Actor-writer Brandon Scott Jones discusses the comedy's lineage with such films as 'Never Been Kissed' and 'Billy Madison.'
In high school, you're either popular or you're desperately trying to be popular. At least, that's what movies have taught us.
They've also taught us that adults are aching go to back there like they've got something to prove, be it Adam Sandler's titular rich kid in Billy Madison, Amy Sedaris' reformed criminal Jerri Blank in Strangers with Candy, or Drew Barrymore's copy editor-turned-investigative-reporter Josie Geller, who was once a high-school pariah, in the rom-com Never Been Kissed.
All of these films require a great suspension of disbelief, but it's that latter one that may be the most consequential to the genre. Even while featuring an adult lead who masquerades as a teen without any authority figures being aware or alarmed — and then proceed to date teens — the film is frequently heralded by fans, including being noted progressive feminist and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator Rachel Bloom's pick for her talk-back at the 2019 Rom Com Fest in Los Angeles and having an 8.4 user score on Metacritic.
Film critics, however, weren't as kind when the movie was released in 1999. While it got mostly positive marks from male-identifying critics — Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan called it "an easygoing and amusing romantic confection" at the time — one starts to see more negative commentary from female-identifying reviewers when searching Metacritic's archives (Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum hit hard by describing it as a "labored miscalculation of a teen-trend comedy"). Its overall Metascore is 60.
Never Been Kissed is also the most comparable to the latest film in the, admittedly specific, genre of "adults returning to high school": the Rebel Wilson-starring Netflix comedy Senior Year. That new film currently has a Metascore of 48, with both male and female critics alike keeping it squarely in the yellow. Since the film just premiered on May 13, the user score is still TBD.
With Senior Year, the film's writer and actor Brandon Scott Jones, who shares screenwriting credits on the film with Andrew Knauer and Arthur Pielli, was hoping to subvert the teen rom-coms of the early 2000s that he tells Metacritic "were truly my diet — that and fries." With that sense of awareness, he crafted a story about Stephanie Conway (Wilson), a cheer captain whose competitiveness and obsession with perfection and popularity contributed to her landing in a coma in 2002. She wakes up 20 years later to find that the rules of high school may have changed, but the game's still the same.
"I wanted Stephanie to embody those problematic ideals from the early 2000s and have her get confronted with them in this time period where maybe values have shifted in terms of what's cool and what's not, and that it's all about individuality rather than some herd," Jones says.
Stephanie doesn't know how else to help her life move forward when she wakes up from the coma, so she re-enrolls in her old high school, determined to finally win the title of prom queen, which she lost out on originally due to falling into that coma. Once there, she gets a rude awakening as to who (and what) is considered cool these days, but she remains age appropriate with her romantic interests.
Jones says having a former queen bee wake up to find that everything she understood about the social constructs of high school have shifted both "lends itself to more of a comedy" than the traditional story of the PUG (pretty ugly girl) who glows up and also "shines a magnifying glass to how truly inappropriate we all were back then."
Stephanie quickly learns that it's no longer acceptable to tell people that they are an "r word" and that social media followers have more currency than actual friends. But, Jones says, "teenagers still gonna teen-age."
By this, he means that no matter how much you "create an environment [that's] as supportive and hopeful and safe as you can," bullying still exists, even if it has changed over the years and now "exists a little bit more under the surface."
Stephanie's rival is the confident and scheming Tiffany Blanchette (Ana Yi Puig in 2002; Zoë Chao in 2022), who one-ups her with a better after-prom party locale and being the first to date resident hottie Blaine Balboa (Tyler Barnhardt in 2002; Justin Hartley in 2022). In the modern day, Stephanie also sees her rival as being Tiffany's much more passive-aggressively destructive daughter, Brie Loves (Jade Bender), an Influencer who won't follow Stephanie back on Instagram.
Although there is a sense of escapism inherently built into films with premises like Senior Year's, Jones also admits that, as someone who was an outsider in high school, "as silly and joyful of a movie [as] this was meant to be, it did send me back into therapy. Because you think it's in the rearview mirror, but it is so fresh."
Jones acknowledges that there is an irony that films about teens aren't taken as seriously by critics — people whose very jobs are to be outsiders observing the action (in this case, on screen) and who are also still mostly white and male.
"It's so easy to dismiss teenagers in general and to look at them from an adult perspective, and say, 'Oh, you have so much more life to live; don't sweat the small stuff,'" he says, adding that even "something that might feel old, tired, or rehashed is really just a base point. It's about saying, 'Hey, look, this person is 17 years old. And they've pretty much spent most of their life knowing the same set of people in various incarnations.'"
Of course every screenwriter, Jones included, wants their film to be reviewed positively, but whether that happens via professional critics right at release or average viewers as time ticks on, what is most important to him is that Senior Year will inspire the audience to think back on "their own memories and [have] discussions about high school and what they were like back then."
Senior Year is streaming now on Netflix.
Get to know Brandon Scott Jones:
Jones currently stars on the CBS sitcom Ghosts (Metascore: 72) and was recently an actor and writer on The Other Two (80). His past television work includes The Good Place (82) and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (72), while theatrically, he appeared in another one of Wilson's films, Isn't It Romantic? (60), and in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (87).