The Art of the Two-Person Dance Party

Donna (Jenny Slate) and Max (Jake Lacey) dance it out in Obvious Child, dir. Gillian Robespierre (2014). A24.

By Tiia Kelly | September 21, 2021

There is something to the language of dancing bodies that cinema has long understood, and viewers have long felt. Zadie Smith knew it when she looked to the beguiling physicality of figures like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and the Nicholas brothers for lessons on writing. The horror genre, which has developed its own distinct history of contorted bodies, knows it. This Twitter account, committed to posting daily movie dance scenes, knows it especially. 

But there is something else entirely to cinematic dance moments that are less than aspirational — and, at their most joyous, less than coordinated. These, too, contain a certain language: a character’s amateurish flailing during a Saturday detention dance break is, after all, very different to the spectacle of Channing Tatum’s shiny moves in Step Up or Magic Mike. Less visual marvel, more emotionally driven physical outburst, these scenes explore how the openness of messy physicality can dissolve barriers of inhibition and self-consciousness, enriching the dynamics between characters. 

A vital piece of this distinction is the setting. Rather than dancing onstage, in a studio, or a public-space-turned-performance-site, what happens when these acts of dance occur in closed, domestic spaces? What about vast, isolated landscapes, or the fringes of a group of people? In an enclosed rhythmic bubble, absent of any diegetic audience or company, a character’s dance partner is their audience. 

A dance montage in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, set to the same Paul Simon song the film is named after, depicts a mating-ritual-like encounter between protagonist Donna (Jenny Slate) and love interest Max (Jake Lacey). Donna has just been dumped by her long-term boyfriend, bombed a performance at her regular comedy club, and drunkenly seduced good-natured Max before taking him home for a one-night stand. Over a shot of the pair kissing, the familiar drums of Simon’s song ring out. The film cuts to Donna in her underwear and Max’s unbuttoned shirt, swinging her head and spinning around. In the background is Max: Donna’s beanie on his head, amusedly playing bongos on a couch. 

The montage is characterised by frenetically assembled bursts of activity. Donna and Max jump around, half-dressed, downing beers. They twist their pelvises, spin each other around and wiggle their shoulders. They make out and mouth Simon’s lyrics to one another. In a particularly heart-melting shot-reverse-shot, Max is shown leaning against a wall, smiling, whilst Donna dances about, trying to make him laugh. The scene’s goofiness, representative of any good ‘dance party’ scene, here becomes a shorthand for the characters embracing comfort in one another’s presence. 

Further, the unambiguous song choice — is Donna the titular obvious child? — emphasises the film’s circulating theme of immaturity; the issue of Donna falling pregnant withMax’s child whilst still being a child in many ways herself. Her desire to precede sex with an almost-juvenile dance party mostly offsets any self-seriousness on her part as a sexual being. However, it also grounds her burgeoning relationship with Max in delightfully silly foreplay, and the childlike playfulness of the sequence is the very thing that solidifies their bond. Sex is funny, and there’s no need for pretence or modesty.

Stylistically, Moonrise Kingdom approaches its own dance sequence quite differently. Director Wes Anderson forgoes Obvious Child’s montage approach for a single handheld long shot, in and out of which the characters move. In the aftermath of sharing their first I-love-you’s, Anderson’s two leads, twelve-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), play a Françoise Hardy record on a remote beach they’ve claimed as their own. Suzy is alone in the frame, bending over a radio to play their song of choice, ‘Le Temps De L’Amour’, literally ‘The Time of Love’. She exits the frame then re-enters, holding Sam’s hand. Suzy sways softly to the music. Sam bobs his head. They move progressively more wildly, with Sam wagging his arms about while Suzy twists her body from side to side. The first cut of the scene brings us to a cosier mid-shot, zooming in as the pair share an endearingly clumsy slow dance. 

Susie (Lara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) dance together in Moonrise Kingdom, dir. Wes Anderson (2012). Focus Features.

At this point in the film, Sam and Suzy have deserted their respective homes to run away together. Both characters feel alienated from their peers and guardians, and are drawn to one another’s somewhat uncontainable, curious temperaments. One section of Hardy’s lyrics, translating to the time of love / it’s long and it’s short / it lasts forever, one remembers it, stresses an impermanent moment living on through memory. When you’re young, you feel like you’ll be young forever. Though everything for Sam and Suzy feels eternal and vital in the moment, we see only a brief, formative fragment of their lives. The dance scene epitomises this — the characters try desperately to carve out their own independent space, a mini civilisation for the two of them. Yet their bodies give them away: they’re just kids figuring out what their limbs can do, shooting off energy like sparks. 

In both Obvious Child and Moonrise Kingdom’s dance scenes, the freeform dance party is followed by newfound intimacy. In the former, it’s Donna and Max sleeping together for the first time. In the latter, it’s Sam and Suzy, caught up in their newfound ‘freedom’, trying to mimic adult romantic interactions. Whilst slow dancing, they share an innocent French kiss, after which Suzy invites Sam to place a hand on her chest. “I think they’re gonna grow more,” she says. The succession of scenes indicates, almost, a causality: the shedding of unease and lack of posturing in each pair’s dancing facilitates feelings of closeness. The development of both relationships hinges on this willingness to let go in another’s presence; to be less than mysterious — even embarrassing. 

In Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, this trope is transplanted into the period genre, subverting the classic period film ball scene. These moments, traditionally defined by barely concealed yearning and incredibly charged hand touches, are traded for a scene that places characters Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timotheé Chalamet) on the literal outskirts of this formal atmosphere. After Jo accidentally burns her dress at a party, leaving her unable to dance with the rest of the guests, she meets Laurie, who suggests a solution: the two of them can dance on the porch surrounding the house, where no one may see her scorched frock.

Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timotheé Chalamet) in Little Women, dir. Greta Gerwig (2019). Sony Pictures.

The scene, accompanied by the jubilant strings of Alexandre Desplat’s score, is washed in warm light from the party inside. Jo and Laurie mimic partner choreography, clasping hands and performing intricate footwork before bumping into one another, laughing. They vacillate between cultivated and raucous, depending on whether they are visible to the partygoers inside, guiding each other in refined steps around the porch before erupting into looser, whole-body thrashing. The two frolic riotously as literal outsiders — forgoing the decorum of Victorian-era courtship to embrace the unrestrained cravings of their youthful bodies. The physicality of this early scene suffuses Jo and Laurie’s subsequent interactions: they are all scrambling energy and play, lightly hitting and hanging off each other. 

In contrast to Obvious Child and Moonrise Kingdom (and despite what Laurie may later come to think), the porch sequence emphasises the platonic camaraderie central to the dance-party trope. Private, spur-of-the-moment dance parties relish in what our bodies long to do when nobody’s looking. One’s dance partner must, then, be a co-conspirator. Jo and Laurie are bonded by their porch dance, both errantly like-minded and overflowing with energy.

In all three movies, the two-person dance party is a direct expression of intimacy, connecting characters through the wildness of their unseen bodies. These moments become indicative of characters’ places in their ongoing development. Maybe they’re playing at adulthood, or outright rejecting it through unsophisticated cavorting. Perhaps they’re moving on the peripheries of propriety or finding romance in youthful romps around the living room. Whatever the case, the dance party is there as the rollicking language of familiarity and tenderness to carry them through. 

Tiia Kelly is a writer and editor from Naarm (Melbourne). Her work can be found in Voiceworks, Scum, Kill Your Darlings and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @tiiakel.

The Liminal Space of the Remington Party in Heathers

Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) at the Remington University party in Heathers, dir. Michael Lehmann (1988).

By Sydney Bollinger | September 21, 2021

The world of Heathers (1988) is slightly tilted from our own, often filled with bombastic language and color that reminds viewers it’s not necessarily an realistic portrayal. There’s truth at the core of the film, though, and that truth is that teenagers are cruel, no matter the circumstance. When Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) brings Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) to a party at Remington University, it’s an official invitation not just to be school royalty — but to a lifelong club of “cool” kids. Veronica’s made it, as long as she follows in Heather Chandler’s footsteps. To accept the invitation, though, Veronica has to forgo her adolescence for adulthood.

For Heather Chandler, this Remington party is not just a chance to let loose and have a good time — there’s a mission involved. As Westerburg High’s HBIC, Heather Chandler has a facade of unattainable coolness to maintain, a coolness that keeps her out of reach from her high school peers and hip enough to consort with college boys. Dating a college boy has another benefit, too — it gives Heather a leg up over her peers who will be attending the university with her in the future. She already knows people, she has the lay of the land, she has her in. So for Heather to invite Veronica to the Remington party, she’s letting Veronica into this sacred transition space, a space that Heather has spent time and care crafting to protect and maintain her status with her peers and the college students. 

When the girls arrive at the party, Veronica is immediately introduced to Brad (Kent Stoddard), who sees her more of a party plaything than a person with whom to develop a meaningful relationship. Veronica shows obvious discomfort during this interaction, whereas Heather is all smiles, putting on a performance for David (Larry Cox), the man she came to see. After this brief introduction, Heather and Veronica distance themselves, not just in space, but in actions. Even from Veronica’s introduction to her new man, she acts shy and removed, choosing to look at the ground, projecting discomfort at the situation, as if she doesn’t want to be there at all. Heather continues to play the part of cool girl, knowing that she can’t back down on her performance of confidence, because then she will seem too young. To stay at the party and stay with these people, she has to leave high school behind. 

The Remington party is interspersed with Veronica’s narration as she writes in her diary post-party, unleashing all of her thoughts and frustrations with the fact that she went in the first-place. The diary itself is a hallmark of a teenage girl. She says she wants to kill, unselfishly—her self-reflection on this event is intimately aware of the damage Heather Chandler causes in her wake both to herself and others. Veronica consistently acts as the moral compass of Heathers, both at the party and elsewhere, as if she’s the only person who can see through the play-acting cruelty. Her admittance to wanting to kill Heather when reflecting on the party, is not just a desire to kill the person, but to kill everything Heather stands for, particularly the type of existence that asks to skip the naivety of adolescence. It’s adulthood, with its tantalizing independence, that Heather Chandler craves, so to get it, she subsumes her power to the only person who can help her achieve what she wants — the man at the Remington party. 

Veronica and Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) are at odds. Heather wishes to enter adulthood whereas Veronica chooses to remain in adolesence.

Back at the party, Veronica continues to express disinterest and frustration with Brad, who admittedly just wants to get laid. His behaviour is both immature and demeaning; he implies that Veronica is only there to please him, as if there was some unwritten agreement before the girls arrived. Heather, on the other hand, finds herself alone with David, stuck in a performance in order to maintain her status. Though she shows glimpses of innocence — like when she asks David if they can get back to the party — she ultimately gives into David’s request, performing oral sex, from which she finds no satisfaction. For Heather, it’s a means to an end with lasting mental effects. Following her time with David, she swishes water in her mouth and spits at her own reflection in the mirror. Heather is disgusted by her own actions, but feels she has no choice but to carry on. The conflict between her and Veronica, then, stems from their disparate views on the propriety of maintaining “status”: Veronica doesn’t care, but Heather sees this as all-important. 

In total, the scenes from the Remington party last only a little over four-minutes, but in those four minutes, Veronica and Heather are pitted against each other shot-for-shot. Though not a competition, the editing forces comparison between the two girls, whose reactions to the party are nothing alike. When Veronica and Heather finally meet up again, Veronica vomits on Heather’s shoes, expelling everything that she had to hold in to be accepted at this party. Veronica’s performance, though, does not receive a standing ovation from Heather, who risked her own social capital in bringing a friend. The film ensures that this is clear; Heather Chandler is not in the business of forgiveness. In Heather’s terms, this excursion was a favor to Veronica, a way for Veronica to cement her status as Westerbrook elite. Veronica needed Heather in order to appear more desirable and more adult in the eyes of their peers. In vomiting, Veronica physically rejects the toxicity of the Heathers for something else, able to see through the facade of high school hierarchy.

Outside the party, Heather once again reminds Veronica what she has sacrificed in order to give Veronica popularity: “You were nothing before you met me. You were playing Barbies with Betty Finn. You were a Bluebird. You were a Brownie. You were a Girl Scout Cookie.” While Heather’s intent is vindictive, her insults point out Veronica’s innocence, exposing the ways that Veronica did not fit in at the party, claiming her own adolescence. This assertion on Heather’s part is far from the truth, though, because following the party, Veronica and JD (Christian Slater) play strip croquet and have sex. With Heather’s attempt to remind Veronica of her less-than-cool origins, she focuses on Veronica’s past actions without looking at the person Veronica has become as part of the Heathers. She holds her last shred of power over Veronica and reminds Veronica that she can ruin her reputation by telling the entire school of her Remington party misdeeds. This backfires twofold: Veronica says “Lick it up, baby. Lick it up” in a display of defiance toward Heather and on the following day kills Heather, albeit unintentionally. Heather thinks Veronica carries a reprehensible innocence, but isn’t fully aware of Veronica’s own steps into adulthood; Veronica’s shrouds her coming-of-age from the Heathers and her peers, whereas Heather Chandler wears it on her sleeve. The Remington party, then, is an example of the larger conflict between the two stages of life, which plays out over the course of the film.

Heather thinks Veronica carries a reprehensible innocence, but isn’t fully aware of Veronica’s own steps into adulthood.”

The Remington party, then, is the catalyst for the rest of Heathers, the first domino in a string of killings committed by Veronica and JD (Christan Slater). Veronica has to show up to Heather’s house the next morning to make amends, or she faces the consequences of Heather’s wrath. When she walks through the door of Heather’s house, she absolves herself of the previous night’s philosophical musings. She chooses popularity over being true to herself. JD, though, has other plans. Perhaps the only other person in the film to see beyond the high school facade — though not without his obvious faults — JD lets Veronica revel in adolescence. He has no qualms with her choosing to live the high school experience, as long as it means toppling those who try to hold power. So, he manipulates Veronica into killing her best friend.

Regardless of her decision the night before, Veronica is thrust into a world full of “adult” actions and decisions. She has to navigate dating JD and murder plots disguised as suicide pacts. As the film progresses, Veronica becomes more alienated from herself. Caught up in JD’s antics and contending with the remaining Heathers, she has to “grow up” and resolve a mess she had a hand in creating. At the end, when she seeks friendship with outcast Martha Dunstock (Carrie Lynn) and former friend Betty Finn (Renée Estevez), Veronica reclaims her innocence and adolescence, leaving behind the world of the Heathers for good. This choice provides resolve for the conflict that arose between Veronica and Heather Chandler at the Remington party. In choosing adolescence, Veronica pushes back on a narrative that asks her to give up her formative years in favor of social capital. 

Veronica’s decision to let go of adulthood and be a teenager again is a decision that can only be made with insight and maturity, both of which Veronica demonstrates throughout the film. Though the party was a turning point, it was only a turning point for the dissonance between Heather Chandler and Veronica. Heather Chandler performs adulthood to gain acceptance and status, whereas Veronica knows what she wants and what she doesn’t want — as evidenced by the speech she begins to give Brad. In the end, Veronica excels at occupying the liminal space between the two stages in life; she sees beyond the confines of high school and adulthood performance to arrive at what’s truly meaningful, like her new caring friendships and familial connection.

Sydney is a Charleston-based film writer who focuses on the macabre, the teenage experience, and eco-criticism in film. Connect with her on Twitter @sydboll.

We Were Here: An Ode to the Wannabe Dance in One Tree Hill

Shelley (Elisabeth Harnois), Rachel (Daneel Ackles), Peyton (Hilarie Burton), Hayley (Bethany Joy Lenz), Brooke (Sophia Bush) and Bevin (Bevin Anne Prince) dance to Wannabe at their graduation party in One Tree Hill, 4×21 (2007). The CW.

By Claire White | September 21, 2021

To say the first four seasons of One Tree Hill had an impact on my life is an understatement. Although I was definitely way too young to be watching, the melodramatic lives of the residents of Tree Hill, North Carolina mesmerised me. The show was introduced to me by my older sister and her friends. Coincidentally, one of my sister’s best friends had a younger sister my age, and we instantly became best friends, too. This meant that at some school musical or band rehearsals, we would form one big group of sisters and friends, and talk about the show. Who was our favourite Scott brother (the broody and literary Lucas, played by the Chad Michael Murray, or Bad Boy Tamed Nathan, played by the tall, dark and handsome James Lafferty — both of whom were also star basketballers); whether we were a Brooke (captain of the cheerleading team, fashion designer, hot), a Peyton (brooding tortured artist, reluctant cheerleader, epitome of “music is my life”) or Hayley (aka Tutor Girl, honour student, teen wife); swapping mp3 files of the songs we found on one tree hill music dot com and downloaded off limewire; and quoting our favourite memorable lines (“Alright, are you guys all ready for Fall Down Boy?” / “Fall Out Boy!”). 

When I think about party episodes in teen television — of which there are many — I always come back to One Tree Hill, and the graduation party at the end of season 4. Actually, not the party, but a particular moment of it. Spilling out the doorways and empty window frames of an abandoned two-story brick mansion, complete with large white pillars (honestly, how do party scenes find such large places?), the stone cold classic Wannabe by the Spice Girls starts playing. Immediately, at the sound of the iconic “dun, duh duhn” recognition sets in and one of the cheerleaders, Bevin, jumps into frame, pulling Brooke along with her. Peyton joins in, and everyone around them clears the way as the three start to dance: in formation, and fully choreographed. The three laugh and sing along, as if they are in their own personal music video. Soon, Hayley is pulled in, too. Rachel and Shelley join in, and suddenly all six girls are singing and dancing along to the same choreography like it’s their song, and they are the stars. The crowd around them watches and cheers. It’s a little messy, and full of laughter, but as in sync as they can be. 

“… and suddenly all six girls are singing and dancing along to the same choreography like it’s their song, and they are the stars.”

Whenever moments like this pop up, I always think about the history of it: when did they learn the dance? How long have they been doing it? And though most of them were members of the Tree Hill Ravens cheerleading squad, Shelley wasn’t, so it can’t be a cheerleader thing. All these questions aside, what matters most about this moment is the carefree joy, which is not exactly rare for them, but after the year they had (grief, heartbreak, pregnancy, psycho stalkers), they more than deserve it. There’s also something about the togetherness of it: Shelley’s inclusion is a bit of a wild card as she had disappeared for a while, but beyond that, all jealousies and anger from the past are forgotten. 

The scene is only about a minute long, but it was enough to make an impact, and it’s stuck with me. For a while I didn’t know why, but after all this time I realised it’s because I know how that moment feels. 

My sisters, our friends, and I were no stranger to this feeling of what it means to dance as one, and just have fun with it. When Taylor Swift released her album Fearless (Taylor’s Version) earlier this year, listening to ‘You Belong With Me’ again came with a vivid memory. We had created our own dance to go with the song, and in my mind it was not only the memory of doing the dance moves together, but the feeling that it came with. It’s like being in a secret club, a dance only we knew and got to be a part of. It was laughing along, and feeling like I belonged somewhere, because I knew the moves. It was something we shared together. 

Recently, when I rewatched the episode with the ‘Wannabe’ dance, I was surprised to remember it happened during the season finale. A graduation party always conjures up the same feelings: excitement and anticipation for the future, with some sadness, too, because it is one of the last times everyone will be together in the same way. It is apt then, that this episode is titled ‘All Of a Sudden I Miss Everyone.’

“We Were Here.” One Tree Hill, 4×21 (2007).

Earlier, I mentioned it was the first four seasons of One Tree Hill’s nine season run that impacted my life. This is because eventually, my sister and her friends graduated, my best friend moved schools, and the later seasons weren’t able to capture my attention as they once had. That time in our life was over. But I will always hold the show close to my heart and be grateful for the impact it has had on my life. Starting with my professional interest and love for teen drama’s, and least of all on my music taste, which, as you can imagine, made me insufferable as a teen. I’ll always want to return to these early seasons in an effort to remember what it felt to be that young and together with everyone again. There’s nothing quite like the high school years. 

The episode ends with the Tree Hill teens all standing together on the river court, a basketball court which had become important to them. And as they stand there reflecting on the closing of this chapter, their freshly painted names dry on the pavement surrounding the bold red words: “We Were Here.” The last time my sister and our friends all saw each other was four years ago. The second last time was two years before that. People move apart, you grow up, and once in a lifetime, pandemics happen. It has been a while since I’ve been able to party and dance with my friends. I sometimes worry I’ve forgotten how. And although I no longer remember the moves for all the dances we’ve made over the years, I know it’s not the choreography that made these moments special, but the people I was with, and the memories they make. Once upon a time we danced together. And all of a sudden, I miss everyone.

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.

Seize the Day, or Rewatching Empire Records in the Age of COVID

Gina (Renée Zellweger) and Corey (Liv Tyler) dance through the workday in Empire Records, dir. Allan Moyle (1995). Warner Bros.

By Mahnaz Dar | September 21, 2021

Almost every piece of media hit differently once COVID started. Watching a crowd of maskless people rock out to “Twist and Shout in” Ferris Bueller’s Day Off made my stomach do an involuntary dip. Meanwhile, characters who extolled the virtues of handwashing, like The Sopranos’ Paulie Walnuts and the title character of Monk, seemed unnervingly prescient. Later, over a year since the pandemic began, one movie moment felt especially resonant: the party scene that concludes Empire Records (1995).

Just as Saturday Night Fever (1977) utterly embodied the ’70s, Empire Records was pure ’90s, from the fashion (tiny plaid skirts, huge baggy jeans) to its grungy, anti-corporate ethos (“Damn the man!” as protagonist Lucas puts it). The film chronicles a day in the lives of the teenage employees of an indie record store. After Lucas (Rory Cochrane) learns that the store will be sold by its owner, Mitch (Ben Bode), to the corporate chain Music Town, he plans to raise the money to buy Empire Records by gambling the day’s earnings on a wager at Atlantic City. When Lucas loses it all, manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) has to figure out how to cover for him—and keep his job. Meanwhile, the other workers deal with their own crises, including, but not limited to, a teen shoplifter-turned-shooter, and a visit from washed-up 80s pop singer Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield). 

Wouldn’t the protagonists of the film be better served by a few therapy sessions, rather than a roof party?”

Yet by the film’s close, all the characters are dancing on a rooftop to the strains of the Gin Blossoms, their woes seemingly forgotten. Throwing a party and taking donations from hundreds of attendees allowed Joe to raise the capital to buy the store from the odious Mitch. Now, they celebrate. Gina (Renée Zellweger), who earlier confessed a secret desire to become a singer, belts out “Sugar High” (the first stop on a musical trajectory for Zellweger that would include Chicago and Judy). And while Corey (Liv Tyler) shot down A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) a few hours ago when he first declared his love, she now returns his feelings.

Though I’ve been a fan of the movie for years, the conclusion always seemed hastily tacked on. And I’m not alone; critic Roger Ebert called the ending a “mess,” adding, “Why did I hear eerie echoes of ‘Hey, gang! Let’s fix up the old barn and put on a show!’”

To me, it didn’t seem plausible that the characters were so willing to cut loose after everything that went down. True, the store is safe, but throughout their day in the life, the characters have made some disturbing revelations: We learn that perfectionist Corey’s path to Harvard was fueled by an amphetamine addiction; that troubled Debra tried to kill herself the night before; and that the reason Lucas is so driven to save the store is that Joe and Empire Records are all he has, as his own mother had abandoned him years ago. Wouldn’t the protagonists of the film be better served by a few therapy sessions, rather than a roof party?

A year into the pandemic, I revised that opinion. As restaurants and shops shuttered, offices switched to a work from home model, and friends took to Zoom to see one another, I started to fantasize about the day when the pandemic was finally behind us. The restaurant meals would make Gavin Newsom’s French Laundry outing look spartan, the outings with friends would be endless, and the shopping sprees would be decadent. But until that day, there didn’t seem anything worth celebrating; I envisioned myself in a holding pen until the world returned to normal.

That day, of course, never came, and it slowly dawned on me that it never would. And when I once again rewatched Empire Records, I saw the characters not as misguided or naïve, but as brave. Their problems aren’t going to be surmounted in a day; they’re issues that may span lifetimes. But their ability to carve out space for joy, despite knowing that tomorrow may bring just as much sorrow, is stirring.

Gina makes her singing debut on the rooftop of Empire Records, as everyone parties below.

Ebert wasn’t the only critic to trash Empire Records when it was released, and it’s easy to pick apart issues with plot or pacing. But for me the movie, and especially that finale, reverberates more than any other teen party scene, mainly due to its pitch-perfect depiction of raw adolescent emotion. Like a moody teen, the film whipsaws from rage to melancholy to elation — a scene where a frenzied Corey, reeling from a screaming match with Gina, hurls merchandise in a rage, cuts abruptly to a rare moment of bonding between a calmer Corey and a surprisingly nurturing Debra. The finale is just as intoxicating, as the camera seems to be torn about whom to follow: Gina flailing in delight as she makes her singing debut, or Corey trying to catch A.J.’s attention, or Joe and Lucas buying back to the store to the delighted crowd of hippies, stoners, and punks watching it all take place.

The film had a strong effect on me—though not in a literal sense. I didn’t seek out the thriving 2020 underground party scene; I was not about that “Masque of the Red Death” life. Instead, the movie spurred me to seek out moments of happiness whenever I could, whether that meant taking a long walk or splurging on cupcakes just because. The point was that I wasn’t putting off enjoying myself until a far-off date in the future that might never come.
Pop culture often depicts partying as the path of least resistance for the proudly lazy and aimless; think the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party),” or Bluto in Animal House. But in Empire Records, a teenage party becomes a beautifully, desperately courageous act. More than that, it’s a call to action to finally seize the day.

Mahnaz Dar is a New York–based writer and editor who loves revisiting the films of her youth, consuming all things true crime, and finding meaning in Sopranos rewatches. Her work can be found in Library Journal, Screen Slate, and Rewire. You can find her on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

Editors’ Letter: The Turning Point

Rory (Alexis Bledel, right) celebrates her birthday with Lane (Keiko Agena, left) in Gilmore Girls, “Rory’s Birthday Parties”, 1×6 (2000).

By Claire White and Odalis Garcia Gorra | September 21, 2021

As is a common saying at birthdays, Grow Up has made it a year around the sun! So fill up your red solo cup, press play on the hype mix, and start rolling with the homies. We want to thank you all for joining the party. 

When we were building Grow Up, we would be lying if we weren’t slightly worried about creating a website with such a niche focus: would anyone be interested? Does anyone even care about teen film and television as much as we do? And the most horrifying of all, will we get any pitches?! 

Luckily, even before we launched on this day a year ago, the pitches had flooded in and we were able to launch with twelve amazing pieces, ranging from Disney Channel Original Movies to Studio Ghibli, from forgotten gems to modern classics and everything in between! We were blown away from the support, and interest in our passion project. And now, a year on, the pitches keep on coming, and with every email we receive with writers trusting us with their work, and love for our mission, every worry about our niche dissipates. Instead, we are touched, excited to work, and grateful to engage with their stories and share their point of view. At risk of sounding like your high school English teacher (we do love a high school film), it has been so rewarding to work with our contributors, and see them go off to do amazing things. 

We are passionate about youth on screen, and we are passionate about these conversations about how their depictions impact our lives. In our very first Editors Letter for our ‘New Beginnings’ issue, we shared our hopes that this website could “inspire others to revisit their childhood, or be inspired to rethink the critical value of the teen and coming-of-age genres.” If we have inspired you to rethink how you approach these genres, or to write about them, then we are glad.

And here we are, a year on, and we’ve got a lot to celebrate! So, let’s do what the genres we love do best: let’s party. 

One good party can shift everything you understood to be true. What once was is upturned by the possibility of what could be. There is nothing that showcases that possibility more than teen films and TV shows — as audiences we see the exuberance of youthful energy (think: every party in The OC), the letting loose before any real consequences set in, this weird in-between of almost-adulthood but not quite reaching it. One thing is for sure: teens love to party. Herein, you’ll find what makes it interesting for us, the audience, to watch how parties make everything fall apart, fall together, and ultimately (hopefully) make life just a little more fun.

A party can represent a turning point, and drastically change the direction of your life (The Liminal Space of the Remington Party by Sydney Bollinger). Sometimes the best parties aren’t the biggest, or even planned. Just two people dancing together can open up new possibilities, and vulnerabilities (The Art of the Two Person Dance Party by Tiia Kelly). Speaking of dancing, while it might have been a while since some of us have been able to let loose, it is undeniable that parties can leave a lasting impression (We Were Here: An Ode to the ‘Wannabe’ Dance in One Tree Hill by Claire White). All in all, if there’s one thing to take away from the teen film party, it’s that it’s important to remember to still celebrate the little things — even if it’s just that you made it through the day — and party whenever you can (Seize the Day, or Rewatching ‘Empire Records’ in the Age of COVID by Mahnaz Dar).

It is this last point which seems especially important right now. As we continue to grow up and deal with whatever roadblocks life seems to throw at us, we should celebrate whenever — whatever — we can. We have called this issue The Turning Point, not only because launching Grow Up was it’s own turning point, but because we realised that parties, and what we understand constitutes as a party, can be a turning point for all of us.

So bake a cake, get dressed up, pour yourself a drink. Dance with your friends when you can, dance alone in your room just because. Party on. It’s all a part of growing up. 


C + O

Claire & Odalis
Grow Up Co-Founders