Cute as a button and also like accidentally swallowing one, Disney Channel’s perky “Teen Beach Movie” (premiering Friday) is a time-warpy hunt for a few concepts that have been irretrievably lost, first among them being the carefree American teenager.
Surfers Brady and McKenzie (Ross Lynch and Maia Mitchell) have spent an endless summer shooting the curl and flirting, but now her guardian aunt has arrived to spirit her away to an elite prep school, which is “back east,” McKenzie sighs with a nebulous geographical reference, which triggers a viewer’s curiosity about what coastal paradise these teenagers live in. It’s not crowded and scary enough to be Southern California and “Teen Beach Movie” feels far too haole to merit the desecration of Hawaii. (A-ha! The production notes indicate the whole thing was filmed in Puerto Rico.)
Before she goes, heartsick McKenzie sneaks out to face a once-in-a-blue-moon series of megawaves; a worried Brady takes to the jet ski to rescue her from the undertow; they both get noggin-knocked and wake up, “Oz”-style, in an imaginary 1961(ish), where, in a nice touch, nobody’s hair gets wet because all the surfing takes place in front of a Frankie Avalon-style film screen of waves.
Once ashore, Brady recognizes a group of bewildered teens as characters from his favorite old beach flick, “Wet Side Story,” in which the sun-kissed cool kids are terrorized by an inland motorcycle gang — and by “terrorized,” I mean sung to. “Teen Beach Movie” is jampacked with packed jams, the sort of minivan torture music that still sustains Uncle Walt’s empire.
Brady’s having the time of his life doing the watusi and the monkey (Lynch is an especially high-strung performer, even by Disney standards, helping himself to just about every number), but McKenzie is desperate to stop singing and get home. They make the paradoxical error of attracting the attention of the two star-crossed lovers (Garrett Clayton and Grace Phipps) around whom the “Wet Side Story” plot revolves. If the movie characters fall in love with Brady and McKenzie instead of each other, then Brady and McKenzie will be stuck in the ’60s.
Or really, they’ll be stuck in this barely reasonable facsimile of the ’60s, which won’t be so bad, considering that their version of 2013 was hyper-Disneyfied too. The filmmakers and cast have no interest in conjuring up the real — and segregated — ’60s, no more so than the student council does when they schedule an “’80s day” and the entire school shows up dressed as Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper. We should be relieved that our children even know there was a 20th century, filled with assorted antiquities (45-rpm singles, bouffant hairdos) that they sometimes recognize and perhaps even hold dear.
Brady and McKenzie ought to consider staying put in the past, where they could sing their hearts out, dodge global warming by several decades, and, if so moved, get filthy rich by recording “Pet Sounds.” Should they get completely bored they can always invent the iPhone.
Further criticism would be like taking a Slurpee to task for tasting too sweet. And in spite of my pasty self, there’s something I liked about all the relentless mugging and frugging. Park your younger children in front of “Teen Beach Movie” and save your concern for anyone older than 12 who downloads the soundtrack.
May I suggest some real teenagers as an antidote? Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet’s “Only the Young,” a sweet and lovely documentary featured in PBS’s “POV” series, follows three teenagers in sun-blasted Santa Clarita, Calif. The film (airing Saturday night on WETA and available free online for the next month) is an excellent test of a rewarding but risky journalistic notion, which holds that anyone is interesting if you observe them long enough.
It’s hard to capture such a quiet idea on camera and even harder to edit it into a narrative, which means that the first 30 minutes of “Only the Young” unfold dreamily and without context. As often as not, the film succeeds on the virtue of negative space, slow-motion scenery and long silences. It feels precisely as aimless as being a teenage boy.
“Only the Young” focuses on the friendship between Garrison and Kevin, who met through a loose network of Christian skateboarders and punk-rock enthusiasts. Between them is a girl named Skye. In theory, she’s Garrison’s girlfriend (though their megachurch sense of propriety keeps things chaste), but she also once kissed Kevin, which means nothing will ever be the same.
We follow the teenagers in their free time and lazy afternoons through a year or so of their lives and their constantly blooming hair colors. “Only the Young” is transfixed by their surroundings: Foreclosed houses and empty swimming pools; spray-painted overpasses; vast asphalt parking lots and concrete arroyos. It must seem as if I’m strongly recommending a film about absolutely nothing, but, on the contrary, this is an elegant capture of the most elusive story of all: the awkward but nevertheless intense friendship between boys.
(95 minutes) airs Friday at 8 p.m. on Disney Channel.
(90 minutes) airs Saturday at 11:30 p.m. on WETA. Watch online through Aug. 14 at www.pbs.org/POV.