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Nashville Scene Making the Grade

Finally, a movie teens can actually relate to

By Jim Ridley

MARCH 1, 1999:  When I was in high school, the movies my friends and I hated most were the ones packaged for teens--decrepit low-budget sex comedies, hack 'n' slash cheapies set on increasingly obscure holidays, pseudo-hip swill based on the trends of six months past. (My apologies to all partisans of Joysticks, Graduation Day, or Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.) What we resented most was the insulting mirror these movies held up to us. They said, in essence, "You kids are slack-jawed sheep, and you'll buy anything we sell you." To this day, whenever I see ads for the latest MTV-approved teen market-a-thon, I can feel the bile rising to the back of my throat.

If I'd seen Rushmore when I was 15, the age of its megalomaniacal hero Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), it would've been my favorite movie of all time, chiefly because of its protagonist. Max the overambitious, insecure teen entrepreneur is so precisely observed that he's an instant archetype--the kind of kid who defensively tells a Harvard grad that Harvard is his back-up school, or who fails geometry because he's too busy keeping bees and mounting a stage production of Serpico. A go-getter with zero tolerance for obstacles, he has everything except concern for others, and in the end, he gets that too; in fact, that turns out to be the missing piece that fits his profligate talents together. Who couldn't love an odd-looking, bookish hero who triumphs in love, life, and drama club, without ever once suiting up for the football team or bribing a cheerleader for dates?

As it is, I love Rushmore so much I'm not willing to risk reviewing it to death. Suffice to say that it's the rare American movie that treats teens as part of a larger world that extends beyond high school; that in the role of a lonely millionaire, Bill Murray has never seemed so touching; and that in addition to his sweetness and generosity of imagination, cowriter/director Wes Anderson has a gift for timed-release jokes that make you giggle at first and laugh out loud in retrospect. But I should probably add that I love Rushmore partially because it runs so counter to what teenagers are market-tested to like.

Especially now. At the moment, Rushmore's competition for that lucrative 18-25 youth demo includes Jawbreaker, a vile Heathers clone about some popular high school girls who accidentally kill a friend and decide to make it look like a rape--this is a comedy--and She's All That, in which "plain" teen artist Rachael Leigh Cook is persuaded by soccer jock Freddie Prinze Jr. to become a generic hottie. Jawbreaker alone sends a veritable Western Union of mixed messages, from anorexic body typing to snobbery, but both movies hold up bland normalcy as a holy grail. With their mall-bound fashions and radio-tailored soundtracks, they're like the glossy magazines in John Carpenter's They Live, which bear subliminal messages like "Conform!" and "Obey!"

Somehow Rushmore allows Max to become a better person and to succeed--for Wes Anderson, they're synonymous--without losing his individuality or his ideas. Which makes it all the more galling that the senile MPAA has seen fit to slap Rushmore with an R rating that will keep the movie from viewers Max's age--even though the coarser She's All That has a kid-friendly PG-13. For this reason, I wish luck to Rachel Jrade and Emily McGrew, two teenage University School of Nashville students who are challenging the MPAA's strictures regarding parental attendance at R-rated movies. Something tells me Max Fischer would approve.

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