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Sub-Sub-Genre: The “Teens Kill One of Their Friends While Parents Aren’t Looking” Flick

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 19, 2007

What’s the matter with KIDS today?

It’s the teen-cruelty genre taken to its logical extreme. Dawn Weiner of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Sam Weir of Freaks and Geeks might’ve had miserable adolescenses, but at least they (presumably) survived them, while the Plastic clique of Mean Girls might’ve been high school “terrorists,” but at least they (presumablY) never killed anyone. The TKOTFWPAL flick might be meant as a cautionary tale to teens, but mostly its an opportunity for parents to watch their worst nightmares unfold on the big screen–that while you’re not watching, your kids might be crossing the line from “it’s a phase, they’ll grow out of it” to the purveyors (or recepients) of something resembling genuine evil.

So let’s take a look at the three most notable examples of the sub-sub-genre (and three examples is all you really need for anything), and see how they stock up against the TKOTFWPAL check-list:

River’s Edge, 1987

  • Plot: A group of poor, metalhead friends in Northern California discover that one of their own (Daniel Roebuck) has killed his girlfriend, also one of their group, for no apparent reason (“She was talking shit” is his only explanation). One of them (Crispin Glover) decides that this is his opportunity to prove his devotion to his friend, overenthusiastically attempting to cover up the crime, while another (Keanu Reeves, in one of his first starring roles) has an attack of conscience over it, while the rest just sort of hangs.
  • Based on a True Story?: Partly based on a real-life strangulation/rape case from 1981.
  • Teens with Sub-Human IQs?: Sort of. The kids aren’t quite as much stupid as they are just totally aimless–you feel like half the reason they react so strongly to their friend’s murder is because it gives them something to do for once.
  • Copious Amounts of Sex, Drugs and Alcohol?: Not so much the first (one scene between Keanu Reeves and a pre-Say Anything Ione Skye in a park, but even then you don’t even see anything) and only sort of the second (they buy pot from local weirdo Dennis Hopper), but an appropriately generous amount of alcohol I suppose.
  • One Kid Who Realizes What’s Happening is Wrong?: Yup, Keanu does the role proud, even ratting out his friend to the cops, the only real example of characters crossing the teen-parent/authority figure boundary in these movies (the cops don’t believe him, of course).
  • One Disapproving Authority Figure That Senses What’s Going On? The group’s history teacher–who I think Ione Skye talks about having a crush on at the beginning of the movie–sort of calls them on their callousness over their friend’s untimely death.
  • Homoerotic Implications Behind Murder?: Not behind the murder, but there’s definitely something vaguely gay about Crispin Glover’s extreme attempts to cover up for his friend, something not even the friend seems too invested in pursuing.
  • Apocalyptic Undercurrents?: Definitely. I’d actually call River’s Edge maybe the most sublte movie ever made in the 80s about Cold War paranoia. The implication behind the movie is that one of the reasons these kids resort to self-destructive behavior is due to a general feeling of helplessness in the world at large–they keep making comments about “the world all blowing up anyway,” so why bother really caring about anything in the meantime? (SLC Punk and various Brett Easton Ellis novels-turned-movies were also good examples of this fear, but were made way after the fact).

Bully, 2001

  • Plot: After years of terrorizing his best friend Marty (Brad Renfro), Bobby (Nick Stahl) is murdered by Marty and the rest of their group of friends just for being a general asshole.They then realize that getting away with murder is kind of hard, especially when you have an IQ of 12.
  • Based on a True Story?: Indeed–even the character names are unchanged.
  • Teens With Sub-Human IQs?: And fucking then some. Listening to these kids attempt to string words together to form sentences can be more than a little bit painful, and the fact that they couldn’t come up with a better solution to their problem then murder (umm…maybe they could’ve just stopped haning out with the asshole?) is fairly indicative of a general lack of common sense.
  • Copious Amounts of Sex, Drugs and Alcohol?: Better believe it, y’all. Maybe not so much alcohol, but at least twice as much sex and nudtiy as is necessary (director Larry Clark really, really likes naked teenagers) and just about every drug imaginable, which leads to one of the funniest conversations about Mortal Kombat finishing moves ever filmed (“It’s like…you have to live your whole life…as a fucking baby, man!”)
  • One Kid Who Realizes What’s Happening is Wrong?: Nope. You get the feeling that Michael Pitt’s character might’ve objected slightly to the proceedings if he had enough brain cells left to realize what was going on, but that’s about it.
  • One Disapproving Authority Figure Who Senses What’s Going On?: Lisa, Marty’s dunce of a Lady MacBeth girlfriend, has a mother who sort of realizes that something…well, irresponsible at least is at foot. She has a very parent-like monologue of disapproval at one point, making the mistake of finishing with “and how is that supposed to make me feel?” (to which Michael Pitt enthusiastically responds, “Mad!”)
  • Homoerotic Implications Behind Murder?: Absolutely–in real life Bobby raped both Marty and his girlfriend, and in Bully he pretty much forces him to strip at gay clubs and give creepy old dudes phone sex. But when Marty rebels, Bobby embraces him closely and re-assures him: “You’re my best friend, you know that?” Larry Clark–always a gender and sexuality equal-opportunist.
  • Apocalyptic Undercurrents?: Not really, thought it’s defintiely a “say a prayer for the Youth of America” type situation.

Alpha Dog, 2007

  • Plot: A small-time drug dealer (Emile Hirsch) and his best friend (Justin Timberlake) kidnap a regular customer’s brother (Anton Yelchin) to force him to pay them money owed, and end up showing the kid the time of his life, even getting him high and laid for the first time. When it becomes clear that letting the kid go will eventually lead to their arrest, the two decide that killing the kid might be the only way out, enlisting one of their friends (Shawn Hatosy) to actually do the deed.
  • Based on a True Story?: Once more, yes, this time on the case of the improbably named Jesse James Hollywood. The DA in charge of the case was even kept on hand as a techncial advisor.
  • Teens With Sub-Human IQs?: Of course. Not quite as bad as Bully, perhaps–at least Hirsh and Timberlake demonstrate a semi-comprehensive understanding of the English language–but any movie with the response “Well then DO something about it, BITCH!” to a girlfriend’s complaint about temporary impotency clearly isn’t being made about Rhodes Scholars.
  • Copious Amounts of Sex, Drugs and Alcohol?: Possibly the most of all-three–at least the River’s Edge kids went to school and the Bully kids sort of had jobs, it seems like the only thing these kids do is get drunk, get stoned and fuck (the middle especially–there’s more general enthusiasm for pot in this movie than Half-Baked and a Cheech & Chong movie combined).
  • One Kid Who Realizes What’s Happening is Wrong?: Friend/Hanger-On Susan, played by ex-Lolita Dominique Swain, whose inconsequential warblings about how kidnapping is wrong basically amount to her getting told to shut up by the entire cast, including the kidnapped kid himself.
  • One Disapproving Authority Figure Who Senses What’s Going On?: Bruce Willis as Hirsh’s dad sort of realizes what’s up, though of course not until it’s too late.
  • Homoerotic Implications Behind Murder?: One review I read of Alpha Dog concluded that Hatosy kills the kid because he’s in love with Hirsh and wants to both endear himself to Hirsh and prove his masculinity at the same time. I saw absolutely no evidence of this, but I missed the first half hour or so, so who knows.
  • Apocalyptic Undercurrents?: Nah, the movie basically feels like one really long. really awesome party until the last half-hour or so.

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