Teen angst

Behind the Curve – Battle Royale (2011)

In the pantheon of story subjects, the topic of adolescent or teen angst is among the most deceptively difficult ones to tackle. On paper, it looks like a breeze. You are writing about people in the most unreserved, emotional period of their life, people who don’t hide their feelings under layers of discipline, maturity and repression. I can’t speak for other writers, but for me the opportunity to ditch subtlety would effectively cut my workload in half. I wouldn’t have to come up with clever ways of showing the audience what my character is feeling. He will just tell them. And the audience will instantly understand the emotions he’s experiencing because we’ve all been there.

Battle Royale, 2000
Battle Royale, 2000

The problem you run into is that although everybody has been an emotional teen at some point, adults still don’t particularly like them. We tend to see teens and teen angst as whiny and melodramatic. It’s why a lot of people hated Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode II. It’s possible that Hayden Christensen did his job too well. Although it makes sense that Vader would have started out as a troubled teen, that’s not what people wanted to see.

For another example, look at J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It’s a classic novel that contains what is, in my opinion, the most perfect depiction of teen angst ever set to paper. And yet, I know a lot of people who can’t stand that book because they hate the main character. They hate that he’s naive and sentimental and that he bitches and moans constantly. But those are the same traits that make him such an accurate portrayal of folks at their most emotional.

My theory is that most adults are, to one degree or another, ashamed the person they were as a teenager. We resent any accurate depictions of teen angst in fiction because they remind us of that awkward time in our life. Even while I found Salinger’s narrator more or less relatable, I had trouble stomaching him at times. I think it’s because I saw too much of myself in him.

So is the audience for teen angst exclusively teenagers? I doubt it. Teenagers like accurate depictions even less. Nobody likes having a mirror put up to show how silly they are. Teenagers want fiction that will take them seriously, not trivialize them. This, I feel, is one reason the popularity of YA novels and movies like Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent has exploded in recent years. These stories take the very high school-esque problems of cliques and conformity and paint them as important, earth-shattering battles. But in my opinion these stories lack authenticity. The characters rarely come across realistic, angsty teens. More often they are generic stock heroes following generic stock hero character arcs. They’re trying to merge high school drama with action, but they don’t have the guts to take it all the way.

Divergent, 2014
Divergent, 2014

And that’s where Battle Royale shines. This movie is special in that it manages to balance a satisfying, visceral action movie with an authentic teen angst feel. If you’re unfamiliar, Battle Royale is basically the R-rated precursor to Hunger Games. Same basic story, but much more violent.

The brilliance of Battle Royale is that the kids who are battling to the death are all from the same class. Therefor it’s inserting life-or-death scenarios into the existing drama of a high school cafeteria. Once the kill-or-be-killed ultimatum is in place, alliances are formed and broken on the basis of old jealousies, crushes and cliques. There are noble sacrifices, professions of love, romantic rivalries, and it’s all dripping with that particular brand of high school melodrama.

Battle Royale, 2000
Battle Royale, 2000

And it doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth the way Catcher in the Rye sometimes does. Perhaps that’s because Battle Royale is an excellent hardcore action movie first and foremost, and the over-the-top melodrama seems to fit in naturally with the copious violence.

I find the combination to be very compelling. Perhaps because these dramas felt like life or death when I was experiencing them. Rather than a depiction, Battle Royale feels like a fulfillment of our old teen angst. The normally cringe-worthy high school melodrama is able to look almost poignant. It’s tragic to watch teenagers eagerly kill and die over problems that the adults know they’d be getting over in just a few short years.


Coming up:

  • Game: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Nintendo, 1993) – Monday, October 10
  • Documentary: An Inconvenient Truth (2006) – Monday, October 17
  • Book: A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway, 1929) – Monday, October 24
  • Wild Card! – Monday, October 31
  • Movie: No Country for Old Men (2007) – Monday, November 7

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