I totally paused!
I’m not sure why we picked Amy Heckerling‘s Clueless five days after it opened (I save my ticket stubs), but I do remember enjoying it. Not in spite of assumptions either—unless we went because it was the only PG-13 film out (I became a teenage six months earlier). Maybe my love of cinema as more than superficially reductive genres with targeted demographics existed even then since that two-week span also included Apollo 13 and Nine Months. And because I wouldn’t have known about Jane Austen or Heckerling’s debut Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I guess we just saw a trailer that looked funny and took a chance (options were limited back then). Who knew it’d become a contemporary classic that hasn’t lost a step in twenty-five years?
I mention Austen because Heckerling uses Emma as the basis of her Beverly Hills-set comedy of errors. At the lead is Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), the self-absorbed daughter of a wealthy lawyer (Dan Hedaya‘s Mel) who can talk her way out of any problem within the confines of her humorously clique-oriented high school. Well, any problem except one thanks to her debate teacher’s (Wallace Shawn‘s Mr. Hall) unchanging “C” upon her report card. Needing to think outside the box, she and BFF Dionne (Stacey Dash) hatch a plan to play matchmaker and soften him with love via another lonely heart, Ms. Geist (Twink Caplan). Their mission’s success provides Cher a real sense of accomplishment and altruism (despite her selfish motivations), causing her to seek out another worthy “project.”
Her latest target arrives in the form of a transfer student named Tai (Brittany Murphy). As rough around the edges as this type of hyperbolic class satire gets (baggy clothes, an accent these vapid souls believe needs solving with elocution lessons, and a lustfully straying eye towards Breckin Meyer‘s stoner Travis—a pairing akin to social suicide), Cher takes her under wing to place her on a more acceptable path towards becoming a “mini me.” Only when she discovers the result’s condescending meanness via the mirror onto herself that Tai proves does Cher realize her priorities were never quite straight. She’s not alone in this discovery, though, as adolescence is full of learning moments to help remove heads from asses. We’re all clueless in the end.
This is where the real fun of the movie is born. You have the tumult of Dionne’s romance with boyfriend Murray (Donald Faison), the shallow lust of Elton (Jeremy Sisto) as a potential interest for Tai, and Cher’s college-aged ex-stepbrother (his mother and her father divorced) providing a contrast to the immaturity of her classmates (Paul Rudd‘s Josh). Add Travis’ marijuana stereotypes, ice queen Amber’s (Elisa Donovan) existence on the periphery of Cher’s group, and new heartthrob Christian (Justin Walker) making the girls’ hearts swoon to see how there’s a ton of excitement and entertainment to be had. The over-the-top commentary on wealthy Los Angeles lifestyles with plastic surgery, materialism, and highway driving becomes icing on the cake since the main intrigue lies in the characters finding themselves.
There’s real growth in this way whether it’s discovering new priorities or understanding the error of their previous ways. Can someone like Travis overcome his addiction and thus his dismissal in the others’ social circles? Can Murray dial down his faux macho shtick to show Dionne he isn’t just another toxic chauvinist? And will Tai’s transformation into Cher-lite lead the duo onto a path of destruction or awaken them to the reality that their images have fallen far from who they truly wish to become? Heckerling provides the latter parallel descents into heartbreak and near death experiences to ensure one cannot see the other without an acknowledgment of themselves and that revelation will prove rocky before it ever approaches empathy. A middle ground must be found.
That doesn’t, however, mean anyone becomes completely different by the end. The film is laughing with this class of entitled brats rather than at them. It seeks to delve beneath the easy jokes and see that any affectation is just that and nobody should be blindly disregarded as uneducated simply because they see and interact with the world differently than others. Much of their evolutions as human beings stems from their ability to look beyond kneejerk reactions and alter their perception of others. Who they are remains more or less the same while their judgments soften to understand everyone is as unsure and confused as the next. You might have your head on straight in regards to school or love individually, but the other can always be improved.
We therefore see Cher as “too much” in an innocent manner instead of an antagonistic one. She’s a well-meaning teenager even if she acts with her own best interests in mind. Does she know she’s doing that, though? No. Bettering her personal status is merely what pushes her to help her friends. That “charity” then takes control with a touch of frustration when they refuse to accept her desires for them are correct (they very rarely are)—which itself opens her eyes to their truth. And Silverstone portrays the complex juxtaposition of big head and bigger heart with ease. Cher is a character most films ask us to hate and yet here she’s an endearing casualty of her environment who’s willing to be better. And that willingness is itself heroic.