A teen film that's not really a teen film
Columbia Pictures
Directed by Doug Liman
USA, 1999
Yes, it's true. After years of working over Boomers and then the ill-defined Generation X, the media merchants are full-tilt into glad-handing teens ("Generation Y" or the "Echo Generation"--let's see which term sticks). What's surprising is just how good a lot of this stuff has been: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scream, Batman Beyond, and Go, recently released to video.

Maybe "good" isn't the right word. After all, the '80s had Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, Heathers, Ferris Bueller's Day Off... too much to count, really. The important thing about the new lot is that it's fresh.

Go is remarkable in that it's a teen film that doesn't feel like a teen film. High school is never mentioned; one gets the feeling the characters graduated or dropped out in the last two years. With the amount of freedom they exhibit--life, as the movie's tagline puts it, begins at 3 A.M.--one might be tempted to say that they may as well have been adults. I would beg to differ: the 18 to 19-year set are perfect. They have many of the privileges of adulthood, and yet are still ruled by raging hormones and their own fickle whims. Few of the decisions in Go would have been made with even a 25-year-old's consideration of consequences.

Go features three linked stories, all taking place over a roughly twelve-hour stretch. Each story is fuelled by immature decisions, mixed with varying levels of desperation. (The movie's title, in fact, comes from the word being uttered in each short by someone trying to get away from some threat.)

In the first story, Ronna (Sarah Polley) tries her hand at peddling drugs to make rent. Quite by accident, she finds herself having to double-cross the tough-guy dealer (Timothy Olyphant) who holds on to her friend Claire (Katie Holmes) as collateral, then scamming a crowd of kids at a rave. Ronna runs the full gamut from the top of the world to its pits here, with the constantly lurking specter of death giving the story a subtle charge. Not incidentally, this gives Polley a chance to turn in a fine, tragic performance, the best of the film.

The second story, a road trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, is a wild romp, complete with sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Ronna's friend Simon (Desmond Askew) makes most of the bad decisions here, aided and abetted by two homeboy-wannabe pals and the calm, reasonable Marcus (Taye "best-looking black man in show business" Diggs). Marcus tries to keep things under control as Simon indulges in scams, sex, and drugs with little concern for anyone's safety--until he crosses a strip joint proprietor and his son, which culminates in a wild, extended chase through the streets of Vegas, set to an extremely catchy and wholly appropriate version of Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride".

Eventually the dust settles, and we return to L.A. and the third story, about the two soap stars (Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr) who initiate the drug deal that Ronna tries to pull off. Rather than give anything away, let's just say they spend half the time not knowing what's going on and trying to find a way out--and it works hilariously.

So how, you're asking, do these stories connect? If I told you, half the fun would be gone. Suffice it to say that each story starts at around the same time, and each fills in the blanks of the previous tale, even if you didn't know there were blanks that needed filling. Rather than being gimmicky, the structure layers the tale, providing enough substance that it can wear several different labels--comedy, tragedy, nihilistic, fanciful--proudly.

This is what makes the best of the new teen-oriented productions fresh. They assume a certain level of sophistication without excessive irony, sarcasm, or supposedly witty references to pop culture. They require attention spans longer than thirty seconds. In short, they treat their audience like intelligent, thinking beings. And really, isn't that what every adolescent asks for?

A Critical Eye exclusive (August 20, 1999)
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