On Sunday night, I watched the final episode of the first season of the 2019 HBO teen drama, “Euphoria.” A tear rolled down my cheek during one of the three excruciatingly long montages that played almost one right after another, concluding the episode. More specifically, I choked up while watching a series of main character Rue’s (Zendaya) flashbacks — her, as a child, running into her dad’s arms; at 13 in the early days of her drug addiction, stealing her now cancer-ridden dad’s pain medication, then, after his death, Rue putting on the sweatshirt he wore in his final days; in a screaming-match with her mom over $40 Rue had stolen from her wallet to buy drugs; her little sister, Gia (Storm Reid), sobbing at the scene of Rue’s overdose. All this playing behind the heartbreaking and elegant “A Song For You,” sung by Donny Hathaway. And it is all so, so sad, and the entire show is so sad, and yet I still sort of, in theory, want my life to be exactly like “Euphoria.”
This is one of the problems with cinema in general, the dazzling nature of any well-shot, well-acted movie or TV series. For the purpose of keeping a narrow topic, I want to vent specifically about cinema in which teenagers are the primary focus and why, no matter how bad things get for the characters, I still wish my life looked even remotely like theirs. “Euphoria,” in particular, really hit me with a sense of wistful ennui because it has many moments of realism, even among the melodrama, that make me feel like these things are actually happening to someone, maybe almost play-by-play, so why did none of it happen to me?
It also helps that, no surprise, everybody in the show is insanely hot, and the “teenagers” are played by celebrities who are 21-plus — again, no surprise. This is something that has always driven me nuts about teens in movies — nobody looks like that when they are 17, not even the 17-year-old Instagram models who show up on your discovery page in a supposedly unedited photo. How can I look at somebody like Zendaya and not feel bad about myself? At the same time, if Rue looked like the next teen drug addict the casting crew had stumbled upon, how could I or the rest of the world be half as interested at the sight of the thumbnail?
I am far from the first to suggest that cinema becomes more interesting when sexy people are at the front and center of the screen, so I do not want to drive that home as my main point. More so, I am asking how we all might be able to enjoy teen dramas without feeling like we failed in our own youth — or, in the case of college dramas, feeling like I absolutely cannot graduate until I go to at least one wild toga party that features a live performance from Otis Day and the Knights. I think the answer is twofold, but still open-ended.
First, I, the slightly pretentious film studies major that I am, certainly try to morph my memories into the most cinematic pictures possible. After a while, I can trick myself into thinking that the lighting was as soft as in the late-night biking scenes in “Euphoria,” or that that one really catchy Blood Orange song played during one of my tender, romantic moments, like it did for Rue and her love interest.
Second, I can keep trying to convince my dangerously Hollywood movie-saturated self that life does not look so gorgeous for anybody. During every episode of “Euphoria,” I would turn to my best friend, who I was watching it with, and ask, “That doesn’t actually happen, right?” And during the more out-there scenes, I felt confident enough to throw my hands up at the TV and self-righteously shout, “This is so unrealistic!” It is the vocalization — and, I guess, the chronicling — that keeps me sane in the face of cinematic speciousness.