Nerdy Teenage Boys Define the Zitgeist Of Summer '07

Reece Thompson and Anna Kendrick in
Reece Thompson and Anna Kendrick in "Rocket Science," a superior coming-of-age fable that appeals to grown-ups. (By Jim Bridges -- Picturehouse)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007

What did you do this summer?

Apparently, you went to the movies, if Hollywood's nearly $4 billion, record-breaking season at the box office is any indication.

Hollywood is fat and happy, but the Summer of 2007 left me (and maybe you, too?) feeling oddly alienated, as if the big party had been going on somewhere else. More than ever, if you don't belong to one of Hollywood's cherished demographic groups, you're simply not invited to the dance.

This summer, teens ruled, especially teen boys. And not just teen boys, but teen boys at their pimpliest, stutteringest and downright geekiest. As Post reporter Anthony Faiola fearlessly reported from the pen-protected trenches in July, America is in the throes of a "nerdcore" movement, catered to in gearhead fetish fests like "Transformers," celebrated in hit comedies like "Knocked Up" and "Superbad" and tenderly evoked in such modest sleepers as "Rocket Science."

The Nerds of Summer weren't entirely objectionable. Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up" offered some hilariously observant humor about marriage, and "Superbad" (which Apatow produced) allowed for some genuine longing and sweetness in the midst of its over-the-top profanity and sophomoric sexual humor. (If Michael Cera's inimitable "Samesies!" hasn't become a bona fide catch phrase yet, it should.)

"Rocket Science," about a high school student (the dazzling new discovery Reece Thompson) who tries out for the debate team despite a pronounced stammer, opened the same day as "Superbad" and offered a thoughtful antidote to the latter's raunchy excess. In the tradition of "Rushmore" and "The Squid and the Whale," "Rocket Science" is a movie for grown-ups in the mood for a wistful look back at their own coming-of-age. (But fans of "Superbad" star Jonah Hill might want to check it out if only to see that gifted young actor in a far quieter comic turn.)

Still, as sympathetic as Cera and Thompson were in capturing the quiet desperation of adolescence, there was a sense by the end of the summer that their characters were -- with deceptively awkward self-loathing -- steadily taking over the world. When "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" came out in August, it seemed their conquest was complete. That documentary, about men vying for a Donkey Kong championship, served as a sort of cautionary tale for the fictional characters in "Knocked Up" and "Superbad": Keep spending your days in dingy rooms playing video games, and this is where you'll end up. (One of the main characters in "King of Kong" has the motto "Never surrender" on his cellphone, an eerie echo of a punch line in the geek-culture parody "Galaxy Quest.")

By the time I was asked to care whether one pasty white guy beat another pasty white guy in reaching Donkey Kong's legendary "kill screen," I was off the bus. Geeks may be Hollywood's idea of a politically correct hero -- who could object to the 95-pound weakling getting the girl? -- but by summer's end, the revenge of the nerds was beginning to feel like a permanent occupation. What's more, the conquest was by no means equal-opportunity. "Nancy Drew" starred the appealing Emma Roberts as the teen detective and girl gone mild, but it tanked at the box office.

Indeed, during a summer when the best-selling "Dangerous Book for Boys" was optioned by superproducer Scott Rudin, there were no dangerous books -- or movies -- for girls, who were instead dissed and dismissed, consistently asked to internalize the anxieties and aspirations of their 15-year-old brothers. (One glorious exception to the rule was Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray.")

For my money -- which, Hollywood likes to remind me at every opportunity, it doesn't want or need -- the most compelling young woman who came of age was hard-driving, fast-talking Ginny Ryerson in "Rocket Science," by no means likable or heroic, but still more complicated, self-aware and commanding of her space on screen than her one-dimensional sisters in the next auditorium.

Ginny, played to alpha-girl perfection by Anna Kendrick, is a 17-year-old emotional threshing machine, a kind of psycho-sexual weed whacker; if a guy can survive her rapid-fire verbiage and labyrinthine mind games, she's guaranteed to make him a better man.

As a character, she's a composite of Tracy Flick -- the driven pint-size politico played by Reese Witherspoon in 1999's "Election" -- and Lindsay Weir, played by Linda Cardellini in "Freaks and Geeks," the TV series created by none other than the master of nerdcore himself, Judd Apatow.

In Lindsay, a good girl, mathlete and over-achiever drawn to the dark side of bad boys and party animals, Apatow created the ideal guide through the social rites and hormonal catastrophes of high school, mostly because she existed in a zone resembling real life -- that is, between J.Crew-clad perfection and thong-flashing Queen Bee-ism. And when you stop to think of it, the female characters in "Knocked Up," "Superbad" and Apatow's first movie hit, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," are pretty Lindsay-like -- that is, pretty cool despite the degrading and sexist rhetoric that swirls around them.

It's clear, in other words, that in addition to dorky wish-fulfillment fantasies, Apatow has it in him to write a movie featuring a smart, funny, fully realized female leading character.

And now, as a bona fide Hollywood power player, he has the unlimited means to do so. As the father of two daughters, maybe Apatow himself will soon see the need for the kind of strong, complex images of teen girls that have been so sorely lacking in movies. Until then, on behalf of Lindsays past (which I was), present (which I see every day at the bus stop) and future (which I hope I am raising): Come back, Judd. We need you.

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