I Am Kurious Benjii

Misspellings Intentional

Dopamine dressing and teenage heartache – why Can’t Hardly Wait was a defining zeitgeist of ’90s yoof culture.

Let’s be honest; teen comedies in the early-to-mid ’90s didn’t exactly have the same pulling power as they did in their ’80s heyday.

Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science became classic works and John Hughes set the standard. As unfair as it is to say, when The Brat Pack grew up, there became a lull. Not until the release of 1995’s Clueless were “good” teen comedies a thing.

We had Angus that leaned very heavily into the “morality play” aspects of film-making and as much as it has become a cult hit, Mallrats wasn’t as highly regarded when it premiered as it is now.

Even Empire Records, which seems a rite-of-passage to view if you were a music fan, only gathered it’s pop-cultural momentum when reappraised years later. It has a lot to answer for also – working in a record store isn’t that much fun.

Part of that blame lay in the hands of High Fidelity also if I’m being completely honest.

While Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion managed to punch above its weight, riding the Friends wave of popularity admittedly, it would be 1998 that teen comedies started to have an omnipresence in the cinema.

Truth be told, Can’t Hardly Wait wasn’t exactly the best teen movie when it came out (that year, SLC Punk was released and Matthew Lillard was amazing in it), but it became a very important piece of pop-culture.

How? And why you may ask?

It was a visual Tiger Beat – a who’s who of entertainers of the time from the realms of film and television that were popular and nearing the peak of their teenage fandom.

It caught the fashion trend much like Clueless did three years earlier, the language used, the pop-culture references themselves and the music that would go on to plague teen movies for years to come.

Welcome, Preston.

If you’re a child of the nineties then you’ll have at some point asked the question “where did it go wrong for Ethan Embry?” Every scene he graced the screen in Empire Records he stole. We loved Mark and we hoped he would join the band.

It’s still one of the greatest “what ifs” I ponder about to this day. Upon re-watching Can’t Hardly Wait I still enquire what else he was in asides from those two films. I was met with That Thing You Do, Freakylinks, White Squall and Dutch opposite Ed O’Neil.

But it was his youthful enthusiasm that made Ethan Embry our favourite underdog. As Mark in Empire Records he was the over-caffeinated music fan who you couldn’t call a slacker (he seemed a dedicated worker in the film, especially setting up for Rex Manning Day), but maybe more of a burnout in the making.

As Preston, our main protagonist in Can’t Hardly Wait, he is an over-caffeinated achiever who, having longed for his unrequited crush Amanda Beckett (Jennifer Love-Hewitt), decides at a house party to admit he loves her.

It’s Embry’s likeability that we embrace in both films; and while Empire Records was meant to belong to Rory Cochrane’s enigmatic Lucas, casting agents couldn’t deny that we, the audience, felt a resonance with Embry more so than Cochrane. Sorry Rory.

The charm of Embry laid in his facial expressions, I found. No one could pull of a sense of bewilderment and suddenly into euphoria quite like him. He managed to convey teenage emotions that reached out and resounded with us just by a mere raise of his eyebrows or a bashful look over his shoulder at his crush.

Sure he wasn’t going to win any Academy Awards, but it feels like time has been kinder to other leading men (Freddie Prinze Jr, Ryan Philippe) who had a large profile, maybe due to who they were cast alongside as unfair as that sounds.

But that people to this day still quote Preston and that people empathised with the character only shows that Embry’s performance perfectly encapsulated how many of us felt in his position. They never played that he was a jock, or the best looking guy in the room – but his earnest good nature was what made us rally for Preston.

It still makes me rally for Embry to this day, despite getting tattooed up, thinning on top and more playing characters rough around the edges. Perhaps that assumption is on me – that I hoped he would be typecast in that role for years to come. Instead, Patrick Fugit took that title. Sorry Patrick.

The film naturally plays with established teen-comedy tropes; the almost unattainable love interest, the wise-beyond-their-years best friend, the house party and a soundtrack not quite omnipotent yet but bubbling under and featuring “hot new acts” for the time.

It also proved that Smash Mouth had more than one song – they had three. They all still sound like they belong in Lynx adverts.

Much like Hughes refined in his works, the supporting cast are integral to the film, even if they don’t share major story arcs. But instead of casting names and breaking them through, it brought together a hit parade…

The Usual Suspects

The cast could be carved up in so many different ways. Those who ended up on Six Feet Under (for which there is a lot), those who became TV stalwarts (in which a Venn diagram would be needed), those who already have been teen idols and those who would become major players in popular culture.

For the sake of not categorising everything, lets just compile a list and then perhaps their crowning achievements:

Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under.)
Charlie Korsmo (Hook.)
Peter Facinelli (the Twilight saga.)
Jennifer Love Hewitt (Party of Five, I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer)
Seth Green (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Idle Hands, Robot Chicken, Family Guy, Without A Paddle, Josie And The Pussycats, Austin Powers trilogy, Guardians Of The Galaxy series, Enemy Of The State)
Selma Blair (Zoe…, Hellboy, Anger Management, Cruel Intentions)
Jamie Pressly (Not Another Teen Movie, My Name Is Earl)
Sarah Rue (Popular, Just Shoot Me, Two and a Half Men)
Donald Faison (Clueless, Scrubs)
Breckin Meyer (Robot Chicken, Clueless, Road Trip)
Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You Man)
Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Melissa and Joey)
Freddy Rodriguez (Six Feet Under, Planet Terror, Ugly Betty)
Eric Balfour (Six Feet Under, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)
Clea Duvall (She’s All That, The Faculty, Girl, Interrupted)
Chris Owen (American Pie, She’s All That, Angus)
Sean Patrick Thomas (Save The Last Dance, Cruel Intentions, Not Another Teen Movie)
Jerry O’Connell (Sliders, Scream 2, Stand By Me)

Seriously? We are missing Jake Busey for this to be an almost perfect cast for the late ’90s. When I said it was an ensemble cast, I was not joking.

Most of the works everyone has been involved in has either permeated in popular culture at that time (Meyer and Faison making cameo appearances had to be a nod to the success Clueless had on rebuilding the genre) or was about to break ground and become huge moments themselves – I wasn’t kidding either about those that went on to Six Feet Under.

This article would be remiss if I didn’t sound out just how much of the lynchpin Seth Green had been for late ’90s culture. From Buffy to Family Guy and then Robot Chicken, I’d make a strong arguement that as far as millnnia pop culture goes, Seth is The Millennium Man.

That Fashion.

They call it “dopamine dressing” in this day and age – and that fashion displayed in Can’t Hardly Wait is back on trend. “Y2K chic”, has been adopted by a generation who didn’t suffer the indignation of not having immediate access to the internet, and WAP was anything but a song by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.

The fashion of the late ’90s to early ’00s seemed to be vilified at one stage as it didn’t age well – yellow tinted sunglasses, bowling shirts, baggy… baggy… baggy jeans – and given a lot of it was co-opted by nu-metal kids and cyber-goths alike became a bit of a punchline for some commentators.

But those bowling shirts are back, and apparently we can expect the fluro-vomit-inducing tube top, wallet chains, butterfly motifs to attending the festival circuits this year. Tribal print and flames – back.

Just imagine the world is one big Crazy Town video” a friend remarked, as she pours through ASOS with a “look of disgust” on her face. She says, still enchanted with the fashion we bought into when we were young.

I can’t possibly comment as I owned a Mambo shirt and a pair of yellow-tinted goggles. Ice Nine in Nottingham became my haven for picking up these things while I was studying media in college. Truly I was the living embodiment of a late 90’s teen; part Dawson’s Creek, part a Powerman 5000 music video.

Speaking of music…

That Soundtrack.

A pre-“All Star” Smash Mouth had two songs appear in the film and neither of which was that often mocked/meme’d track. Admittedly I quite liked “Walking On The Sun” and “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” and they never became overplayed (or featured in the worst movie that captured the dregs of the millennium).

But the soundtrack for a teen movie was as important as the film itself. It was meant to capture the sonic geist of it’s time and a good soundtrack not only appealed to it’s audience, or broke bands through to mainstream audiences, but captured the excitement of a house party or a moody scene.

To hear Blink 182’s classic “Dammit” as the house party was raided added to the manic teenage recklessness the movie gleefully demonstrated (not so much to the nihilistic degree of Kids of course.) Soundtracks at this time also managed to contrast newer songs from the “hip and upcoming musicians leading us into the new millennium” with classics that either come across as slightly ironic – “Mandy” by Barry Manilow in this case – or to put forward the point that we, a younger generation, have perhaps neglected a wave of important artists.

Why else would “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits appear in both this and Empire Records or who else would introduce us to Daniel Johnston asides from Kurt Cobain wearing a t-shirt. Soundtracks have always been pivotal to younger audiences because it shows the creators of the work are relating to us.

In fact, some of my most informative moments in music came from soundtracks; Judgement Night is regularly viewed as one of the best soundtracks ever committed to record and pushed the concept of rap and rock as a plausible option even further.

How Does It End?

Ok, ok… admittedly it didn’t hit the same highs upon first release as American Pie or Ten Things I Hate About You, but it’s unfair to say that it didn’t reinforce the idea that people are into teen comedies.

It subverted a number of tropes that became tiresome in the genre, such as forgoing a “Ducky” character, and created new tropes (example: Kenny Fisher and his crew).

More importantly it predated American Pie, which many consider as a watershed moment in ’90s culture, by an entire year, and managed to capture the spirit of “the yoof” leading into the millennium. Our questionable fashion choices, our eclectic taste in music, the idols we had on the big and small screen at the time.

They have all been captured with earnest pride by this one little movie. A movie that repeatedly is uttered by my generation and one of those movies that became a rite-of-passage to watch.

  • The Groove Guide; interview with James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco)
  • Unlocking the Melodies; The Impact of Herbie Hancock’s Music
  • ChatGPT Theatre; Unleashed Fury: Zorb of Destiny
  • Hip-Hop Hurrah; rap music’s history with the British royal family
  • Dopamine dressing and teenage heartache – why Can’t Hardly Wait was a defining zeitgeist of ’90s yoof culture.
  • Cordon tension; heightened horror’s take on privileged society.