No ands-ifs-buts, we’re nuts for the beach!
I’m not sure a film has ever more steadily improved in my estimation than Teen Beach Movie, the Disney Channel musical from 2013. The first time I watched it it seemed like a forgettable mishmash with a decent soundtrack. But I couldn’t get it out of my head, and the more times I’ve rewatched it, the more its vision — yes, this is a movie with an actual vision — has crystallized for me.
First, this is a deeply reverential pastiche of a nearly forgotten movie fad from the mid ‘60s: the beach party film. In particular, Teen Beach Movie bows down at the altar of the American International Pictures series starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello kicked off by the 1963 film Beach Party. The number of tweens watching the Disney Channel familiar with a 50 year old film relic has to be approximately zero, and yet Teen Beach Movie is made with the seeming assumption that viewers will appreciate, for example, that Giggles is a direct spoof to Candy from Beach Party, with the same costume and dance moves. There are dozens of touch points: the biker gang and the dance club and the rear projection surfing effects and so much more are all loving tributes to disposable B-movies from a few generations ago.
If it were simply the act of homage to an obscure fad, then this would remain a delightful oddity, but not much more. Instead, Teen Beach Movie runs much deeper than that. It’s a whole onion of lovably bizarre and/or charming quirks. The next layer is a film-within-a-film story structure. It’s always a fun gimmick when supposedly real characters enter a movie or vice versa (e.g. Purple Rose of Cairo; Enchanted), rich with meta-commentary, and it’s well executed here.
Teen Beach Movie really plays up the power and absurdity and silliness of movie magic. It’s emphasized to the point that film becomes a commentary on the very idea of a Disney Channel Original Movie as a dopey piece of escapism. But it’s an affectionate commentary: this film is far too warm and loving to be cynical of itself and its audience. Instead, it frames that escapism as something harmless, even noble. Perhaps, Teen Beach Movie argues, there is something enlightened about guiltlessly enjoying something not for elucidation or enlightenment, but enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment.
The next layer is where Teen Beach Movie goes from kind of fun and charming to genuinely clever. For as much as this movie operates on a textual level, it is simply brimming with subtext. It’s pretty well documented that Disney-created media is partially responsible for (or, more generously, a mirror of) culturally codified and reductive gender roles. Teen Beach Movie subversively pulls the rug out from these norms. The point of this movie is not simply to that boys can like romantic musicals or girls can be intelligent, pragmatic skeptics. Teen Beach, instead, argues for happiness in balance and self-actualization: To be a true feminist is to let each woman decide their own identity, even if it’s a girly-girl who bakes pies to impress boys. Brady, Mack, Tanner, and Lela all have conflicting and shifting visions of how closely they match stereotypical roles, but all end up in happy mediums, and Teen Beach Movie thinks that’s great.
Teen Beach movie really puts an exclamation point on this concept via the chemistry of its cast. To put it bluntly, the gender role-agnostic bisexual energy in this film is off the charts. There is almost no point at which it would have been surprising for any two characters of any gender to start making out with each other. In fact, bizarrely — thanks to an underwhelming performance by Maia Mitchell as Mack, who can’t bring enough texture to a cynical character — the two characters with perhaps the worst chemistry are the ostensible romantic leads, Brady and Mack.
In all this, I’ve missed describing the actual formal elements of the film that make it a delight: First, its soundtrack is an effervescent triumph. The seven numbers (plus a couple of reprises) are drowning in throwback pop charm. The compositions are energetic, hooky, and well-produced, and all the performers are excellent vocalists. It is simply an an A+ soundtrack full of loving retro creations that you will be humming for days.
The choreography is outstanding, too. Director Jeffrey Hornaday has a background as a choreographer, and he constructs dance routines to match the songs’ giddiness. You will be looping these songs on YouTube. In all, the high spirits of the music and its mise en scene make this one of my favorite soundtracks in all of cinema, ludicrous as that sounds.
Unfortunately, Teen Beach Movie is still held back some nagging issues. The script loses focus a few times and has some absolute clunkers of gags. The movie’s opening drags out for an interminable, music-free 15 minutes. And, speaking of the opening, I will never forgive Teen Beach Movie for not casting Frankie Avalon in the grandfather role.
There’s also a snoozer of a B-plot surrounding a mad scientist creating a weather machine. Although it feels like something that could have been in a ‘60s beach party movie (minus the crappy CGI), it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film, though I do like the bit at the end where the villains discover they are in a movie and react accordingly. That should have been the focus of that thread for the entire runtime.
Nonetheless, despite the Disney Channel Original Movie trappings and bits of fluff, this is a unique, deliriously fun, sneakily smart film that I plan to keep in my regular summer movie rotation and share with as many people who will hear me out.