Cinema: Teen Life Ain't Worth Livin'

Two movies turn young angst into black comedy and pop music

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Where are the teenpix of yesterday? Gone with the demographic wind. As the U.S. movie audience ages toward thirtysomething, Hollywood has discarded the teen genre like so many Molly Ringwald paper dolls. What's left? Only caustic satire, as in the new black comedy Heathers, or retro fantasy, as in Sing.

At suburban Ohio's Westerburg High, a quartet of teen princesses runs the school. They are called the Heathers, because three of the four are named Heather. The fourth, Veronica (Winona Ryder, pallid of face and sharp as Cheddar), is at first pleased to be accepted by this "bunch of Swatch dogs and Diet Coke heads. They're, like, people I work with, and our job is being popular." Still, she is ready for a sinister avenging force in her life, a juvenile delinquent, a James Dean. He turns out to be J.D., a new boy in town who is itching to make trouble (played by Christian Slater, handsomely imitating Jack Nicholson's silky menace). Veronica may want to get back at one of the nasty Heathers by dropping a phlegm glob in her morning coffee, but J.D. has bigger plans. Soon this Heather is dead, though she does reappear in a dream to whine that "my afterlife is so boring! If I have to sing Kum Ba Yah one more time . . ." Then J.D. dispatches two boorish jocks who bugged Veronica. No loss, he shrugs: "Football season is over. Kurt and Ram had nothing to offer the school but date rape and AIDS jokes."

The screenplay by Daniel Waters (a find) offers all that and much more. It believes, like J.D., that "the extreme always seems to make an impression." Its language is extreme -- a voluptuously precise lexicon of obscene put-downs and dry ironies -- and so is its scenario, which adjusts the teenpix format to accommodate subjects as bleak as copycat suicides and killer peer pressure. Heathers finds laughs in these maladies without making fun of them because Waters writes from inside teenagers. He knows what makes them miserable and what makes them bad: that they are already adults but can't accept the fact. "Why are you such a megabitch?" Veronica asks a surviving Heather, and the reply is, "Because I can be." Heathers locates the emotional totalitarianism lurking in a prom queen's heart. If Michael Lehmann's direction were a bit more astute, the movie could be the classic genre mutation it aims to be: Andy Hardy meets Badlands.

Sing, written by Dean Pitchford and directed by Richard Baskin, could be called 42nd Street: Duh Motion Pitchuh. It carts all the cliches of a Broadway backstage story to a decrepit Brooklyn Central High and populates it with Sesame Street renegades. Each class puts on a musical skit, or "sing," with groups led by a black, a Greek, an Italian and a Jew -- the "rainbow coalition" that exists only in Hollywood musicals. Yes, the tough Italian stud (Peter Dobson) falls for the sweet Jewish girl (Jessica Steen). And, honest, when the star of her skit gets knocked unconscious, the stud takes over and saves the show. You're going out there a punkster, but you've got to come back a star!

The dialogue is all song cues; Pitchford's songs are standard technopop, except for a comic showstopper, called Life Ain't Worth Livin' (When You're Dead), that the suicidal teens of Heathers might take to heart. Otherwise, Sing is strictly Gold Diggers turned to brass. In the latest teenpix class portrait, it's a dropout.