If “Beyond Clueless” director Charlie Lyne gets anything painstakingly, gut-wrenchingly, hair-tearingly right, it’s the homogenization of the high school experience. As his documentary funnels disparate storylines into one cohesive — though rather shallow — narrative, the film exists as a pastiche of the modern understanding of high school rather than an incisive examination of the movies that portray those four quintessentially American years.
As “first-day” scenes appear on the screen, narrator Fairuza Balk’s voice opens the film with a deep, cool, “High school is hypnotic.” This expresses “Beyond Clueless” ’s foremost presumption: that the high school experience and movie shape each other symbiotically.
Lyne’s belief that “life imitates art” creates the film’s remarkable self-awareness, wherein it very naturally becomes its subject out of a seeming reverence for the power of the high school narrative. As it fixates on cliques and conflicts, “Beyond Clueless” itself morphs movies about supernatural powers, vicious murderers and mental illnesses into so many “Mean Girls” spin-offs.
That said, the documentary is beautiful. It revels in the unabashedly aesthetic between the movie montages, the effortless flowing fonts and the lush, climactic original soundtrack by Summer Camp. Ultimately, “Beyond Clueless” is attractive, just like those 20-something actors who play the roles in teen movies. The documentary placates the audience with that beauty, engulfs them in the ambience of familiarity and says, “It’s OK, we’ve all been there.”
While teen movies may be relatable to high schoolers, very few accurately capture the full experience. Most display unrealistic fantasies, and some express nightmarish metaphors for teen existence. In an earnest but misinformed effort to grasp the truths within the cliches, “Beyond Clueless” takes traditional high school films such as “Can’t Hardly Wait” (1998), “She’s All That” (1999) and “Drive Me Crazy” (1999) and conflates them with horror movies and cult films such as “Final Destination” (2000), “Ginger Snaps” (2000) and “Bubble Boy” (2001).
Lyne uses each movie as a case study, only highlighting from each one what will serve to propel a standardized narrative: a lonely, lowly freshman enters the halls scared and alone until she buddies up with a few others, and together, they find their place in the school — the lunchroom diagram from “Mean Girls” is especially effective here. Finally, after the tribulations of homework and hormones, they escape the cocoon for college as unique, independent butterflies. This, as a general statement, is the party line when it comes to teen movies, but many of the examples explored here are not simply teen movies.
In the part of the movie sectioned, “Chapter Three: Losing Yourself,” Balk explains the plot line of “Jeepers Creepers” (2001) as little more than the Creeper’s victim, Darry (Justin Long), eventually giving into his hidden homosexual urges. The next example, “Eurotrip” (2004), is shown the same treatment. “Beyond Clueless” — as a reflection of high school itself — strips its constituents of their individuality and nuance to further a narrow, common goal of conformity for convenience’s sake.
The film only selected movies produced between the ’90s and present day, foolishly eschewing any discussion or visual representation of the John Hughes era of teen films. If the point of the documentary is to express the timelessness and relatability of the teen film genre, why would the selection be limited to a 20-year span? An easy answer may be that Lyne, who was born in 1991, works with what he knows, but the exclusions become glaringly obvious when the film discusses “Boys and Girls” (2000), in which the characters watch “The Breakfast Club” (1985). Even the montage-relegated inclusion of “But I’m A Cheerleader” (1999) — which easily could have furthered the film’s storyline — creates confusion between the “chosen few” discussed movies and the silent, nameless masses.
Toward the end of the film, Balk’s voice cascades over a closing scene in “Can’t Hardly Wait” to state that if the characters “fail to reassert themselves as individuals … they’ll be left to a life of empty fantasy.” By forcing many of these movies into one sophomoric chronology, Lyne bullies them into empty fantasies without exploring the deeper implications of their existence or their representations.
“Beyond Clueless” will play during SF IndieFest beginning on Feb. 14 at the Roxie in San Francisco.