Greasy Kid Stuff

Repost from old blog, 9/22/2007I read Blake Nelson’s novel Girl when I was in high school (back in the day, devouring my girl friend’s used copies of Sassy in study hall). I enjoyed it a great deal (a novel about teens with sex and drugs!), but Nelson fell off my radar until recently, when I read that his young adult novel Paranoid Park was the basis for Gus Van Sant’s latest film (I’m a big Van Sant fan, with a particular affinity for his slowest, most boring work).


I picked up Paranoid Park (the novel) at my local library and read through it quickly. I was kind of astounded by it. Not only does it tell an honest, authentic teen story; but the ending is audacious to the point of almost being sadistic. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say Nelson trades a satisfying resolution for something much more hard edged. It’s a perfect ending, and it’s really brave of Nelson to see it through.

Since then I’ve read his Rock Star Superstar and now I’m starting on Prom Anonymous. It’s all pretty great stuff. Nelson allows his characters to behave like actual teenagers – they drink, they have sex, and they don’t suffer (or prosper) for this.

Now, I just finished watching “High School Musical.” I’m always interested in musicals and how this ever-enduring genre evolves. I rented “High School Musical” partially under the guise of watching it with my six-year-old charge. She lost interest about halfway through, so I sent her to her room to play while her dad and I watched it to the end – occasionally cringing, more often than not failing to suppress a smile.

I liked it, even if the singing was lousy (invasion of the electro-voiced robo-teens) and the message was trite. But hey, what can you really expect from a Disney movie filmed entirely on location in Utah? Male nudity? Gay characters?

On second thought…

We do get to see Zach Ephron with his shirt off – and he looks good. It seems the scene was put it with the principle purpose of showing off his body (and though his dad/coach never got naked, he was certainly something to see, too – Lord help me, but I don’t think I (or my porno director friend, for that matter) have ever contemplated a double-threat dad/coach character). The female lead was allowed to move and flirt suggestively. Call me naive, but I was actually surprised to see armpit hair (on the boys) and a locker room scene full of towel-clad boys. No wonder the film is so popular – no, seriously. These tiny touches of authenticity matter.

And then there’s the matter of Drama Boy, the school’s reigning musical star who likes to wear stylish newsboy caps and matching shirts. “Are we being ‘punk’d’? Are we gonna get to meet Ashton?!” he squeals at one point, and pink flags went up in my mind. I’m not the only one – this is from the blog Jere-Rigged [note: link/post gone as of 8/2010]:

The movie missed a great opportunity of pairing him [Drama Boy] with one of the basketball players, who is also pretty obviously closeted. Gay Basketball Player is given a really empty crush and unrequited pursuit of Drama Girl … There’s a nice moment at the end where Gay Basketball Player bakes Drama Girl some cookies to show his affection…she couldn’t care less, but who takes the cookies? Why, Drama Boy, of course. I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one to pick up the subtext, because there’s a weird tacked on coda at the end of the movie in which Drama Girl finally does come around and seems to fall for the guy. It felt like someone at Disney panicked and decided that this story was just a little too gay for their tastes.

I couldn’t agree more – the coda was weird and totally out of place [it should be noted that the Gay Basketball Player is especially proud of his crème brûlée]. There’s also a baby-dyke piano player and lots of fresh-faced singing and dancing teens, make of them what you will.

At any rate, it was nice to see some of this stuff where I never expected it. If only they could’ve gone all the way, bringing subtexts to the forefront, dealing with teens in the same way Blake Nelson does. Then young viewers could have had a movie that actually meant something to them instead of this bright, polite diversion.
p.s. – one of my favorite journalists, NY Times TV writer Virginia Heffernan, has this to say:

There’s only so much cutesiness a sane adult can stand close-up, even given how bitter that adult inevitably sounds when bashing a successful commercial venture. Hating a phenomenon like “High School Musical” no longer makes you appear tasteful. It makes you seem stupid, as if you hated all of market capitalism, or all winners.