'Superbad,' Serving The Greater Good

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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Was there anything to be learned from a second viewing of "Superbad," a movie that is not only crude and lewd but makes more casual mention of the male sexual organ within two hours than Alfred Kinsey did in a lifetime? Actually, there was, I found, if you watched it next to someone for whom the movie defines his life and amounts to a birds-and-the-bees briefing -- teen to teen.

That someone was my 15-year-old son. As I sat there with him, the exploits of three socially maladroit high school seniors on a mission to lose their virginity and become cool in the process no longer seemed like the sleaze-fest I had initially thought it to be, but an extended empathy encounter for him. And it became clearer why an R-rated teen comedy with no major stars has reaped more than $60 million in two weeks.

Upon first viewing of "Superbad," with a 23-year-old son in tow, it was an often-unseemly comedy about the sexual desperation of teenagers -- no more, no less -- funny in some places, too gross in others. Seth (played by Jonah Hill) was a sex-fixated expletive-spouter with an ungainly Afro. Evan (Michael Cera), the sweeter of the two, was unbearably weedy. And their hang-along dweeb-buddy, Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), could barely speak without tripping over his tongue.

Then came the second viewing of "Superbad" (the R rating meant my 15-year-old needed a legal chaperon, and since I consider the sadistic violence of the "Saw" films far more dangerous than the sex shown in any Hollywood movie, I obliged).

As I sat through the movie, again, I noticed his blissfully innocent face, the way he was so riveted by the movie that he barely shifted in his seat. And I was pleased he didn't guffaw at the dirty words. At one point, a girl catches Fogell staring at her visible thong, and in terrified response, the character looks at his wristwatch and tells her . . . the time is 10:33. Then he swings around and retreats down the hallway, dying by the second. It was one of many socially embarrassing moments in the film that made my son laugh knowingly. Clearly, the on-screen awkwardness mirrored the treacherous world of his own school halls.

A "very good" movie, said my son, as we left. Watching Seth, he declared, "I could connect and, like, relate to everything" about him. "That fat kid said everything on our minds we're too afraid to say."

Like?

"Like when you're angry and you think of something to say but it would be too rude."

What about all those f-bombs Seth hurls? The expletive, according to the Internet Movie Database, is repeated more than 180 times. To me, that's 179 too many. To my son, the cursing was "pretty normal." He continued, "That's what I kinda expected because it's a teen movie about someone who doesn't have any better vocabulary words to say. He's not just saying it to be cool. He's supposed to be a fat, crude guy who has nothing better to say."

Gotcha.

He could also relate to Evan because "he displays people's shy stuff, the things we're too afraid to do sometimes. That shy stuff. I don't know how to explain it." Maybe he was recalling a scene in which Evan finds himself in bed, drunk and half-naked, with a teenage girl. As things get hot and heavy, she compliments him on having such a "smooth" organ. To which Evan replies: "Oh, thank you. I'm sure you would, too, if you had one."

Upon first watching, it was simply a groan-inducing eye-roller for me. But through my son's eyes, that gag -- and the movie in general -- became one of vulnerability, not rudeness. And even unmentionable subjects such as how to conceal an erection when you're in class resonated with a sort of weird gravitas. It was something, after all, that teenage boys would talk about. "Imagine if girls weren't weirded out by" such things, Evan declares at one point, with visionary passion. "And just, like, wanted to see them. That's the world I want to one day live in." (Son, dream big, but don't dream crazy.)

Uh, none of this boys'-confidential business had been covered in our birds-and-the-bees talk about three years earlier -- but maybe it should have been. When it was time for The Conversation, Dad (not exactly renowned for drinking Hell's Angels under the table) downed a Corona for emotional fortification, then used clinical words that explained everything but, in preadolescent terms, told him precisely nothing. What was missing was the emotional freight that comes with sexual dawning. What it feels like, for instance, to be overwhelmed with animalistic urges, too little information and about 50 tons of self-doubt, the fears that tourniquet your tongue when you're face to face with a girl. And so on.

For me, learning about male sexuality, at least from the movies, amounted to a single viewing of 1971's "Carnal Knowledge," in which Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen and Art Garfunkel -- playing Amherst College students of the late 1950s -- learned the painful sexual politics between men and women. In other words, the silver screen offered me little guidance through the straits of teenage sexual obsession. But "Superbad's" purpose -- which it undertakes rather charmingly -- is to emphasize the taboo business between the lines of life.

Since the 1980s "Porky's" comedies, movies about teenage sexuality have become a screeching banality, and with few exceptions, they have turned the pursuit of sexuality into almost sitcom-funny farce, the most famous example being the "American Pie" franchise. The difference: "Pie's" characters are bigger, brighter and much more movie-genic compared with the excruciatingly inept but ultimately endearing geeklets of "Superbad" -- the ones with which my son connected. Ironic, I thought, that an R-rated comedy tells it like it is for moviegoers who are too young to actually go see it on their own. Finally, I asked my son that potentially groan-inducing, must-immediately-walk-away-from-Dad question: "What did you learn from this movie?"

"I learned that people that age are obsessed with sex -- a little bit too obsessed," he answered. And he didn't walk away.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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