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Amy Heckerling’s beloved “Clueless” is many things: a darling example of modernizing Jane Austen, an endearing rom-com, a biting examination of American values (no, really), and a ringing endorsement of the charms of teenage boys literally named “Birkenstock.” And while all of those elements are essential to its enduring charm, its greatest strength isn’t one bit over another, but the combination of all of them into an ambitious whole. Ostensibly a “high school comedy,” Heckerling’s film exemplifies the best of what’s possible in such a seemingly broad genre: that it can incorporate everything, all in service to the off-kilter and high-hormonal world of the teenager.
Now celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, Heckerling’s witty spin on Austen’s “Emma” (a novel about amusing the perils of match-making and injecting yourself into situations in which you don’t belong) has remained a perennial favorite not only because it’s a smart freshening on a classic tale, but because it allows for so much more beyond the Austen-issued drama. It demonstrates the enduring power of a romantic comedy and the clever examination of questions of classism and elitism at one. Bonus: It’s incredibly funny.
But it’s not an outlier in a genre often dismissed as fluffy fun for the teenage set, though it is still the best example of innovation with the “high school comedy” concept and how many other types of films it can incorporate into one piece. Heckerling’s film isn’t just the best example of a modernized take on Jane Austen (hell, even Autumn de Wilde, who directed the most recent cinematic adaptation of “Emma,” agrees), but of the power of a underappreciated class of films. Using Austen’s work as an entry point adds some heft to the story and allows what might seem like a flimsy premise to grow into something much more lasting.
The movie’s ability to stand the test of time owes much to the care that Heckerling gave every aspect of the story. Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) endures as the best of all high school heroines — funnier than Cady in “Mean Girls,” more human than Veronica in “Heathers,” far more interested in personal growth than even Kat in “10 Things I Hate About You” — because Heckerling and Silverstone always approached her as a multi-dimensional role that was far more than her Beverly Hills status or enviable wardrobe.
It’s easy to make high school and its inhabitants seem silly or transitory, but Heckerling is keenly aware of the formative power of those teenage years. “Clueless” understands that while some of its characters’ concerns are small potatoes (yes, some people did lose all their athletic equipment during the Pismo Beach disaster, and no, a biffed driver’s test is not the end of the world), these experiences are also going to contribute to the way they approach life forever. It’s a heavy idea, but treated with humor and affection, “Clueless” is able to play on both the lightness of its story and its wider-reaching implications, becoming something far richer in the process.
Heckerling herself wasn’t a stranger to the power of a well-made high school movie when she wrote and directed “Clueless” in 1995. She’d already made another one as her 1982 debut, with “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” which offered a clever codification of so many of the tropes we’re used to in the genre (the slacker, the sweet geek, the bad boy, the girl who can’t tell the difference) while gracefully approaching some of life’s more emotional questions (even if its boundary-breaking abortion scene was cut down from its original version). While “Clueless” doesn’t wind up as “controversial” as its predecessor, it’s still a mature exploration of high school life, Trojan-horsed inside an amusing package.
These things are possible because of the elasticity of the genre, which Heckerling has always known can serve as a fertile ground to explore life in microcosm (of course, made all the more entertaining by hormones and gossip and the tiny dramas that make high school so horrible and so funny). Life itself is not just a romance or a comedy or an overwhelming since of “ickiness” or a chance to help out one’s ailing neighbors (by way of a donated bong or what have you), but all of those things: It’s a lesson Cher learns throughout her cinematic travails, but one that “Clueless” was created to celebrate. Just a high school comedy? As if.
“Clueless” is now streaming on Netflix.