To anyone who grew up in the past three decades, it may seem as if Hollywood had been created to serve the youth market. Movies for, about and starring teenagers are so commonplace, you might suspect the entire film industry was suffering from acne. But it was not ever thus. In fact, before the invention of the Brat Pack (and John Hughes movies) in the '80s, bankable stars under the age of 25 were few and very far between.
In fact, in 1980 I collaborated on a screenplay about life on a hippie commune, circa 1970. All the major roles had to be cast with kids between 18 and 25. And at that time there was only one certified star in that category, John Travolta. (Needless to say, the movie didn't get made: an even bigger problem than the casting was the subject matter—at that moment in time, movies about the '60s were at the top of Hollywood's Must Not Do list.)
There were teen movies in the '50s and '60s, of course, but they tended to be either disreputable, B-movie fodder for a niche audience ("I Was a Teenage Werewolf") or wholesome family films in the Disney mold. A movie like "Juno"—both Oscar-nominated and a big hit, with a teenage-girl star—was inconceivable. Now, of course, the entire summer season is aimed at the youth market, for they are the fans who rush out of the house on opening weekend.
Most of these movies about kids are fantasies designed to exploit the teen market. Every once in a while, however, a movie arrives that actually explores the reality of teen life. Such a movie, a few years back, was "Raising Victor Vargas," a low-budget exploration of Bronx Latino life that marked the auspicious debut of director Peter Sollett. After a long wait, Sollett is back with a new teen movie: "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist." It stars cute/nerd "it" boy Michael Cera ("Juno" and "Superbad") as Nick, and Kat Dennings as Norah, two musically hip New Jersey suburban teens who discover over the course of an adventurous night in the Big Apple that they are made for each other.
"Nick & Norah" is clearly more mainstream and formulaic than "Victor Vargas." From the get-go, its romantic destination is never in doubt. But Sollett is able to take familiar teen tropes and transform them into low-key magic. The wittily selfeffacing Nick is introduced in the throes of romantic agony, having been jilted by his high-school girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dzinea). She, being blond, popular and beautiful, possesses all the classic signifiers of a Mean Girl. Norah, on the other hand, is smart, brunette and Jewish, with impeccable taste in indie rock bands. (As the critic Ruby Rich whispered to me during the screening: "At last a movie that makes being Jewish sexy!") Before she's even met Nick or knows who he is, she's heard the mix tapes he's made for his girlfriend, and senses a soulmate in waiting. Usually in these stories one or both of the lovers would be a rejected outcast—a Cinderella waiting for the right prince to turn her from drudge to beauty—but neither Nick nor Norah falls into the usual categories. They're not in the in crowd, but they're cool, smart, un-victimy. She, in fact, seems to have some sort of special access to the best music bars in New York—for reasons that will be revealed late in the movie, and give us a fuller sense of who she is.
Nick is a member of a band, the Jerk Offs. The other two members, Thom (Aaron Yoo) and Dev (Rafi Gavron), are gay, and over the course of the night in which they all career across the East Village in search of the secret location of their favorite underground band's gig, they'll serve as matchmakers helping to get Nick out of his funk and into the arms of the more appropriate Norah. She's got her own ex pursuing her (Jay Baruchel)—an arrogant Mr. Wrong. Their odyssey is further complicated by Norah's vodka-guzzling girlfriend Caroline (Ari Graynor), who spends almost the entire movie in a state of escalating intoxication. Caroline gets lost in the city and finds herself at the Port Authority, where Sollett indulges in an obligatory gross-out moment: Caroline, by now sick as a dog, drops her cell phone and her gum into a toilet that looks to be borrowed from the set of "Train-spotting." Graynor is someone to watch: she wrings virtuoso variations on drunkenness without ever wearing out her welcome—no mean feat.
Except for that toilet, Sollett doesn't amp up his slender plot for easy laughs or fake suspense. The movie has a genuine, unforced sweetness. Its charm is in the details, the attitude, the slowly building chemistry between Cera (a master of stone-faced irony) and the beguiling Dennings. Lorene Scafaria's script, based on a young-adult novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, has real wit. Nick and Norah's sharp, self-conscious repartee has a snappiness that's closer to the way real suburban teenagers speak than the baroque one-liners Diablo Cody put in the mouth of Juno (not to mention every other character in that movie, appropriate or not). "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist," in its quiet way, captures the first-time-around exhilaration of teen life—that moment when you spread your wings and take unexpected flight. It won't break any box-office records—it's not punchy enough—but it's easy to imagine it developing a passionate cult following. If we must have teen movies, let them all be as sweet and seductive as Sollett's smartly observed romance.