Clueless is one of those films that has come to define its generation. From the fashion, to the soundtrack, to its strangely optimistic pre-9/11 attitude, it is a film entirely of its time. And yet it manages to capture something universal about the teenage experience which gives it relevance beyond simple nostalgia. Perhaps because it is a re-working of Jane Austen’s Emma, it transcends simple references and tells us as much about human relationships as it does about how keen we used to be on plaid.
Perhaps ‘transcends’ is a slightly pretentious word to use in this context, as at its heart Clueless is just a great teen movie. Austen famously wanted to create an unlikable character in her Emma, but Cher, Heckerling’s modern-day equivalent, is eminently likable. At times ditsy, we see her transform over the course of the film, being redeemed to a greater extent than Emma ever manages. The film is ostensibly a romance, as we see Cher and her friends (and often Cher on behalf of her friends) navigate the unpredictable waters of teenage love, but really it is about Cher coming to see her own value, and taking charge of her place in the world. Always popular, her brief loss of this helps her to see that she can use her ‘powers’ for good. It is maybe a little unrealistic that her subsequent good works help her reclaim that popularity, but it adds to the film’s charm.
There is never more than a slight sense of peril in Clueless (like its Austen originator), so you can sit through it in comfort; it is a film to lift the spirits after a long week of working from home. The characters, even those we see little of, are written with a tender understanding which raises them beyond cliché. The film can’t really be called ‘feminist’ in a strict sense of the word. There is some suggestion that Cher is deemed unintelligent because she is a young, pretty woman, but as she and the film lean into this (such as in her driving test), it can’t be taken as an outright rejection of that system. However, as I concluded in my review of Mansfield Park, there is something decidedly feminist about the way the film centres on women acting upon their own agency. Their emotional lives and well-being are at the heart of the narrative, and we see Cher embracing the chance to get what she wants from life, not just what has been expected of her. To take control of her own happiness. It gets extra props for having a female director, and it does pass the Bechdel test (if only just).
As a transposition of Austen’s Emma, Clueless can only be deemed a great success. It doesn’t stick slavishly to the original narrative – not every character has their exact match – but the key beats are all there. Emma is maybe the Austen novel most suited to an update, as its plot is slightly more removed from the economic drivers of its time, and more simply focused on the feelings of the characters. Harriet is perfectly translated into the late Brittany Murphy’s Tai, and Frank Churchill is given an amusing if at times slightly questionable update as Christian.
All-in-all Clueless is perhaps the ultimate teen movie. It captures the spirit of its age while also sharing an optimistic message about personal growth and empowerment, and has a brilliant soundtrack. Its literary origins save it from much of the mindless drama that so often drags down movies for teens, and it will leave you feeling cheerfully satisfied. I can’t think of a better film to perk you up after a sad and unsettling day.
What’s your favourite teen movie? Mean Girls is be a big one for me (like most people!), but the strange innocence and optimism of Clueless will always ensure it the top spot. What films do you watch when you need cheering up? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions in the comments!