To the Prince Charles Cinema last week for a preview of Beyond Clueless, a documentary analysis of the modern teen movie. The tone of this debut from the 23-year-old filmmaker Charlie Lyne is best described as half-love letter, half-biopsy. A series of montages divided into chapters guides the viewer through common themes in high-school movies—chief among these being the pressure to conform, seen at its most extreme in Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty, a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers 90210. The conceit is that the several hundred movies from which Lyne has harvested excerpts all inhabit the same world, aesthetically and thematically. Clueless gives way to Drive Me Crazy, She’s All That to 10 Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls to Disturbing Behaviour, all the clips cut together so that they seem to be happening on one giant campus.
The pinnacle of this sort of visual essay, which works as the cinematic equivalent of a word association game, would be Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, which comprises screen representations of LA, or Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video installation The Clock, constructed from visual representations of time in film. Beyond Clueless is a modest piece which makes no claims to be in that class but it shares some key DNA. It recognises the sparks that can be generated, the insinuations made, when one piece of film is placed next to another in defiance of its creator’s original intentions.
In the Q&A after the screening, hosted by Adam Buxton at his wryest, Lyne invoked the word “exorcism” to describe the process of picking over in detail the films which had bewitched him as a teenager. And there is the sense in Beyond Clueless that the authorial voice is asking not only “What did these films do to me?” but also, incredulously and at times angrily, “How could they?” The slant of the film suggests an adult interrogating those who wronged him as a child.
Or those who wronged her. Though Lyne is the writer-director, one of the keys to the picture’s effectiveness is the dazed voiceover by Fairuza Balk, the actress whose career began on the electro-convulsive therapy table as the young Dorothy in the disturbing 1983 prequel Return to Oz. Her presence on the soundtrack of Beyond Clueless is highly symbolic: she was one of the stars of The Craft, the 1996 thriller about a coven of high-school witches. Balk (she is perfectly named: balk is exactly what you do when you see her intense, unnerving face) introduced an element of danger and unpredictability into The Craft, and she brings that also to parts of Beyond Clueless. She offers both an American ratification of this British film—she’s an actual escapee from the teen genre, called back from adulthood to deliver its last rites—and the perfect, Mogadon-fogged delivery for a picture that seems to be emerging from its own movie rehab.
Sometimes the wooziness blurs into wooliness. There is slightly too much recourse to the synopsis format in which we are shown a condensed version of a film’s plot (though it helps that some of these—Bubble Boy, starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal, and the teen horror Idle Hands—are unfamiliar). The analyses are not always as sharp as they might have been, relying on the sort of connective tissue that will be familiar to any writer who has ever struggled to link two unrelated paragraphs. That becomes most apparent during the best sequence: the commentary on 13 Going On 30 matches so precisely with the excerpts we are shown that we may wish the rest of the movie had that degree of acuity.
As a rule, Beyond Clueless works better the blander the clips are. When a film with real vision and scope of its own intrudes on its scrapbook world, even for a moment, there is a sudden imbalance. A mere ten or 20 seconds of Rushmore or Y Tu Mamá También can easily pull us out of the homogeneous teen world; they have a visual immediacy that jeopardises the candy-coloured spell and interrupts the parade of geeks and jocks and cheerleaders.
But a good filmmaker knows that cinema is not merely a visual medium. Music can knit everything together and in this respect the score by the British band Summer Camp is an eerie, delicate triumph. (Check out the track “Swimming Pool”, which accompanies one of the movie’s creepiest sequences and can be heard on the trailer.) Beyond Clueless may be messy in places but it’s also strange, occasionally disorienting and full of flashes of madness. Not unlike adolescence itself.
Beyond Clueless is on release from 23 January.