Streamers Have Saved Teen Comedy, Sort Of

I grew up on teen comedies, on rom-coms like 10 Things I Hate About You and gross-outs like American Pie. 2007’s Superbad might be the best of them all, combining hard-R guffaws and genuine coming-of-age sentimentality. Some time in the last decade audiences abandoned teen comedy at the multiplex (likely the result of YouTube and Nintendo keeping younger viewers, the target demo, away from movie theaters), and thus Hollywood mostly abandoned the genre wholesale. It’s difficult to argue when perfectly fine offerings like The Edge of Seventeen and Love, Simon barely make a dent. Where there’s a vacuum, there’s a way, and streamers have begun filling the studio void over the last few years. The fruits of that investment can be seen now in the deluge of teen comedy (or drama) dropping across all apps: Amazon’s dour if affecting Chemical Hearts, Hulu’s try-hard Purge riff The Binge, and Netflix’s not-so-hotly-anticipated sequel The Babysitter: Killer Queen. If saving means elevating, they haven’t done that, not yet anyways. Unless you count To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and its sequel, neither of which I’ve seen. If saving means simply producing them, keeping the genre alive through sheer force of many, they’re doing that and more.

Amazon Studios has had a rough go of it when it comes to original films. Historically their output has been far more minuscule than Netflix’s and, unlike the Romas and Irishmans of the world, their more prestigious offerings haven’t made a splash, either at the box office or the Oscar circuit. Even when they put out the best film of the year, as they did with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here in 2018, the pubic and publicists turn a blind eye. This year, however, perhaps the worm finally turns. They’re output is increasing and diversifying, and just in time given the state of the world. One such offering is Chemical Hearts, a romantic drama based on the novel by Krystal Sutherland. It’s a dour if admirable and often affecting attempt at rendering true and authentic the old school high school romance. While it doesn’t always succeed, Euphoria’s Austin Abrams and Lili Reinhart ground the film with decent chemistry and a palpable longing. The longing isn’t so much for one another but for other desires and memories that happen to interrupt their doomed meet-cute relationship. Tiresome narration and a dearth of surprises prevent Chemical Hearts from reaching its full potential, and yet it still represents a step forward for the burgeoning studio. Too often they’ve been singularly focused on producing Oscar bait instead of creating art or content for a variety of audiences. Among others, Hearts is a sign they’re headed in a more fruitful direction.

Grade: C+

Hulu’s offerings have been even more minuscule, likely the result of a previous focus on acquiring and distributing network TV’s primetime output beyond the vestiges of cable and those hanging onto their digital antennae that don’t work. I know I initially signed up for NBC’s Superstore and reruns of CW’s Smallville. That may be changing, however, with Hulu now owned by Disney and therefore working with deeper pockets than before. The third of four originals slotted for this year, The Binge is better as a straightforward teen comedy than a Purge satire, as it is about boys looking to get drunk and get laid or, as is always the case with a nice guy protagonist, hook up with a long-held crush. It’s a surprisingly fun and rambunctious outing, if one that’s overly reliant on hitting its requisite marks versus crafting original moments to stand on its own. The young cast, specifically Skyler Gisondo and Eduardo Franco, are endearing and comic-ready, with good timing and a novel, off-key screen presence. Franco shines as the weirdo outcast invited by two former best friends on a one-night-only adventure, a third wheel needed for his lucky access to the biggest Binge party in town. and as school principal and strict father of Skyler’s main squeeze, Vince Vaughn returns to comedy with possibly his best funny performance since Wedding Crashers. Stand-out sequences include an amusing musical number and a climactic competition that create some of those memorable moments that are sorely lacking elsewhere. If Hulu sticks to their guns, they may turn around the long-held notion that next to Amazon and Netflix they’re nothing but a third wheel.

Grade: C+

Of course, Netflix has been diversifying for years, and have even expanded on their appeal to the high school-age target demo. Their original teen weepie To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before did gangbusters for them on social media (because apparently mentions are what matter in the age of subscription streaming), and seemingly every month bears a new teen comedy or dramedy for the masses. McG’s Babysitter thriller was one of the worst movies of 2017, but that didn’t stop a small, passionate fanbase from supporting it to the tune of a sequel three years later. To its credit, Killer Queen is an improvement over the original, a film that barely passes muster instead of one that fails outright. Now a full-blown teenager, Cole (Judah Lewis) is an outcast at school, suffering ridicule for his “story” about what happened years ago in his home. Except for his long-time crush Melanie, everyone thinks he’s crazy, including his own parents (Leslie Bibb, Ken Marino). When Melanie invites him to a cabin getaway at the lake with her friends, he tags along to discover that history is about to repeat itself. He and the new girl at school Phoebe find themselves on the run from cultists doing Satan’s bidding for kickbacks, or so the demons hope.

Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell, and King Bach are back in ridiculous form as said demons, and Jenna Ortega is a welcome, likable addition to the cast as rebel girl Phoebe. Her budding connection with Cole is a particular highlight, their chemistry exceptionally on fire for such young actors. Unfortunately, Emily Alyn Lind is grossly miscast as Melanie, and director McG can’t get out of his own way throughout. He employs a litany of absurd stylistic distractions that serve no purpose other than to pander to different audiences (the Netflix algorithm strikes again). There’s a brief fight scene between Phoebe and another character where suddenly we’re watching a Mortal Kombat-style video game, complete with dramatic game VO and life bars ebbing dangerously. It’s all very silly and campy and not very funny. The Babysitter, in 2017 and today, works best when going for sincerity instead of frivolity. The problem is that McG is one of the least sincere filmmakers around. His career was built on the zany Charlie’s Angels reboot of the early aughts, and thus, he’s not prone to spending much time on careful feelings or character development. For all its flaws, and there are many more I won’t get into, Killer Queen at least ends on a high note that ties together the various threads that have been woven through both films. The coming of age elements, sweet as they are, deserved more room to breathe amid the garish blood and crazy theatrics.

Grade: C-

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