Top 40 stars recreate its scenes in music videos, designers mine it for inspiration, and it has a Tumblr fandom as strong as any modern movie. In 2015, Clueless is a certifiable cult classic. Even though the hilarious Jane Austen adaption will be 20 years old as of this weekend, it’s arguably gaining popularity with today’s teenaged fans faster than at any time since back in 1995. People who were barely out of diapers when the film was released now obsess over its fashion, music and dialogue. And while the film’s strong aesthetic and witty screenwriting remain key factors in its success, Clueless resonates with today’s young fans for another reason: It represents a beloved genre that’s all but disappeared.
Hollywood today has no shortage of movies for teenagers and about teenagers – indeed, we’re living in a golden age of American teen dramas, whether they’re indie love stories that evoke John Hughes or blockbuster action franchises. Twenty-first century teenagers save the world in films and series like Kick-Ass, The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner; they face alcoholism, life-threatening illnesses, and unbridled and honest sexuality in films like The Spectacular Now, The Fault In Our Stars, Me & Earl & The Dying Girl and the forthcoming Diary of A Teenage Girl. But where are all the goofy, bubbly high-school comedies?
The last great teen movie in this vein was 2004’s Mean Girls, which ate up several decades’ worth of on-screen teen girl cattiness (from Heathers to Carrie to Valley Girl and more) and spit it back up into a smart, satirical pulp. Based on the pop-sociology bestseller Queen Bees and Wannabes, the movie – while undeniably funny and irreverent in all the right places – ended up delivering a fairly serious message on girl-hate and bullying. Many of the most popular teen comedies that have followed, from Easy A to 21 Jump Street, have similarly tended to parse sexual stigmas, drug abuse and more with a meta, tongue-in-cheek tone.
Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with teen movies that take their subjects seriously. But these films are one big reason why Clueless stands on a pedestal for many Nineties babies. Today’s onscreen teen girls have better things to do than shop; Cher Horowitz gracefully stands the test of time because her story is fun, period. Clueless is bubbly and carefree in a way that resonates for young viewers who can’t find much else like it.
While writer and director Amy Heckerling based the plot of Clueless on Jane Austen’s 1815 classic Emma, she drew most on the frivolous, fun tradition of twentieth-century teen cinema. It had the goofy high-school petri-dish politics of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles and Dazed and Confused. It had quotable lingo and a narrator as iconoclastic as Ferris Bueller. It had a keen fashion sense (“Says who?” “Calvin Klein!”) comparable to Pretty In Pink, Valley Girl and even Rebel Without a Cause – complete with a makeover montage that would have She’s All That‘s Laney Boggs, The Breakfast Club‘s Allison Reynolds, and The Princess Diaries’ Mia Thermopolis all run for their money. It had classic archetypes in the push and pull of a romance between different social circles (Cher and Josh), and the misfit who’s so enchanted by a social circle she pretends to be something she’s not (Tai).
Clueless was also unapologetically girly. Sure, was it was rooted in stereotypical, air-headed portrayals of blonde, shopaholic teenagers, but it was also deeply concerned with timeless girl-world concerns: virginity, relationships, friendship, trying to wrestle with a world that thinks you’re no more than an idiot. Today, those topics are often either secondary sidebars to drama-filled plots in films starring young women (see The Hunger Games and Divergent) or ignored entirely in films that hone in on male leads. Films like Boyhood, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, The Spectacular Now, The Kings of Summer, Palo Alto and the forthcoming Paper Towns are nuanced depictions of young masculinity that largely skip tired tropes – but they’re no replacement for Clueless.
There’s real merit to Clueless‘ time and place in the teen canon. The bright world of films where the biggest problems were facing your school bully, trying to get your parents to remember your birthday, and kissing your crush seemed to collapse after the film’s 1995 release. The late Nineties saw a darker wave of the ensemble teen genre, including Kids, Romeo + Juliet, Election and Cruel Intentions, along with a slew of horror and thriller films like Scream, Jawbreaker and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Then it was off to the 2000s, a land of Moldy Peaches-soundtracked teen pregnancies, heart-warming traveling pants, and Gus Van Sant-directed school-shootings.
Teenagers today love Clueless because it’s a sugary slice of cake in that dark onscreen world. It’s a relic, in socio-political and cultural terms, but it’s also a fantasy escape that might not make it to production today. For a kid who was born in 1995, Clueless provides a genuine voyeuristic thrill. It’s not a mirror for the world’s ills; nobody dies. Two decades after Clueless was made, it seems there’s still a powerful appeal for teens in a fluffy, style-over-substance treat – especially one that’s a little smarter than Rich Kids of Instagram.