescence, while Beyond Clueless itself encodes his own subsequent maturation as a sophisticated, reflective film critic and filmmaker – and the incisive commentary that he has written on films like 1996’s The Craft (with which Beyond Clueless opens) is delivered in arch voiceover by one of The Craft‘s own teen stars, Fairuza Balk, herself now older and wiser. Similarly the glimpses that we catch here of a youthful Robert Pattinson, Lindsay Lohan, Jeremy Sisto, Natasha Lyonne and Jake Gyllenhaal remind us of who they – and along with them we – once were, and have since become.

Certain films – typically less obvious, more obscure ones than Clueless – are singled out by the script for synopsis, analysis and interpretation, as Lyne weaves his abstract, impressionistic way through the anguish and ecstasy of growing up. Idle Hands (1999) and Ginger Snaps (2000) illustrate the bodily transformations that challenge teen identity. Jeepers Creepers (2001) and EuroTrip (2004) dramatise the incomplete repression of desire. The Faculty (1998) and Josie and the Pussycats (2001) stage resistance to conformity. Disturbing Behaviour (1998) and 13 Going On 30 (2004) show the pitfalls of prolonged adolescence. The Craft and Spider-Man (2002) – which bookend the film – point to the empowerment that comes of successfully negotiating high school and entering adulthood. Other titles are cut up into masterfully edited mosaics, so that stock scenes from the teen movie – e.g., house parties, first sexual encounters, school corridor walks, masturbation – are shown in fluid multi-movie montages where each film, like any high schooler, must struggle to maintain individual identity in the crowd. Accordingly, even as Lyne charts the cliques, codes and rules of teendom itself, he is also revealing the building blocks that constitute every high school movie. Beyond Clueless is, after all, a structuralist work, using a compelling collation of similar imagery from different sources to make accessible and intelligible the system beneath the chaos of adolescent experience, real and represented.

The protean multiplicity of fresh-faced high school arrivals shown in the prologue to Beyond Clueless, and the graduation ceremonies celebrated in its epilogue, demarcate the conventional boundaries of the teen years. Yet the film’s fifth and final chapter (‘Moving On’) considers the “perverse nightmare of indefinite adolescence” wherein folk well beyond their clueless teens still cling to those glory years, making “a warped adult simulation of their teenaged lives.” This is where Lyne’s backward-looking film is at its most reflexive: filmmakers working in the teen genre are rarely themselves still in their teens, and so the films that Beyond Clueless showcases, as well as the documentary itself, are products of a sort of arrested development. Yet much as, in trying to puzzle out her precise feelings for a manchild she has liked since high school, Claire Forlani’s college student Jennifer from Boys and Girls (2000) “resorts to a reliable source of expertise – teen movies,” we too at times look to our formative years (or at least to their cinematic instantiations) for answers to our present cluelessness. To the accompaniment of Summer Camp’s fantastic score, Lyne’s film allows us to do just that, with insight, wit and flair.

Anton Bitel