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Tete-a-tete: Slacker movies offer unlikely heroes

For every goal we want to achieve in life, there’s a corresponding checklist of instructions. Want to go to a good college? Take all the AP classes you can in high school, be involved in extracurricular activities and score high on your SATs. Want to get a good job? Join professional organizations in college and find internships in your field. Want a better job than the one you have? Engage in networking and professional development.

And so it continues, with checklists for what you should do to get married, buy a house, have children, raise children, enjoy a comfortable retirement. Step after step after step after step.

If you follow all the instructions and check all the boxes, supposedly you’ll achieve your goal. But what if you miss a step? Can you still succeed even if you don’t do everything right?

These questions weighed particularly heavy on my mind throughout high school and college. I’ve always been a diligent box-checker, but it was somewhat terrifying to feel like my future hinged on the choices I made from the ages of 14-22. I see 18-year-old Youngest Brother experiencing some of that uneasiness as he prepares to leave for college.

In these circumstances, it helps to have your heroes. I found mine in a rather unlikely place: slacker movies.

Loosely defined, a slacker movie is any movie that features an underachieving protagonist who bucks the conventional way of doing things. They don’t follow the instructions, they don’t check all the boxes and they still manage to achieve their goals.

As a disclaimer, I do not condone juvenile delinquency, disrespect for authority or any other dangerous or unhealthy behaviors that slacker movies may glorify. What I find fascinating is the ability of the characters to succeed in spite of not following the rules.

Take, for example, the cult classic “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” (1979). Punk rock chick Riff Randell dreams of writing songs for the Ramones, today considered one of the most influential punk bands in music history. A high school senior with more detentions than anyone in her school’s history, Riff would rather fantasize about meeting lead singer Joey Ramone than study for her classes. As Riff admits, she only uses her math book “on special equations.”

She butts heads with Miss Togar, the new vice principal in charge of discipline, who tries to keep her from attending the Ramones concert and enlists the parents to help destroy the students’ rock albums. Sparks fly, and Riff emerges victorious. She manages to go to the concert anyway, the Ramones like her song so much that they put it on their next album and she makes it clear to Miss Togar that demerits, overzealous hall monitors and black marks on her permanent record have no power over her.

As a student who had far more in common with Riff’s academically successful friend Kate than with Riff herself, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” was music to my ears. It was eye-opening to consider that the things that carried so much weight at that stage in my life – GPA, class rank, SAT scores – weren’t that important after all. It was refreshing to think that success could be achieved by thinking outside the box, working outside the system and, if all else failed, shredding the vice principal’s discipline records with a chainsaw.

In college, I was introduced to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989), a more fantasy-driven take on the slacker movie. Bill and Ted are not exactly high academic achievers – they confuse George Washington with Captain Ahab from “Moby Dick.” Their history teacher gives them an ultimatum: if they don’t get a good grade on their final report, they’ll fail the class. To make matters worse, Ted’s father will send him to military school in Alaska, breaking up Wyld Stallyns, the boys’ nascent metal band, before they even learn how to play their instruments properly.

Unbeknownst to Bill and Ted, their music is destined to change the world, putting an end to war and poverty and bringing peace. A man named Rufus is sent from the future with a time machine (cleverly disguised as a phone booth) so that they can do research for their report and pass their history class, thus keeping the band together and preserving the utopian future.

This movie was a continuous source of encouragement for me throughout college. If Bill and Ted could manage to pull off their history report, then surely I could write a paper on “Paradise Lost,” memorize the kanji for my Japanese midterm and compose a counterpoint to a cantus firmus in Phrygian mode by the end of the week – although I certainly wouldn’t have minded having a time machine so I could bring Milton, Li Si and Johann Joseph Fux to give me a hand.

When life seems like one long checklist after another and missing a step the difference between success and failure, it’s encouraging to remember those slackers of cinematic fame who managed to achieve their goals in spite of their blatant disregard for the rules.

Though I wouldn’t recommend following these characters’ approaches to life, they do serve as a comforting reminder that you don’t have to be perfect or do everything right in order to succeed. Even if you’re convinced that Caesar was a “salad dressing dude,” you can still bring about world peace.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Aug. 4, 2016


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