June 27, 2009

Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging and American Teen

Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging and American Teen – two films I watched today that had some unlikely similarities. Angus, the 2008 film directed by Gurinder Chadha, follows the trials and tribulations of Georgia, a 14-year-old schoolgirl living in Eastbourne, England. The film is adapted from the popular teen novel series by Louise Rennison. American Teen, also from 2008, is a documentary directed by Nanette Burstein that focuses on a handful of high school students in Indiana as they make their way through senior year.

A studio-made teen comedy and an indie documentary. It’s be easy to assume that the former would follow the ready-made formula of teen films, while the latter would give a real, unvarnished take on the lives of teenagers. In reality, the line between the two was surprisingly blurred. Both films rely heavily on character stereotypes and feelgood narrative trajectories, handily grabbing the viewer’s interest and making them root for the characters.

Angus Thongs & Perfect Snogging

On the surface, Angus doesn’t have a plot worth getting into. Georgia’s central problems are her big nose, her failure to make the new boy in school notice her, and her upcoming birthday party, which she is determined to hold in a club (never mind she’s not old enough to get it into one). With the dreamy crush boy who plays bass, his icy blonde bitch girlfriend, the parents who don’t understand, the film has its share of stock characters.
The protagonist, however, is refreshingly everygirl. As Georgia, actress Georgia Groome is appealing without being distractingly pretty, charming without being (that dreaded word) feisty, unself-conscious, witty without sounding like she swallowed a thesaurus, and self-absorbed and selfish in the way a kid who hasn’t been exposed to the outside world can be. No matter how trivial her woes may seem, Chadha never condescends to the character, treating her with characteristic warmth. That Georgia can’t be reduced to a type is one of the film’s strengths, and grounds the film in something like reality.

American Teen 

Meanwhile, American Teen has its subjects labeled even before you watch a second of the film. The film’s promotional poster features the high school kids recreating the Breakfast Club poster. You already know you’ll be seeing the jock, the princess, the nerd, the dreamboat, and the weird girl. But despite some interesting echoes of the teen film favorite, such as when the “arty” girl starts dating the homecoming king, it’s evident that the students are not reincarnations of Molly Ringwald or Ally Sheedy.
The film’s ready-made labeling, though clever, almost undermines the subjects. After all, a large part of the film is their fight to create an identity for themselves as they get ready to graduate from high school and enter adulthood. One girl plans to study in California even as her parents object, adamant about getting out of her hometown. Another girl nearly cracks under the pressure to get into the University of Notre Dame, where the majority of her family attended. Making them the Weird Arty Girl and Queen Bee almost defeats the purpose.

Having watched the two films back-to-back, I couldn’t help laughing at how both films culminated with a dance party, with all the central characters present. Angus overdoes it slightly by tying up the dangling threads in the plot to give all its characters a happy ending, while American Teen has a bittersweet prom scene that shows some of the students getting what they always wanted, and others suffering inwardly. But why have closure? They have their whole lives ahead of them.

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