With dramatic aplomb, the estro-generation are one-upping their film counterparts

By Ken Tucker
Updated August 17, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under
Credit: Lauren Ambrose: Larry Watson
  • Movie

In praise of TV teens

Two well-received film performances this summer — Thora Birch’s jaded, alienated high school grad in the acclaimed ”Ghost World,” and Reese Witherspoon’s turn in ”Legally Blonde” as a chipper hottie-with-a-brain law student — have struck a real pop culture chord. Yet, watching them, it also struck me they were precisely the kind of roles that go over big in movie theaters but which could not stand up to the different sort of pressures that series television exerts. Typically, the cool medium tends to offer teenage or post-adolescent women at greater extremes, in either crasser or more demure variations.

Birch’s Enid in ”Ghost World” is a Gen-Y Holden Caulfield; if she has a purpose in life (something she’d find far too pretentious to admit), it’s to point out the phoniness of everyone and everything around her. On TV, that sort of world view is embodied most forcefully by two cartoon characters, Bart and Lisa Simpson, each of whom in their bratty (Bart) and earnest (Lisa) ways points out the hypocrisy of adults and mainstream culture.

But most live-action skeptics on TV tend to be characters that turn people (and people’s TV sets) off: Just think of the marvelously morose, prematurely jaded teens on the canceled ”Freaks and Geeks” — you and I may have loved ’em, but mass America didn’t cotton to such downers. On TV you have to be more cheerful — more resigned, in a sense, in your critiques of consumer culture and its deleterious effects. Thus we have the anti-Enid: Alexis Bledel’s Rory in ”Gilmore Girls,” who’s a complicated combination of both Birch and Witherspoon. Rory is a straight-A high schooler with a glowing smile who trades withering quips with her single mom (Lauren Graham) the way little boys swap Pokémon cards: blindingly fast, with amused asperity.

When a young woman starts Questioning Life on a TV program, it usually means she’s about to become more interesting — and perhaps pushed to the margins of the show. That’s what happened to ”7th Heaven”’s Jessica Biel, whose Mary was becoming a mope in a perpetual funk. Biel expressed her real-life adolescent angst by posing for suggestive pix in a men’s magazine. Suddenly, her character was shipped away to live with her grandparents, only to be used as end-of-season ratings bait with a triumphant and unrepentantly sullen return to her family. No doubt about it: Biel’s Mary added some zesty vinegar to the show.

Ghost World

  • Movie
  • R
  • 111 minutes
  • Terry Zwigoff