‘Never Been Kissed,’ and Why We Still Watch High School Movies In Adulthood

by Claire White | September 21, 2020

I feel like a teenager again. But also, not really. 

Do you ever wish you could have a do-over? Stuck staring at the same four walls of our bedrooms, the ideas of alternative lives, what if’s and reflections on the past are sure to be swirling through your head. Most of us are at home, rewatching the same movies and TV shows that we watched when we were younger as a source of comfort, which for many are teen films, rom coms, and stories about high school. Delving into the familiarity of the nostalgia, this return to adolescence is almost like a search for a new beginning. 

In the 1999 film Never Been Kissed, 25 year-old copy-editor at the Chicago Sun-Times Josie Geller (Drew Barrymore), gets her chance at a do-over by pretending to be a high school student — all in the name of journalism. The euphoria Josie feels about finally being assigned her very own investigative reporting job is quickly doused by the sharp memories of her past, and the reality of her own miserable experience in high school. In flashbacks steeped in second-hand embarrassment, we see lemonade poured into her backpack to make it look like she is peeing herself while she talks to her crush in the middle of the school hallway; we see her being ridiculed with the nickname “Josie Gross-ie” by her classmates; we see her getting pelted with eggs while she stands outside her house in her prom dress, covered in yolk and the slow-dawning realisation that she’d only been asked to prom as a cruel joke. No wonder, then, that Josie and her younger brother, Rob (David Arquette) decide to see this assignment as a way to prove that she is not Josie Gross-ie anymore. 

The idea that a newspaper would be able to fund such a gratuitous assignment is baffling — and the rest of the movie even more so — but this bizarre plot allows Josie (and a few adult co-workers) the chance of what many dream of: to go back to high school. 

Never Been Kissed body image
By returning to high school, Josie Geller (Drew Barrymore, far right) finally gets a taste of being Popular in Never Been Kissed.

There isn’t actually a specific story Josie is hunting for. Teenagers, the head of her newspaper believes, are unknowable, and the only way to understand them is to observe, and report. Conveniently, Josie is made to wear a secret camera while at school, so that her editor can review the footage and decide where the stories are. With this constant surveillance played in real time on a TV in her editor’s office, Josie’s return to high school becomes in itself a high school film in which her co-workers can lose themselves. They are often seen sitting in front of the TV, enraptured by the everyday dramas and embarrassments of being young again. Prom night becomes date night for tech guy George (Cress Williams), who invites a girl to watch the footage with him like it’s a romantic movie; the whole bullpen tunes in — set with popcorn and wagers — reminiscing about memories of their own prom. Through watching Josie, and, by extension, through the audience watching the film, we are able to vicariously relive a teendom we never experienced: this time, Josie (and the viewer) are popular, this time we get a date to the Prom, this time we are crowned Prom Queen.

Nostalgia is a major driving force of teen films. This is obvious, when you look at the number of films set in the (idealised) past across the history of teen film such as American Graffiti (1973), Grease (1978), Stand By Me (1986), Dazed & Confused (1993) and even Stranger Things (2016 — ) In her essay Tuesday’s Gone: The Nostalgic Teen Film, Lesley Speed wrote nostalgia teen films “reveal [the] tensions between youth and adulthood,” in the “quest to contain adolescence.” Most teen films are made by adults, either in an effort to recapture their own youth, or to contain it. Much like in Never Been Kissed, where high school is infiltrated quite literally to be reported on, youth is observed from an adult perspective. 

Fredric Jameson described nostalgia as “an alarming pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history.” Although Never Been Kissed is not primarily set in the past, it can still be considered a nostalgia film, precisely because of this inability to deal with the present. No matter how content Josie seems to be in her adult life — a great job with her own office and assistant, her own apartment, hobbies she enjoys — it is not long before she falls deep into her assignment. With the help of Rob, who also enrolls to get another chance at playing baseball, Josie becomes popular, and gets a taste for the life she so sorely missed out on the first time around. It’s almost as if no matter who you are as an adult, there is always a part of you that yearns for high school again. 

There is comfort in all the familiar beats and characters in a high school film, a predictability we can depend on and take in easily when adulthood is so confusing and unknowable. In an article for The Atlantic about Netflix’s recent slew of nostalgia-drenched teen content, Sophie Gilbert wrote, “when looking forward isn’t an option, looking back can be a comfort … evoking a time when hope came more easily.” 

This all is not to say teen films and films about high school aren’t for teens. Grow Up is dedicated to exploring how integral and formative movies and television shows about youth are to the experience of growing up. However, as a teen film scholar/tragic, I often reckon with the realisation that I am only getting older, and eventually, I’ll be Steve Buscemi with a skateboard rocking up with a “how do you do, fellow kids?” But, like Jameson, who outlines the two levels of viewership for a nostalgia film like Star Wars, there can be two levels to a high-school movie: the first, is that young audiences can view the films at face value, to learn from, and on the second level, adults can satisfy a deeper longing to return to and relive the past. However, I think it is also interesting to consider that even as adults, there is still something to learn about ourselves through films focusing on adolescence. 

The return to high school narrative is one we’ve seen time and again, specifically with 17 Again (2009) and 21 Jump Street (2012). Yet what these two films share is their main characters realisation that high school has changed, and is no longer how they once knew it. To stay in the masquerade of youth is not sustainable: eventually, they all return to real life — but not without learning something new about themselves along the way.

At the prom, Josie foils the popular kids’ plan to humiliate the nerdy girl, recognising that some cycles shouldn’t stay the same. She then gives a passionate speech where she blows her cover as a journalist, and implores the high school seniors to realise that there is a bigger world out there, one bigger than prom and high school — which is bold to say when there is so much media, this film included, continually obsessed with the high school space. In the end, Josie gets the guy (which is morally dubious as he was her English teacher and thought she was a minor this entire time), publishes her first article, and leaves high school behind, finally content that she is not Josie Gross-ie anymore.

Drew Barrymore Never Been Kissed body image
Drew Barrymore as Josie-Grosie in Never Been Kissed.

While I have viewed this film so many times over the years (first as a teen and even now in my 20s), Josie’s speech at the prom was never a scene which stuck with me. Rather, I glossed over it as another typical “we should all be kinder to one another” plea that is common in the genre; just another plot point. However, watching the film now as a 25 year-old journalist myself, a specific line hits deeper this time around: 

“Find out who you are, and try not to be afraid of it.”

This year has very much felt like being a teenager again. Much like when I was 17, I have found myself spending my days watching movies in my room with a lack of mobility, dreaming about the day I am able to go out into the world and do glorious things. Watching high school movies is a fun escape, but it also helps me realise that, even though I feel it, I am not who I was in high school anymore. I have new experiences, new friends, new apartments, and an autonomy my younger self dreamed of. Of course, there are so many moments I wish I did differently, but during this period of reflection, nostalgia, and yearning, I am able to recognise that my younger self helped shape who I have — and continue to — become.

Adulthood is full of uncertainty, even before this year hit us like a brick. It is easy to reflect back on high school, and miss the trivialities of youth before you saw the actual effects of your decisions, and hope came more freely. However, looking back distracts us from the now, darling. Nostalgia might be emblematic of an inability to deal with the present, but can also serve as a sharp reminder of who we have become. Watching high school films when you’re no longer in high school satisfies a need to reconcile with our present, or to start the adolescent process over again. Maybe, even, we find out who we are. I’ll try not to be afraid of it.

Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen film tragic from Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. She is a Co-Founder of Grow Up, a founding member of online film journal Rough Cut, and Greta Gerwig Scholar. You can follow her on Twitter @theclairencew.

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