The Fault in our Stars is a Young Adult phenomenon, combining healthy box office receipts with a generally positive critical reception, but it’s yet another example of a mainstream movie that fails to engage with modern teenagers’ reality. Despite flaunting contemporary technological trappings – X-Boxes and iPhones (with increasingly popular texts-appearing-on-screen imagery) – The Fault in our Stars feels anachronistic when it comes to its representation of teenagers and technology. Social media is entirely absent. Perhaps this is unsurprising in a film that concludes with some travelling overseas to deliver a print out of an email in person. Without some acknowledgment of social media, the film fails as an authentic representation of modern teenage life.
I’ll concede that this is nitpicking. But for fiction that captures the attention and expenditure of “Young Adults” – read: affluent teenagers in western countries – it’s a world away from their everyday experience. As a teacher of secondary school students, it’s very apparent to me that social media is more than ubiquitous in teenagers’ lives: it’s omnipresent. It’s necessary. Today’s seventeen year old doesn’t know a world where socialisation isn’t predicated on technology; meeting someone then finding them on Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat, or Tumblr. It’s not just social media – it’s the social medium.
Why then do the films aimed at teenagers so consistently fail to address or, often, even acknowledge the existence of social media? A handful elide the problem altogether by shifting the setting back a decade or two – see: Galore, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Adventureland – but more often than not, films pretend to exist in the modern world without engaging with the defining attribute of the decade. The Way, Way Back and The Spectacular Now (from the same writers as TFIOS) fall into this trap, presenting a world with iPods and iPhones 4s but an outmoded sensibility. In fact, when I asked my students to name a film featuring an authentic representation of their everyday experience with social media, I only received one answer: LOL, a weightless, forgettable Miley Cyrus vehicle from 2012.
There are plenty of reasons for the lack of social media in our mainstream media. Without any experience in the field myself, it wouldn’t surprise me to find that there are some tricky legalities associated with presenting these brands on screen, particularly when you start to get into product placement clashes and the like. It’s perhaps telling that the two films from this year to enthusiastically engage with social media – Frank and Chef – each use Twitter, Flickr, YouTube et al as PR-palatable platforms for marketing success stories; each film functions, incidentally, as an advertisement for these brands.
The more compelling argument for eschewing social media altogether is that it’s both unnecessary and visually uninteresting. Why would you show a conversation on Facebook messenger or via Snapchat when you could have the two actors converse face-to-face? As an audience, do we really want to be looking at small screens on the big screen? I can see the merit to this argument but, honestly, I think it’s a cop-out. The same problem arose for filmmakers when mobile phones became ubiquitous in the late ‘90s; suddenly horror movies, thrillers and even rom-coms relying on wacky misunderstandings had to ignore mobiles altogether or rely on “dead zones” to make their plots halfway plausible.
The thing is, creative filmmakers can overcome these problems. Think of how much tension Scorsese found in a mobile rumbling across a table in The Departed or – to return to where we began – how Josh Boone finds romantic tension as Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) stares longingly at her silent phone, willing it to buzz. There’s no reason today’s filmmakers can’t do the same with social media; if nothing else, Facebook or Twitter feeds could serve as an alternative to voice-overs for expressing inner thoughts (or, I don’t know, something cleverer than this. There’s a reason I’m not a film director).
Critically, engaging with social media doesn’t require us to see a screen at all. 52 Tuesdays doesn’t mention Facebook or Tumblr etc at all, but the focal point of its third act contemplates the kind of issues regarding representation that hang over today’s teenagers. A sexually explicit video filmed by Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) drives both the narrative and a reflection on the often paradoxical demands of self-discovery, sexuality and legality as a modern minor. Similarly, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood avoids computers and mobiles as much as possible, but still finds time for Mason (Ellar Coltrane) to express how his displeasure with social media led him to deactivate his Facebook account.
My complaint is predicated on the assumption that films aimed at teenagers should reflect the contemporary teenager’s experience (again, with the proviso that we’re talking exclusively about teenagers in the developed world). Perhaps that’s an invalid assumption; when I think back to the teen films of my teenage years, they were hardly representative of my day-to-day life. American Pie might have featured a webcam, but it was more closely inspired by ‘80s films like Porky’s or Animal House – films that, themselves, looked back to the ‘50s! Ditto for 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That, inspired by Shakespeare and My Fair Lady respectively.
This isn’t especially surprising – it’s not teenagers making films for teenagers, after all! Teen – or, if you prefer, Young Adult, films tend to fall into either the nostalgic or exaggerated category, helmed as they are by filmmakers whose own teenage years were a decade or two ago. In any case, “authentic” films aren’t necessarily the ones that resonate with teenagers – for me, the big film of my teenage years of Fight Club, which had nothing to do with being a teenager, but everything to do with the contradictory demands of masculinity and the pre-September 11 sense of a historical vacuum (“We are history’s middle children,” as Tyler Durden puts it).
I’ll end this essay on an optimistic note, then, because I think there is one Young Adult film series that engages intelligently with social media – and these films take place in a world where no such technology exists. I’m referring to The Hunger Games films.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), after volunteering as Tribute in the first film, finds herself in a maelstrom of public scrutiny that only intensifies when she and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) survive the first Hunger Games. Katniss must maintain the fiction of a sham relationship with Peeta. She must be cautious not to criticise the aristocracy of The Capital, lest her family bear the consequences. She is a public figure now, with every interaction potentially lethal.
What is this but an exaggerated, heightened form of the anxiety that hangs over modern teenagers, who are constantly self-marketing? Contemplating what photos to share on Instagram, when to check in on Facebook, who to friend, who to unfriend. Katniss’s experience is intensely analogous to the way teenagers curate their own identities, and an effective demonstration that great Young Adult fiction can intelligently engage with the young adult experience. It’s time for more filmmakers to step up to the challenge.