How ‘American Beauty’ feels different at 24 than 14

Exactly nine years ago, I was just about to start my sophomore year of high school. I’d spent the summer watching “American Beauty” on repeat, and if you don’t believe that, just ask my friends. They’ll confirm the story, as I forced them to see it pretty much any time they came over. One night, it was playing on HBO and I asked my parents whether I could record it. Both of them thought the film was too mature for me, but my dad cared a lot less than my mom, who went so far as to spoil the ending for me in an attempt to discourage me from seeing it. The opposite happened — and I watched it for months on end. Trying to shelter kids almost always backfires.

It’s not a particularly funny flick, but my friends and I managed to create more than a dozen inside jokes out of it. I haven’t really watched “American Beauty” since the days before I could drive, but can still recite almost every line, and all the non-humorous scenes still remind me of the utterly ridiculous jokes my buddies and I made. The viewing experience is different now though, as I was in my early teens then and am now a working twenty-something. I also have four years of college and two post-grad years under my belt, so it would be weird if I watched the drama with the same eyes as I did in 2003. Here’s what has changed:

1. I have some insight into Lester now. When my friends and I saw “American Beauty” as teens, we thought of Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester as a loony, shouty, grumpy curmudgeon. He was just another crazy, defeated dad figure to us — one who had totally lost it. As a working person, I sympathize with Lester in some ways. Like his character, I’ve felt under-stimulated and under-utilized at previous jobs. People outgrow certain environments really quickly, and Lester is beyond tired of his employment situation. I’ve had the same pain before, and I’ve also had the urge to abandon the professional world for random jobs in fast food. I get why he returns to his high school gig of flipping burgers — it is fun (IMO) and does not require a ton of thought. I sometimes think it would be liberating to go back to that life.

2. I think Kevin Spacey is smokin’ hot. In 2003, it was easy to lump Kevin Spacey into the “dad” category. He’d been 39-40 at the time of filming, therefore just a couple years younger than my own father. As I watched “American Beauty” last night though, I couldn’t stop fixating on the actor’s appearance. He has a great smile and becomes really toned toward the end of the movie, and let’s just say I was drooling. I never would have thought of him that way as a teenager, but I definitely think he’s rather attractive now…well, circa 2003.

3. I don’t really get why Jane is a cheerleader. We know from the beginning that 16-year-old Jane hates life, her parents, and her appearance, so I don’t understand why she’s a cheerleader. She obviously despises it. My only guess is that it’s a cover, just like her mom and dad’s relationship is a facade, but if that’s the case, why does she feel the need to make society believe she’s not that weird after all? Wouldn’t a real rebel be totally up front about her issues with phoniness? I feel like I understood Jane’s logic back in the day (after I’d seen the movie about ten times, my dad said I reminded him of her), but I suppose I don’t see the purpose now. Enlighten me if you have any ideas.

4. I’m disillusioned by the story a little bit. At 14, I believed “American Beauty” was the best production in the world. I adored everything about it — from Lester’s unpredictable outbursts to Angela’s tragic need for validation. I still think it’s brilliant, but am also a little skeptical of some of the characters. The mother, Carolyn comes across as a caricature of herself (i.e., “Lester, you have such hostility in you!” Really?!). The same goes for the ex-military man, whose story is just too stereotypical. Lester is incredible but I feel some of the other characters are less developed as a result.

5. I know a lot of girls like Angela. In 2003, I remember thinking Angela was nuts but had it all. She’s gorgeous and guys want to be around her. I lamented that I didn’t have that kind of appeal, but my family assured me I didn’t want her life anyway. They were right. She is desperate for attention and a bad friend to Jane, who seems screwed up on the surface but is actually a lot more comfortable in her own skin. Angela uses Jane’s insecurities to her advantage and goes around telling lies about the number of men she has slept with so others will find her intriguing. But hooking up with everyone in town wouldn’t be an original thing for a high school girl to do even if it were applicable to Angela, who turns out to be sexually inexperienced and empty. I’ve met a lot of young women who fit Angela’s description, mainly just ones who think there must be something wrong with a guy if he doesn’t look at them. At the end of the day, I’m more similar to Angela than Jane, if anything because I don’t always feel great about myself. There’s a little bit of Angela in lots of women, and while I want to say it’s problematic, I don’t quite subscribe to that notion. We learn from our mistakes, and she screws up more than she learns in “American Beauty.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s