Clueless is just about to turn 21 and totally won’t need to be wiggin’ about having to go to any lame val-parties just to get some brew-skis. Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film is equal parts an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Emma and a loving send-up of mid-’90s Beverly Hills. As a teenager of the ’90s myself, there were films like Can’t Hardly Wait and 10 Things I Hate About You which were so fiercely targeted at my demographic that they actively made me imagine they were what my life was supposed to be like, but none of them loomed quite as large, nor seem to have fully stood the test of time the way Clueless does.
Clueless isn’t Heckerling’s only take on teen culture. She previously knocked 80s high school out of the park with the Cameron Crowe written Fast Times At Ridgemont High, a movie that has similar DNA to Clueless, existing as mostly a series of vignettes built around a loose theme. While Fast Times was also a comedy, it aimed a bit more at realism than Clueless, which Heckerling envisioned as a “Happy fantasy.”
I wanted it to be so goddamn happy. Even when [Cher] was sad, she was happy-sad… While I was making Clueless, Kids was being made, which was [about] street kids in New York, and a guy having sex with underage girls and giving them AIDS. Reality was still being reflected, maybe the worst [parts of] reality, but I was more interested in happy fantasy.
That happiness might have a lot to do with why Clueless remains a perennial favorite to this day. While it’s very much a product of its time, with a self-aware approach to mid-90s artifacts like pagers, massive cellular phones, exaggerated sagging jeans, and ska music, this awareness transcends the era making it feel timeless, as if it was a Wedding Singer type nostalgia flick made decades later with a wistful but embarrassed glance to the past. Some jokes especially seem written in the future, such as Cher’s outfit-picking computer software or need to take Polaroids of her outfits since she doesn’t trust mirrors, These feel like a Millennial writer thinking up ’90s selfies and style apps like Flintstones writers trying to determine which prehistoric animal would replace popular electronics.
There are a few notable standout observations for the modern viewer. Upon re-watching it I was struck by how young Paul Rudd looked, maybe the first time in my life I’ve ever had a sense of even noticing him age. Contemporary guttural sounds muttered by Stacey Dash have dramatically altered my perception of D, a character I had previously considered fairly on the same level as Cher, but now see as a hanger-on who shallowly jumps ship and has definite class issues with Tai, at least at first. And of course there’s Brittany Murphy, who would go on to be more successful than anyone else in the cast save for Rudd, before tragically dying of mysterious causes. Watching Tai transform from a meek alternative burnout into a Cher clone who then becomes something of a monster feels strangely prophetic for the course of Murphy’s own life.
Real-life tragedies aside, the film sticks admirably to its guns as Heckerling’s happy fantasy. In other hands, Cher could have been made too stupid or with an element of cruelty or falseness like the Plastics in the Clueless heir, Mean Girls. Instead, she’s actually a very smart girl who is, just as the film’s title suggests, clueless. When her report card comes early in the film, her worst grade is a “C,” and as she proudly tells her dead mother’s painting, she’s acing geometry. She’s an extremely capable young woman who just doesn’t always focus on the right details, like pushing Tai towards Elton instead of Travis hoping to make her more popular rather than more happy.
Where Heckerling especially excels in the movie is her attention to minor details. A glance at Cher’s report card when the grades have been corrected show a series of comments that sum the character up as a person. She refuses to dissect a frog, indicating her empathy (the only person she’s truly cruel to is Amber, who is, like, a total clone.) The card tells us her strengths and weaknesses, and addresses all the lessons about herself that Cher learns by the end of the film.
These details don’t stop with Cher. Hints to the sexuality of crush Christian are peppered throughout his scenes, subtle ones like magazine clippings and paintings in the background, to more blatant ones like watching Spartacus and reading a William S. Burroughs novel in class. There are little hidden jokes, like Lucy the maid hiding from Cher’s father because he scares her, and enough nose jobs in the background to make it a drinking game. All these little gags make Cher’s world feel three dimensional even as an intentional fantasy.
But I don’t know why I’m telling you all this anyway…