Reimagining the Hollywood Teen Movie: Animation, Fantasy, and Teenage Subjectivity
At first sight, Alex Strangelove (Craig Johnson, 2018) starts as a predictable genre film, part of a growing cluster of Netflix teen movies such as The Kissing Booth (Vince Marcello, 2018) and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Susan Johnson, 2018) available on the streaming platform. It opens with a montage sequence replicating what Roz Kaveney terms as the “anthropology shot” (Kaveney 2006: 56): students representative of social groups and cliques are introduced, as in the opening scenes of 10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999) and Not Another Teen Movie (Joel Gallen, 2001). The popular “running back” and the “bespectacled” awkward student turned into a stunning girl are particularly reminiscent of protagonists from She’s All That (Robert Iscove, 1999) and The Princess Diaries (Garry Marshall, 2001); the “goofy, rowdy” male friends recall the heroes of American Pie (Chris and Paul Weitz, 1999) and Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007). Teenage lead Alex Truelove first appears onscreen walking across his high school hall, like The DUFF’s heroine (Ari Sandel, 2015). His voice-over explains that he has not had a girlfriend yet, blaming his eccentric personality (“who’d want to go out with a… Type A wildlife nerd?”). This opening sequence suggests that Alex Strangelove will be another “sexual coming-of-age narrative”, what Frances Smith describes as the “primary determiner” of the Hollywood teen movie (Smith 2017: 18). The film indeed ticks all the boxes, featuring a romantic meet-cute with friend-turned-girlfriend Claire, an eventful trip to a frat party, and (light spoiler alert) a happy ending at the prom.
At the same time, Alex Strangelove approaches the genre in playful and subversive ways through its specific aesthetic and narrative focus, stepping into the realm of fantasy/animation. I build on Kathryn Hume’s understanding of fantasy as “any departure from consensus reality”, an “impulse” that co-exists with “mimesis”, namely the desire to describe events, people, situations, and objects with verisimilitude (1984: 20-1). David Butler notes that there are numerous film genres in which “the fantasy impulse is pushed to the fore” (2009: 43), such as the fairy tale, sword and sorcery, or the superhero film. By contrast, teen movies tend to aim for mimesis. As opposed to The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-03) or Frozen (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee, 2013), Alex Strangelove is situated in believable and recognisable live-action settings: a contemporary American high school and the affluent suburbs of New York. Unlike the young protagonists from Sky High (Mike Mitchell, 2005) or Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008), Alex and his friends are regular teenagers whose strongest abilities are artistic or academic. Still, the impulse of fantasy manifests itself at key moments in the narrative through animated visuals and characters, notably altering the film’s realistic world. Such reliance on animated effects can be observed within a small yet notable group of contemporary teen movies: from the presence of an animated alter ego in The Lizzie McGuire Movie (Jim Fall, 2003), to the ubiquity of animated visuals in adaptations of graphic novels such as Scott Pilgrim vs the World (Edgar Wright, 2010) and The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015). How can such affinities between the teen movie, a supposedly realistic genre, and fantasy be explained? Using Alex Strangelove as a case study, I argue that fantasy as channelled through animation articulates and foregrounds the confusing, intense experiences of teen-movie protagonists, providing a privileged access into teenage subjectivities. As Smith points out, adolescence is a “liminal construct in which identities emerge, morph and finally consolidate into adulthood” (Smith 2017: 3-4). Such positioning is rendered through the “elasticity, abstraction and subversive potential of animation” (Holliday and Sergeant 2018: 5). The in-between state of adolescence is translated through the liminal space of fantasy, itself rendered through the animated medium, transforming and reinterpreting reality from a teenage perspective. Relying on two specific sequences, I will examine how Alex Strangelove’s fantasy impulse negotiates the exhilarating, unsettled aspects of teen romance and sexual identities.
Alex Strangelove’s first animated occurrence takes place when Alex first meets Claire, asking her about the “blue-ringed octopus” she is drawing on her notebook (Fig. 1). Unexpectedly, Claire is impressed by his uncommon nerdy knowledge: “Wow. You know your cephalopods!” Alex stares at Claire in delight and surprise, slightly smiling, and the fantasy impulse comes to the fore: dozens of pink, red, and white animated hearts float around his head, along with colourful octopi. The apparition of hearts is a recurring trope to signify love in cartoons: an unquestioned, often exaggerated manifestation of animated characters’ infatuation, like Bugs Bunny meeting Lola Bunny in Space Jam (Joe Pytka, 1996) (Fig. 2). In teen movies characterised by their fantasy impulse, such a use of animation reveals the scope and intensity of feelings experienced by introvert and/or secretive characters like Minnie Goetze (Diary of a Teenage Girl), Scott Pilgrim, and Alex Truelove, conveying emotions that seem to transcend words and that cannot be shared (Fig. 3). This fantasy impulse literalises Alex’s overwhelming exaltation: the animated hearts are shaky, moving at varying, dizzying speeds.
These animated visuals also function like a diary, emerging from a subjective fantasy space that Alex shares with the audience. Beyond their obvious connection with Claire’s drawing, they seem to belong to Alex’s own secret notebook. The animated hearts and octopi are indeed two-dimensional doodles, roughly sketched, as if coloured with a pencil. They point to the importance of writing in teen movies, the privileged way in which teenage protagonists express their inner thoughts, often combined with the use of voice-overs, as in Heathers (Michael Lehman, 1988) and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Alex’s feelings remain hidden from everyone but the audience thanks to this first animated occurrence, turning his teenage reality into a romantic fantasy space.
While this first animated occurrence signals the beginning of Alex and Claire’s friendship, and later romance, their relationship takes an unexpected turn when Alex meets gay teen Elliot at a party. They immediately get along, and Elliot clearly appears fond of Alex. While, from the start, Alex clearly identifies as heterosexual, his apprehension about losing his virginity to Claire combined with his growing attraction to Elliot particularly puzzle him. Butler observes that, “as an impulse, fantasy articulates our desires and concerns, whether they are… controlling or liberating, expressing a fear of change or yearning for transformation, be it personal, political, social, sexual and so on” (Butler 2009: 120). The morning after a night out with Elliot, fantasy replaces mimesis again as Alex Strangelove’s primary impulse, providing a safe space for Alex to express his interrogations regarding his sexual identity. Alex puts two cereal boxes onto the kitchen counter, not knowing which one to choose. Point-of-view shots follow: the cereal boxes appear through close-ups, their names glow and digitally morph into new words. Through Alex’s eyes, “Honey O’s” turn into “Heter O’s” and “Krispy Flakes” into “Gay Flakes” (Fig. 4).
These computer-animated effects literalise Alex’s growing confusion. They also challenge the reliably predictable world of the live-action teen movie and its normative labels: the first choice presented to Alex is indeed that of heterosexuality, hinting at the expected path of the male teen protagonist. As Smith points out, “a substantial proportion of Hollywood teen movies end in an idealised heterosexual romance” (Smith 2017: 3). From this perspective, Alex Strangelove follows from Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, 2018), the first mainstream Hollywood teen movie released in theatres focusing on a young gay protagonist, although from a more aesthetically conventional approach. Hesitating between the two identities materialised in this subjective fantasy space, Alex grabs a third cereal box which seems to provide an answer: the “Rice Crunches” that he places between the two other boxes smoothly transform into “Bi-Crunches”. Stunned, he pauses, then confidently declares: “I’m bisexual”. Admittedly, this sequence provides a simplified visualisation of the complex and multifaceted aspects of sexuality – Alex notably has only three, clearly delimitated options. Yet, relying on the elastic form of the computer-animated effects, it creates a safe and secret fantasy space, beyond the pressure from his friends and family, in which he can challenge his certitudes and start to envisage alternative romantic and sexual narratives.
Both replicating and subverting the typical Hollywood teen narrative, Alex Strangelove’s happy ending concludes Alex’s romantic and sexual “process of becoming” – to borrow Smith’s term (Smith 2017: 18). He typically kisses and dances with his date at the prom, yet his date ends up being Elliot. Alex’s newfound assurance – following his coming-out as gay – succeeds much uncertainty and intense emotions that have been distinctively expressed, navigated, and explored through the subjective fantasy space provided by the animated medium. This film reveals the potential of fantasy/animation for translating, interrogating, and opening up new ways to approach teenage experiences, ultimately reimagining – and to some extent, queering – the Hollywood teen movie.
Butler, David. Fantasy Cinema: Impossible Worlds on Screen (London: Wallflower, 2009).
Holliday, Christopher, and Alexander Sergeant. “Introduction: Approaching Fantasy/Animation,” in Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres, eds. Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant (London: Routledge, 2018), 1-19.
Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (New York: Methuen, 1984).
Kaveney, Roz. Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film from Heathers to Veronica Mars (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006).
Smith, Frances. Rethinking the Hollywood Teen Movie: Gender, Genre and Identity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).
Eve Benhamou is a doctoral candidate and assistant teacher at the University of Bristol. Her research examines how Disney contemporary animated features (2008-2016) revisit Hollywood film genres, considering more particularly aesthetics and gender portrayals. Her article “Freezing versus wrecking: Reworking the superhero genre in Disney’s Frozen (2013) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012)” was published in Animation Practice, Process & Production in 2016. She has presented papers on animated fairy tales and romantic comedies, Disney’s superhero narratives, and Pixar’s brand identity at several academic conferences and public events. She has co-organised 2016’s “Re-imagining Beauty and the Beast” interdisciplinary conference and is the co-convenor of the BAFTSS Special Interest Group on Animation.