By Darren Franich
January 15, 2019 at 10:00 AM EST
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“Hey Kids! It’s Teensploitation!” declared the cover of Entertainment Weekly. The year was 1999, and EW was calling out the new teen wave on the big screen, a hot high school trend outputting one future BuzzFeed listicle of content per week: She’s All That and Cruel IntentionsTen Things I Hate About You and American Pie, offshoot darkweirds like Teaching Mrs. Tingle and Jawbreaker, then randomly in April you could just watch Jessica Alba get invented in Never Been Kissed and Idle Hands.

Varsity Blues hit first, though, 20 years ago today. And it sits weird in that pantheon. The era’s other teen movies circle through vanilla-fab high schools, Los Angeles campuses full of midwinter suntans. (Or the East Coast equivalent, some chic Cruel Intentions New York neighborhood.) But Varsity Blues filmed in genuine Texas, the cast of pretty young things all exploring a distinct neighborhood of Twang City. (All together now: “Ah don’t wuhnt, YORE LIE-UF.”) James Van Der Beek, Paul Walker, Amy Smart, Ali Larter, Scott Caan, Ron Lester: What were their parties like back then, filming all over Austin, everyone sharing that about-to-be-famous contact high?

Van Der Beek was already famous, the proverbial Dawson in Dawson‘s Creek. I recall hearing how this would be a big departure from WB nicety: R-rated, f-bombs, whipped cream bikini, Scott Caan’s bare butt while the opening credits were still rolling! Van Der Beek’s playing the nice guy diamond in the dudebro rough, though. Jonathan “Mox” Moxon is a nerd’s dream of an athlete. He keeps classic Vonnegut cradled in his playbook. He wants to go to Brown University. How chill a jock is he? He’s dating Jules Harbor, the proverbial Amy Smart, rocking a Goth-by-default ankh necklace in conformist West Canaan, advertising a way-over-it frown at the weekly fascist football rally:

Smart and Van Der Beek have a quiet scene early in the movie. You get the vibe that they’re both over it: The game, this town, their parents, their friends. Witness male fashion in the ’90s, baggy jeans like an ocean of denim:

Their nemesis is Bud Kilmer, a godking coach played with murder eyes by Jon Voight. Kilmer runs his team the way Immortan Joe runs his War Boys, pumping followers full of syringe juice. He calls his players “soldiers.” His disappointment trends cosmic: “You’re dragging ass up there, son,” he tells one guy on the team, “and it’s F—ING UP MY UNIVERSE.” And Voight looks— vividly, eternally — like a man who enjoys beating up teenagers for sport:

The movie was written by W. Peter Iliff and directed by Brian Robbins, and for about half an hour they’re really onto something. We’re near the end of football season. Golden god QB Lance Harbor (Walker) is dating golden goddess cheerleader Darcy Sears (Ali Larter), his surname promising the location of his future superyacht, hers conjuring up the store she’ll be too good for someday.

Also present: swaggery goof Tweeder (Caan), soulful giant Billy Bob (Lester), and Wendell (Eliel Swinton), a black man held back by a racist coach. “In West Canaan, Texas, there’s another society that has its own laws,” Mox explains in voiceover. Until the plot kicks in, Varsity Blues has fun looking patiently at that society. The guys play, they party, they sit looking uneasy while dads recall lost glory days.

Then Lance gets a bad bone-breaking tackle, and Mox takes the field. All that Vonnegut went to his throwing arm, I guess. In his first play, he makes a 40-yard pass. In his second play, he throws a football right in the opposing mascot’s face, haha, jerk. In his third play, he can’t read the coaches’ signals, so he just runs it in for a touchdown: Take that, crusty old coach, I’m awesome!

All this is what you could call the essence of punk-pop, screw-you brashness concurrent with highly-effective-person overachievement. The ’90s demographic dream: the popular misfit! There’s a five-degree-darker version of Varsity Blues where Smart and Van Der Beek get to run the school their way, football haters placed atop the American Gridironocracy.

The movie’s a little too nice for that. Mox loves football, just not bad football. So Varsity Blues is an odd viewing experience now, 20 years later, mid Concussion Era. Billy Bob seems to have a serious head injury, but then he gets a CAT scan, and he doesn’t: Problem solved! A couple of lines have aged very badly. “You give them Percocet, two Vicodin, and a couple of beers, and the panties drop!” declares Tweeder, all fratboy smiles.

Boys will be boys, is one main message here: The team goes to a strip club, and their teacher is a stripper. Varsity Blues is an older kind of exultant R rating, hedonist or just rude: the end credits feature characters named Teen Babe #1, Teen Babe #2, and Cute Naked Girl. Your mileage may vary. I got depressed hearing Billy Bob mutter about those “f—-ts from Baineville,” but most of us were miserable douchebags back then. I do think, though, that to properly understand the despotic swagger underlying the ’90s, you have to properly study the scene where Scott Caan hosts a naked-lady party in a stolen police car.

Retroactively, one legacy of Varsity Blues is its status as a prototype for Friday Night Lights. The movie came out after H. G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s book but before the ensuing film/TV adaptations. It shares certain untrademarkable traces of FNL‘s cinematic DNA: protagonist team with blue uniforms, Saracen-ish creative-class backup quarterback. One of Kilmer’s assistant coaches would go on to be one of Eric Taylor’s assistant coaches — and good lord, is that Jesse Plemons playing Paul Walker’s little brother?

There’s a new emotional kick to the movie, too. Ron Lester runs away with the movie. He’s the one member of the cast to believably conjure teenaged awkwardness despite being 28 at the time of filming. (Though: Credit to Larter for convincingly radiating smalltown-desperation pathos wearing just Reddi-Wip.) Lester played a similar character in the great TV series Popular, then parodied himself in Not Another Teen Movie. He died way too young in 2016, a few years after Walker. The final game in Varsity Blues is defaced by heavy use of the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero,” the worst Creed song Creed never recorded. But when Billy Bob runs in the game-winning touchdown, it’s a hall-of-fame sports-movie catharsis.

And something in the Van Der Beek/Voight antagonism still plays today. You have to remember this was a time when nobody knew what millennials were. (In that great EW cover story, writer Josh Young calls us “Echo Boomers.”) That meant anything was possible, still. The old ways could be toppled: A new century, a new world! Varsity Blues is a good-times kind of film, which is why it’s remembered so fondly (and why it’s such an unequivocal Dude Movie.) It finds a deeper purpose near the end, though, when Mox declares he won’t play for Kilmer anymore. The whole team follows him: They’re unionizing, going on strike!

The film can’t fully own that idea. Kilmer leaves, and the team just wins the district championship their way. Offense playing defense, a play with too many wide receivers, a teenager coaching, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!

But there’s a rebel spirit to Varsity Blues, too. Meet a new generation of kids raised under the thumb of a mean old dictator. They are f—ing up his universe.

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