Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Back to the 90s. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
When Clueless begins, Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) is shallow, self-centered, and vacuous. The most popular girl in her incredibly rich, Beverly Hills high school, Cher dishes out pseudo-spiritual guidance like Confucius raised exclusively on Cosmo, explaining her own philosophy in deliciously facile bon mots that she delivers in such a confident, breezy cadence, it is almost impossible not to get caught up in her view of the world. Cher glides through the world on a cloud of her own making, buoyed by her self-assurance, poise, and indefatigable naivety. She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, and so she has the power of believing she is the master of her own fate, that with the right argument, the right line, or the right pair of shoes, anything is within her grasp.
Based on Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, the film smartly updates the source’s Victorian caste system to high school, creating a delightfully skewed satire of teenage vapidity, ‘90s high-fashion, and southern California culture.
Based on Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, the film smartly updates the source’s Victorian caste system to high school, creating a delightfully skewed satire of teenage vapidity, ‘90s high-fashion, and southern California culture. Yet for all its satirical barbs, what makes Clueless special is how seriously it takes its characters and their emotional reality. Most films would dismiss Cher for how she so frequently misses the point, or vilify her for being atop the social ladder and mostly ignoring anyone she feels is beneath her station, but Clueless takes her, and her problems, seriously. It doesn’t assume Cher is inherently a bad person because she’s a self-obsessed teenager; it sees her as a good-hearted kid who has been sheltered and privileged enough to never learn how good she’s got it, and how real suffering might feel. It also, to its credit, doesn’t go about showing Cher true injustice and turning her into a crusader. Instead, it suggests that a smaller shift can be equally significant.
Though it is incredibly comedically dense, packing each scene with dialogue that works on multiple levels, sight gags, and tiny flourishes of physical comedy to the point where it frequently resembles screwball with its relentless comic energy, the film is also really canny about the teenage experience, like when the socially adrift Tai (Brittany Murphy) feels like an entire party is dispersing around her and keeps bobbing her head, sort of sadly, hoping someone will notice and approach her. Director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) veers so deftly between satire and substance, between comedy and compassion, she functionally blurs the line between the times we are supposed to laugh at Cher’s foibles, and the times we are intended to be laughing with her. Cher’s joie de vivre is so infectious, the film catches her sense of carefree joy. It mocks its characters, but never more than gently. It criticizes, but always constructively. Clueless, like its heroine, never tears people down. It is much more interested in building them up, in trying to see them at their best. It’s the rare comedy with blessedly pure intentions.
… at its heart, Clueless is a coming-of-age tale with enough smarts and style to run circles around the competition.
The film follows Cher as she plays cupid to two teachers (Wallace Shawn and Twink Caplan) to raise her grades and catches a do-gooder vibe, with the help of her idealistic ex-step-brother (Paul Rudd, effortlessly charming as ever). From there, she takes Tai, a new transfer student, under her wing, tries to set her up with popular guy Elton (Jeremy Sisto), and then decides to find love herself, through Christian (Justin Walker), and then, perhaps, where she never expected.
The emotions are heightened, often to the point of absurdity (like in an amazing sequence where Stacey Dash’s Dionne accidentally drives onto the freeway for the first time), but the experiences are completely relatable, even universal. The feelings are amplified because of course they are—these characters are teenagers, and everything feels like the greatest thing ever or the end of the world. This allows the episodic nature of the film to accumulate weight over its runtime. At first glance, Clueless has virtually no stakes—there are creeps (including the predatory Elton, a mugger, and two kind of senseless assholes at the mall who attack Tai and make her temporarily more popular than Cher for surviving a near-death experience), yet they are fairly easily escaped or ignored—but in actuality, it is a story of self-discovery and the first steps toward actualization. Cher doesn’t save the world, but she does learn how to be a better person, and in that way, her struggles are more relatable than most. She loses her sense that she is the wisest, most-centered woman she knows, but in the process, she realizes she has much to learn about how to live in a world populated by other people who are actually people.
Clueless is a great teen movie in the truest sense of the word. It is a film about what it feels like to be a teenager and the slow, tentative steps toward adulthood. It’s the story of a young woman who goes from completely self-obsessed to slightly less self-obsessed, but who catches on to the idea that doing good for reasons other than personal benefit might be worthwhile. Does Cher become a saint? As if. She just becomes a little bit older, a little bit smarter, a little bit more honest with herself, and a little bit better as a result. The film wraps this simple, enduring message in sparkles, slang, and silliness, but at its heart, Clueless is a coming-of-age tale with enough smarts and style to run circles around the competition.
Clueless is a great teen movie in the truest sense of the word. It is a film about what it feels like to be a teenager and the slow, tentative steps toward adulthood. It’s the story of a young woman who goes from completely self-obsessed to slightly less self-obsessed, but who catches on to the idea that doing good for reasons other than personal benefit might be worthwhile.