I don’t remember the first time I watched super bad. Some movies you’ve seen so many times you feel like you came out of the womb knowing them. I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of people my age. It was hard to think of a fake ID without immediately seeing the name “McLovin.” You could tell a story and ask a friend to respond, “That’s the coolest fucking story I’ve ever heard.” Can you say it again? Do you have time?” You probably expressed, very confidently, that you were DTF despite never having kissed anyone before.
Fifteen years later, super bad still feels like the defining film, not just of my own teenage years, but of all teens. True, it captures the last gasps of a millennial generation who remembers dial-up and VCRs and renting movies from the video store before racking up seven different passwords for various sites. streaming. We had flip phones with horrible cell service and hung out at the mall on the weekends. Throughout this time, we have increasingly straddled two worlds: one online and the other still analog. The children in super bad have cell phones that don’t always work. An adult mentions MySpace at one point and receives silence in response. Interactions with other teens take place entirely in real life without the protection or peril of a screen.
Despite what makes super bad a teen movie so distinctly millennial, when I revisit – as I have and continue to do countless times – it strikes me as one of the most honest cinematic representations of what it feels like to be a teen. It helps that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg started writing super bad when they were 13, loosely based on themselves and their experiences as children. They wanted to make a film about teenagers where the characters really acted and spoke like teenagers. It’s a difficult task that tends to produce flimsy results in adult-written teen movies. Directors like John Hughes and Richard Linklater are uniquely adept at capturing the linguistic tendencies and attitudes of younger generations. super bad producer Judd Apatow’s own Freaks & Geeks successful here too, but that’s rare.
Too often, teenage characters will look demure beyond their years or look like a pantomime of what a middle-aged writer thinks kids should look like. The authentic immaturity inscribed in this initial super bad the storyline continues through to the finished film’s final product, about two best friends, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) desperately trying to get to a party and get laid while tensions about their impending separation from college are simmering beneath the surface.
It strikes me as one of the most honest cinematic portrayals of what it’s like to be a teenager.
Seth and Evan are very straight, very horny, very insecure, very dumb teenagers. We’ve all known guys like Seth and Evan — and also their frenemy, the infamous Fogell/McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a scrawny boy who deflects his underdog status with ridiculous confidence. These boys are intrigued by girls and in love with their own cocks. But it is this vulgarity—even this objectification of women—that maintains super bad so true to the age group he represents (and later we learn that the boys weren’t alone in their immature, lustful desires for the opposite sex). Rogen and Goldberg are ruthless in the ever prickly dialogue they give their characters, emphasizing with true artistry the fearless cruelty of teenagers, those almost adults driven by a lack of empathy and pure identity.
Yet beneath all the bravado and innuendo, there’s a very heartwarming depiction of platonic love. Seth and Evan, safe at home, huddled in sleeping bags after their Odyssian evening, confess their deep affection for each other. “I love you”, they repeat over and over again, until they come closer and kiss. In an interview with The Ringer for the film’s 10th anniversary, Apatow recalled an exchange with fellow writer and director James L. Brooks: “[Brooks] went to see him and brought his son and all his friends, and after he said to us, “It was like the first time they realized that they loved each other.” distrust of what they said to each other the night before only makes the moment more thoughtful. Equipped with all the swear words adults use, they still don’t know how to talk to each other like adults.
Such a moment is only part of what allows super bad to defy generational ranking, despite being a film that so succinctly captures a very specific place in time, capturing that period just before the internet fundamentally changed the way we exist in the modern world. It’s a moment catalyzed by the very purgatory of no longer being a child but not quite an adult, and the crippling fear that comes with it. Fortified by language, money, libido and a driver’s license, the precipice of impending adulthood is marred by the frustrations of learning to literally navigate it all. With this fear of beginnings and endings, of a new life in place of the old, super bad encapsulates the thrill and terror of being on the precipice of adulthood.
Maybe there are things in super bad that a Zoomer wouldn’t like. There’s a joke or two that crosses a line, I can see the misogyny is a bit too much. But all of this is pure conjecture. I’m approaching 30. I don’t talk to teenagers (I’m an adult), I don’t know what’s going on with teenagers (it’s none of my business), and I don’t care (it’s none of my business). I don’t know what teenagers like these days, from what I can tell, using the TikTok app in a way that really scares me. But I firmly believe that most people can find something worthwhile in Very bad. Its appeal transcends the decades and speaks to everyone: popular kid or burnout; athlete or joint smoker; prep or goth. I may not know what’s going on with modern teenagers, but I know they have more to fear now than they ever have.. Hidden beneath bold dialogue that flies a mile a minute, jokes about blowjobs and dick sizes, and someone peeing their pants eight years ago, super bad is a movie that loves its silly teenagers.
Brianna Zigler is a film and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Consequence, Polygon, The Playlist and elsewhere.