Hot Docs Review: 'Beyond Clueless'

Beyond Clueless
(UK/Canada, 91 min.)
Written and directed by Charlie Lyne
Narrated by: Fairuza Balk
Programme: Nightvision (Canadian Premiere)
You know that friend who still tries to make “fetch” work? That friend is Beyond Clueless. Beyond Clueless, which is easily the biggest disappointment of this year’s Hot Docs and arguably one of the worst films ever to screen at the festival (and I say this as someone who was subjected to Interior. Leather Bar last year), is an utterly asinine and amateur-ish feature of half-baked film criticism. The film is akin to a freshman film paper narrated to a ninety-minute YouTube mash-up of teen comedy excerpts. Beyond Clueless, however, suffers from many of the same faults that a beleaguered teaching assistant might find a first-year paper that fails to earn a passing grade. Beyond Clueless is most definitely not fetch.

The film, for one, simple has no thesis. Writer/director Charlie Lyne, a young Wunderkind of UK film criticism, merely opts to explore the canon of contemporary teen movies rather than mine them to make a coherent argument. Beyond Clueless skips from one film to the other with countless montages in between. The isolated case studies never build to a substantial conclusion.

Beyond Clueless also never outlines the parameters of its discussion. Lyne presents the teen movie as a rich cultural archive of unsung films, yet he doesn’t actually define what constitutes a “teen movie.” One might assume that a teen movie constitutes a film that caters to a young/teenage audience and takes place in a high school setting with a cast of teenage characters exploring the awkward difficulties of growing up. Movies like Mean Girls, Clueless, Scream, Varsity Blues, and such might fit this framework.

Beyond Clueless consequently looks at a roster of films that certainly feature teenage characters, but by no means fit a conventional description of a “teen movie.” Films such as American Beauty, American History X, and Elephant aren’t really teen movies even though they feature teenagers. They might be art films that deal with relevant questions of social malaise, but Lyne lumps any film with a teenager into a big ambiguous bunch.

The film reveals an overall ignorance of American teen cinema, for the amorphous musings struggle to delineate the generic malleability of teen movies as Beyond Clueless talks about The Craft and I Know What You Did Last summer in the same context as it does raunchy comedies. The legacy of the Final Girl in horror films, for example, assumes a much different element than the porn star with a heart of gold in, say, The Girl Next Door. The generic ambivalence of the discussion is but one example of Beyond Clueless’s struggle to say anything substantial.

Lyne never really takes the discussions beyond rudimentary analysis. The case studies are essentially little bubbles of plot summary—the bits of film essays one might strike out with a red pen—that merely describe the narratives of the films in bloggery witticisms. Beyond Clueless makes not a single mention to film form as it chats about story arcs and characters. This documentary could just as easily be a half-baked think piece on Judy Blume. The superficiality and brevity of the chapters struggle to let Beyond Clueless say anything that even the least discerning of viewers could glean from watching the films in an underage drunken stupor. High schools have hierarchies and teens are faced with a myriad of tensions pertaining to consumerism, sexism, and social determinism, but Beyond Clueless doesn’t convincingly make a case that teen movies offer anything beyond relatable diversion.

The choices of films for discussion, moreover, betray Lyne’s youthful retrospection from across the pond. It has an overall lack of theoretical foundation. The film, for one, makes not a single mention of John Hughes and other essential precursors that paved the way for contemporary teen movies. It also relies heavily on critically panned box office bombs and neglects films that were embraced as worthy additions to teen comedy.

Beyond Clueless presents very few films that actually made an impact in the heyday of teen films during the 1990s-2000s. Inconsequential films such as Disturbing Behaviour, Idol Hands, Crossroads, and The Rage: Carrie 2 receive a look at the cost of films like American Pie, Bring it On, Scream, Romeo + Juliet and Scary Movie. Bubble Boy, that 2001 flop starring Jake Gyllenhaal, gets one of the most in-depth synopses despite the fact that everyone in the theatre has probably forgotten its existence. (For good reason.) Ditto the funny but relatively overlooked She Gets What She Wants (aka Slap Her She’s French), which gets a hearty look-see and yet Lyne gives Clueless nothing more than a cutaway despite the fact that the film is called Beyond Clueless. Films seem to be chosen as a matter of convenience.
Beyond Clueless, in addition to lacking a grasp for the films that actually contributed to the boon of teen movies during this era, omits entirely any of the greater questions and implications related to the popularity of these films. The film makes no mention of teen heartthrobs or idols as it presents a who’s who of has-beens and pretty faces that are now weathered and forgotten. Beyond Clueless makes not a single mention of race in its whitewashed account of this equally colour-blind corner of commercial cinema. (The trope of the token black friend and the library of African American teen films each deserve a footnote at the very least.) Beyond Clueless also carries an overall ignorance to the borders of film production and the variations in industry, for it makes a case for depictions of menstrual monstrosity in American teen cinema using the Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps. This latter point is especially troubling given the film’s status as a Canadian co-production.

Beyond Clueless dabbles ignorantly in teen movies and fails to make a case that these films exist beyond shallow waters. It's also one exhaustingly boring film, which even the dumbest of teen movies rarely is. One should better use the time for chatting nostalgically with friends or, better yet, assembling besties to watch these films together. Drunken film club chatter will yield far more intelligent results than Lyne’s F-grade term paper does. As my friend Celine stated whilst exiting last night’s screening, “That director is beyond clueless.”

Rating: (out of ★★★★★)

Beyond Clueless screens:
-Thursday, May 1 at 11:30 PM at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
-Sunday, May 4 at 12:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information on this year’s festival.