The Kim Wilde song "Kids in America" may conjure in some minds a certain era in pop music – but for me it brings back the great days of the American teen movie – early 1980s films including Reckless (1984), Valley Girl (1983) and Joy of Sex (1984).
Writer-director Amy Heckerling obviously shares my nostalgia, since "Kids in America" receives a '90s revamp in her sparkling comedy Clueless. And little wonder: her own Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) is for many aficionados the summit of the genre.
The teen genre went through a fairly dry spell in the early '90s. Heckerling takes her cue from the lively teen-horror-comedy hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). Here again is a gaggle of fashion-obsessed, mall-shopping girls – most named by their parents after "great singers of the past who now do infomercials" – who get to do a little growing up in the course of the story.
Alicia Silverstone has been previously cast a precocious Lolita in films such as The Crush (1993) and Hideaway (1995). Here, as Cher, she is a fast-talking teenager worthy of the great heroines of old screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938). Cher is always juggling many pressing life-matters simultaneously – how to mend the broken hearts of her friends, woo higher grades out of her teachers, and keep up with the latest twists and turns of pop culture style.
Like Buffy, Cher is going to go from a vacuous, glittering state of indifference to being more engaged, aware and socially involved. Buffy got into martial arts and started fighting vampires, since that was her mythic destiny; Cher, on a more everyday level, gets into raising money for charities, and generally learning that she can't get everything her own way. But this moral development is not necessarily what is most central to the film.
Like Heckerling's Look Who's Talking (1989), Clueless has an extremely whimsical relation to any looming plot line. We spend a long time (close to an hour, as in Casino ) simply setting up the world of the film in a descriptive rather than narrative fashion, establishing the characters and their everyday rituals. There's a prolonged stretch involving Cher making over a new friend, Tai (Brittany Murphy), so that she has the right teen style for LA. A lot passes between Cher and her father (Dan Hedaya), a single parent who is a strange mixture of toughness, tenderness, and capitalist drive. It takes about an hour to arrive even at the prospect of a romantic fling between Cher and her soulful "ex-stepbrother" Josh (Paul Rudd). Eager to impress this older college boy, Cher schools herself in philosophy and world politics – a hard slog, since she starts out assuming that Kuwait is a suburb of Los Angeles.
As in many of the best teen movies, the plot hooks are finally almost irrelevant. Heckerling is blissfully happy to cruise amid one thousand beautifully observed details of contemporary culture and teenage manners. The film has a joyfully everyday, daggy quality – even given the glamorous, middle-class milieu in which it is set – and tiny, hilarious details about clothes, songs, lingo and lifestyle just never stop coming.
My pen, poised over a pad in the darkened theatre during my first viewing, could not possibly keep up with the flood of wonderful detail in Clueless (it is a film made for multiple viewings). I learned that jeepin' connotes the act of having sex in a car; that there is a style of pop music now known derisively as complaint rock; and that a class of teenage boys currently likes to wear ridiculously baggy jeans.
In fact, this is an incredibly busy film, one in which soundtrack songs, background business, voice-over narration and foreground action compete for our dizzy attention. This jazzy comic delirium again aligns Clueless with the screwball legacy. (A point of comparison: Stephen Frears' The Snapper  also has an authentically screwball energy, but there it is created differently, through the rapid back and forth of exasperated, almost desperate dialogue in terribly cramped, suburban quarters).
Clueless declares its kinship with the screwball romantic comedies of the '30s and '40s in a precise way. The idle rich in films like Holiday (1938) were the aristocrats of quotidian fun, people with nothing better to do than wander about exploring love and friendship. There will always be some viewers who find such a spectacle distasteful – particularly when it involves as much conspicuous consumption as in Clueless. But I don't really see these movies, past or present, as offering apologies for upper middle-class lifestyles. If anything, the trappings of wealth function as a metaphor for a certain experience of personal freedom.
So, do not go to Clueless expecting a vicious satire on airheaded bimbos and jocks. It's not one of those dubious two-tier films, as some critics call them – films which play straight to one audience (in this case, teenagers) and ironically to an older, more knowing audience. There are, of course, satirical jabs in the film – a good many, in fact – but even Heckerling's satire is ultimately an expression of her warm affection for these clueless, very un-transcendental teens. Through the muddle of daily life, the film suggests, Cher is as good a tour-guide as anyone.
Even the parents and authority figures – invariably the butt of the most savage jokes in teen movies – don't come off so badly in Heckerling's portrayal. Her films have always depicted an essentially sunny world, the world that is proper to the comedy of manners. Lives may be momentarily darkened by humiliation, bewilderment and small moral errors, but all characters are finally allowed to return to the social whirl, fully redeemed.
Viewers will either adore this movie, or just not get it at all. I adore it, to the point of regarding it as one of the highest summits of popular '90s cinema. Clueless is a gem for all who ever been moved by the modest pleasures offered by teen movies – and for those who still possess a little teen spirit themselves.
MORE Heckerling: Loser
© Adrian Martin September 1995