High school was not a great time for me. It was four years of humiliation, of getting harassed and rejected…and that was my home life. At school it was even worse. I was picked on and physically assaulted almost hourly, as though guidance counselors squeezed that into their students’ schedules. “Fourth period I’ve put you in Geometry,” they would say, “with PE fifth period. After that, I’ve got you spending sixth period hitting Bill Panara in the chest and making mean comments about his acne.”
It was nightmare. I had exactly one girlfriend and that romance lasted all of a week. We burned out fast, one might say. Another might say she came to her senses. Regardless, years have now passed and I’ve bloomed into the lovely flower I’ve always imagined myself being…commonly called the ‘wallflower.’ I get nervous around people and am still, at heart, the same socially awkward young man I was at 14.
Maybe due to some lingering bitterness, I’m strangely drawn to watching every movie about high school that pops up at theatres like a whitehead on my nose during 9th grade science class. Most of the time, I find them to be likeably dumb (take for instance Can’t Hardly Wait or Mean Girls), although in rare instances they transcend the genre and make for brilliant cinema, as in the cases of Donnie Darko or Election. But I’ll leave the critiques to people like Roger Ebert and that annoyingly smarmy guy who replaced Gene Siskel. This blog post is not about the quality of high school movies, but instead about the accuracy of high school movies that center around a geeky character. As I alluded to earlier, being a 16-year-old misfit was my authentic experience; hence I feel I can gauge how accurately that is being portrayed on screen. Watching a high school movie, for me, is somewhat akin to a WWII vet to sitting through Saving Private Ryan. How good or bad the movie is becomes largely secondary to judging the realness of what’s going on.
Beginning with this year’s indie hit, Terri, here are my authenticity ratings of some modern nerd masterpieces. Feel free to make your own ratings, but only if you’ve ever had to wear large glasses or glue a retainer to the roof of your mouth with denture cream.
Terri (2011) – The title character is a big fat kid who wears pajamas to school, is picked on (in an offscreen kind of way), and eventually develops a crush on the school slut. The movie isn’t bad, but sadly it doesn’t rate highly on the authenticity scale. First, the slutty girl – who in real life would be the most popular girl in her grade – is outcasted after letting some boy touch her in Home Economics class. Heck, I know guys who touched themselves in class and got less flack for it. Secondly, the movie yet again goes down the annoying path of having some very attractive young lady fall for the nerd because she sees the goodness of his heart. Things don’t work like that in the real world, nor do I believe Terri would later burst into tears when she gets drunk and starts seducing him. Why does the nerd always have super morals? See, Terri only wants a good girl, one who doesn’t need a bottle of vodka before she strips off his enormous PJs and ravishes his amoeba-like body. Cut the phony ethics, Terri, and be happy with what the screenwriters give you. Authenticity Rating: 4 out of 10
Napoleon Dynamite – I’m not ashamed to say that I love this movie. It’s really funny and it soothes my resentful, angry nerd soul. I like that it gives no dimension to any of the characters besides the geeky heroes. The jock guy barely even has lines – he simply looks like a jock guy and that’s good enough. I also like that the girl who plays the love interest isn’t a knock out and that she and Napoleon Dynamite are too shy to ever do anything together. Sure, the end hints that they’ll start dating, but it isn’t shoved down my throat. The climatic dance is also brilliant, as Napoleon’s triumph is just the result of him continuing to be weird until he does something so odd it’s kind of terrible and kind of great. It also adds accuracy that he seems miserable for most of the movie. “Do chickens have large talons?” Authenticity Rating: 8 out of 10.
American Pie – This one is kind of a classic, so it must be discussed. The key difference with American Pie and other movies is that these characters aren’t really nerds – they’re in the pupa stage of becoming moronic frat boys. I give the movie leeway because of that. Plus, the main male character has sex with a pie and the main female character has sex with a flute. Nothing much in the movie is sugarcoated besides, I guess, Jason Biggs’ penis. Try saying that five times fast…no, don’t. I don’t want your roommate wondering why you’re looking at a computer screen, obsessively repeating Jason’s Big Penis. Authenticity Rating: 6 out of 10.
Welcome to the Dollhouse – The story of Dawn Weiner is almost too painful for me to watch. Yeah, it’s funny. It’s also incredibly mean-spirited and merciless. In other words, it’s really accurate. Authenticity Rating: 10 out of 10.
Superbad – I’ll start by saying that Superbad, as a movie, is better than Welcome to the Dollhouse. That said, as accuracy goes, this one’s about as big a fantasy as Lord of the Rings or Spiderman 2 was. Firstly, we have the doe-eyed babe who, inexplicably, is romantically interested in Jonah Hill. I went to high school with guys who look like Jonah Hill. You know who wants to date them? Girls who look like Jonah Hill, that’s who. Secondly, we’re again given the Noble Nerd, as Michael Cera refuses to go past first base with his drunken crush. Lastly, and most importantly, not just any girl, but an attractive girl has sex with McLovin. In reality, Golem has a better chance of scoring with Sam than McLovin would have with that redheaded girl. I think the problem here is the same thing that happened with Terri. In both cases, we have movies about nerds being made by people who never experienced nerdom themselves. Terri is directed by Azazel Jacobs, the son of iconic avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs, and Superbad is written by Seth Rogan, who was on a nationally syndicated television series when he was 16 (Freaks and Geeks). People give Seth Rogan a nerd pass because he’s chubby and Jewish; hey, when I was 16, my idea of a romantic evening was watching Red Shoe Diaries alone in the basement with the TV on mute. I think Seth Rogan, in Hollywood and on a television program, was doing a little bit better than that. At the very least, I’m guessing he had the volume on. Authenticity Rating: 2 out of 10.
A great nerd movie doesn’t only capture the humorous aspects of nerdom, but the pain as well. It remembers that real nerds don’t choose to be nerds – the most important thing to a real nerd isn’t who he is, but who he isn’t.