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Wednesday, June 27, 2007 02:55 am

Terrible teens

They’ve met the enemy – and it’s them

Untitled Document Many recent films about troubled youth remind me of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, in which hell is other people. The biggest problem facing teens today, according to these films, is other teens. Alpha Dog (2006) is a powerful indictment of today’s youth, but its brute honesty hindered its commercial potential. Watching the film, you will ask yourself, “How could this happen? Can they all be that stupid?” Apparently they were, because the movie is based on a true incident. A small-time pot dealer, with delusions of being Tony Montana, the drug kingpin in Scarface, rules his gang with an iron fist. When one of his dealers can’t pay the $1,200 he owes, this mini-Scarface and his goons kidnap the dealer’s half-brother. The stereotypical characterizations are off-putting at first. The teens act too much like the drug dealers seen in dozens of movies. Maybe that is the point: They have little sense of reality and emulate what they see in entertainment. Movies, however, do not motivate their misguided actions that are strictly impulsive. As the film grows more compelling and suspenseful, the characters lose their façade to panicked reality. The biggest surprise is Justin Timberlake. Who cares that he was in one of those annoying boy bands? The guy can act. The Chumscrubber (2005) follows a similar path with teens resorting to kidnapping to resolve a drug conflict, but it lacks the gritty reality of Alpha Dog. Instead we get a self-consciously arty exercise in indie-film snobbery. Its stylistic excesses are simply irritating. In Bully (2001), a group of teens plan the revenge murder of their school tormenter. Bully, another fact-based story, suffers at the hands of director Larry Clark, a hack whose exploitation of teen subjects is viewed as great art by some pseudointellectuals. The less-celebrated Mean Creek (2004) takes the revenge scenario to a much higher level. The more realistic handling of the teens brings greater depth to the characters. The less extreme approach creates a much more plausible situation. Director Gus Van Sant used the tragedy of school shootings to create the masterwork Elephant (2003). He plunges us directly into the tragic day, and his prowling camera stalks various students as they draw closer to the inevitable. Exposition is avoided because we don’t really need to be told why. A subtle hint is all that is required. Van Sant forces us to contemplate whether we are victims of fate or random choices. Elephant is the most important teen film of this decade.
New on DVD this Tuesday (July 3): Driving Lessons, Puccini for Beginners, and Disappearances.


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