SXSW 2014 review: Beyond Clueless goes wild about teen movies

Charlie Lyne's passionate but uncertain analysis of the high-school genre has the air of a wildlife documentary

• More SXSW reviews here

Guardian Guide contributor Charlie Lyne navigates the maze of high school with a Kickstarted film essay that's rich in theory, packed with source material, but a bit uncertain in tone.

Presented with the air of a wildlife documentary, Beyond Clueless offers an analytical overview of the US teen as portrayed in the movies of the late 90s and early 00s. It's narrated by Fairuza Balk, one of a clutch of sort-of stars who came to represent the genre. The soundtrack contains new material from British indie band Summer Camp, who support Lyne's montages of clips from some 270 teen movies with a richly sinister backing track.

The film starts at the beginning of multiple school days. Lyne cuts together footage of buses pulling up in the parking lot, American flags flapping in the breeze. The jocks, the geeks, the skaters and the mean girls climb the steps into their habitats again and again and again. It's a technique Lyne uses throughout Beyond Clueless. A swimming pool montage shows the same idealised pseudo-romantic seduction over and over. A collection of clips featuring masturbation from across the genre bestow a strange beauty on films known for their dumb yucks. Summer Camp's superb soundtrack builds into a suitably steamy crescendo. These films, like the teens they exhibit (and – by extension – the ones who were watching them) are just variations on a theme. The uniform nature exposed through repetition.

Lyne knows and loves his source material – despite, if not because of its flaws. His passion for the genre is evident and his theories are presented with a rigour that pays the films the respect he feels they deserve. It's an evident labour of love, but for an outsider, someone not as obsessed with the intricacies of – for instance – tacky high-school conspiracy thriller Disturbing Behaviour, Lyne's sincerity can feel alienating. His wilder theories – the homoerotic subtext of crap/fun Yanks abroad comedy Eurotrip – are made stranger and funnier for the academic tone, but often – as with his reading of Josie and the Pussycats as a recruitment ad for consumerism – his ideas are not strange enough to sustain interest when plainly stated. The broader point – that the teen alone won't survive and conformity will out – is too slight to carry a film. Perhaps the use of so many clips under fair use (which states that you can re-use footage for the purpose of criticism or review) limited the film's scope. Lyne's definition of a teen movie is also a little shaky. Rushmore is a film about a teenager, but you'd have a hard time grouping it with She's All That or 10 Things I Hate About You otherwise.

Balk's unmistakable drawl stalks through the script. A good movie actor who appeared in many bad movies, she's the perfect choice of narrator, even if she sometimes sounds uncomfortable with the material – uncertain whether to deliver lines like "A lone wolf will always be a threat to the herd" po-faced or tongue in cheek. The film takes her own teen heyday (in supernatural thriller The Craft) as its base camp. Director Andrew Fleming's film contains the essential elements that draw Lyne in. The individual rejects the herd and becomes an outsider who pays the price. It'll be interesting to see how this film – itself something of an oddity – survives in the wild.

• More SXSW reviews here


Henry Barnes

The GuardianTramp

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