You know what films are fun to watch, and to a greater extent, fun for me to review? Those films that are so of their era that many people today either A) write them off as some random film of their time or B) are one of those young whipper-snappers that seem to think anything made before they were born isn’t worth their time. Clueless is one of the the most mid 90s films of all time. Even more so than Wayne’s World, Bill & Ted and maybe even California Man (Encino Man to you Yanks). I’m not sure if Clueless is more 90s than Bio-Dome… but I’m sure I’ll visit that film eventually to decide. Regardless, Clueless is actually an undeniably fine film. Click the link below and I’ll tell you why it’s actually brilliant. Also, if you’re from column B stop trying to be cool and watch something decent for once you petulant whipper-snapper!
Clueless, much like its inspiration, Jane Austen’s Emma, tells the story of a young rich girl who has a knack for matchmaking but never has the time or desire to find a partner of her own. In this 1995 take on the story Emma is now Cher (Alicia Silverstone) who is very much the fashion obsessed, very popular and very wealthy valley girl archetype we all know now. Her best friend, also named after a formerly famous singer now known for doing infomercials, Dionne (Stacey Dash) joins Cher as they attempt to make over a new, and quite clueless girl at their school called Tai (Brittany Murphy). Cher and Dionne focus their efforts on finding a boyfriend for Tai, regardless of her interests. This sets up a series of events that could easily be described as a direction-less plot but is, in fact, an actual honest to goodness character study of a teenage girl discovering who she wants to be and how to fulfil the void in her life, on her way to womanhood. This also involves Paul Rudd (as Cher’s step brother Josh) because it is his duty to appear in as many films as possible before he became a household name so years later you can go “oh, man, forgot he was in this”.
What this film does exceptionally well, other than most things, is gradually peel the layers off its main character whilst never betraying the person you see at the start of the film. In Cher’s very first scene, set to The Muffs version of Kids in America, Cher describes her daily life of picking the right clothes, her love of fashion, her friend Dionne and so on. All whilst smashing her Jeep (which she hasn’t got a driving license for) and being gloriously unaware of how shallow she’d be coming across to anyone listening. Her life, for all intents and purposes, revolves around fashion, boys and being popular. As the film progresses, and almost from the off, you’ll have these tiny moments of dialogue, small character exchanges, where Cher shows signs of actually being a very intelligent and a more sympathetic person than her shallow first impressions may suggest. My favourite example being correcting one of Josh’s friends on a line from Hamlet which Cher knows accurately thanks to Mel Gibson. Fun fact: One of my Uncles worked on that Mel Gibson Hamlet film. True story.
There’s many other moments, such as Cher’s uncanny ability for metaphor use in debate class, where she may sound like she’s spouting nonsense but is actually drawing from her own life to create an accurate example of the benefits of immigration. This is despite the fact she didn’t know her maid was not Mexican. As the film shows you these small moments of humanity in the otherwise vapid exterior you can find yourself caring for her as a person. Her wants and needs are genuine and you’ll be happy to see her succeed. That’s not to say that there isn’t a few moments where the film forgets certain plot threads or appears to resolve them off camera. For example Tai goes from having a crush and an actual connection with skater boy Travis (Breckin Meyer), to ignoring him as she’s fully engulfed in the world of popularity, to having a crush on Josh and then Travis again. With very little scenes to indicate her transition of interests she is (spoilers) with Travis in the final scenes.
Now this happens with a few plot threads and normally it would be a little inexcusable but this film is about Cher and her journey. The seemingly fickle changes in some character motivations fit with the themes of teenagers not knowing what they truly want. It would have helped to have kept us in the loop over a few more scenes but the increasingly monocular focus the story has on Cher and her journey allows this to be a less troublesome oversight. Also, I could have done with more Donald Faison as Dionne’s boyfriend Murray cos that role is basically proto-Turk.
The film’s soundtrack is incredibly good and manages to describe the time within which it is set without once dipping into the pool of grunge music that would have been huge at the time. I suspect director Amy Heckerling wanted to avoid using any music which may have felt too fashionable and instead focused on songs that were of the time but not so iconic that they would date the film forever. Bands such as The Muffs, Radiohead and Mighty Mighty Bosstones may be very 90s bands but they aren’t associated with strong fashion movements, especially not any represented by the leads in this film. The closest would be Travis in his pot smoking skater group.
Clueless is shot by Bill Pope, who I’ve established multiple times as being one of my favourite cinematographers for his sheer versatility. He does his usual fine job here. There’s a lot of nice crane shots, tracks and steady-cam moments as the camera moves with the actors through a scene. It’s not anything ground breaking but Clueless is nice to look at. Similarly Heckerling has ensured that every scene has small moments between characters that help progress of inform of relationship developments without the use of words. These aren’t things that are difficult to work into a script yet many films forget that most of the information we receive is visual and so that should be used to free up space for things that can only be described via dialogue. For example, why have a character verbally flirt with someone when they can give a cheeky tickle whilst talking about something else? There’s even a moment earlier one where Cher and Dionne explain the body language of a pair of teachers they had set up together which is then silently mirrored in a later scene with Cher.
In the end, whilst I can fault Clueless on a few factors, such as the abandonment of certain characters in the last half, the film itself is a real character journey and does a fine job of translating a 19th century novel to the modern day. It is littered with subtleties and details that rarely happen today. There have been a few high school set films since that have nailed the craft of film like this has, 10 Things I Hate About You and Orange County for example, but few manage to capture a moment in cultural history whilst also telling a timeless tale. Fine, I’ll commit to it. Clueless is pretty much a masterpiece. Is it better than Heckerling’s other classic though? That being Fast Times at Ridgemont High. That’s a review for another day methinks.