Every film should have a theatrical release. A film is not inherently less than if it is not shown on the big screen, nor is your experience of watching it less if you watched it on DVD or another small screen format. But every film should at least have the opportunity, if only for the first month or so of its existence, to get a big screen release. There’s something so special about devoting your full attention to a giant screen that consumes your field of vision, and the surrounding darkness makes it feel like it’s just you and the movie. The theatrical experience is sacred… but that doesn’t mean all genres benefit from a traditional theatrical release.
The R-rated teen movie, while as worthy as any subgenre of being seen in a movie theater, has found a perfect home in the age of movie streaming. Thanks to a host of larger harsh realities, these films have found an ideal launch pad when it comes to reaching the target demo. Yes, even more ideal than the glories of the theatrical exhibition.
Teen movies are not lesser movies
To be clear, the R-rated teen movie perfect for streaming isn’t a comment on these titles being “unworthy” of theatrical release. Any movie can excel in a big screen release and classic R-rated teen fare The Edge of Seventeen is very much a part of that truth. Just because they don’t have superheroes, slasher villains, or speeches primed and ready for an Oscar broadcast, doesn’t make the R-rated teen movie any less worthy of a theatrical bow. Instead, the reason R-rated teen movies are a perfect fit for Netflix, Amazon and other streamers boils down to one organization: the Motion Picture Association of America.
What is the Motion Picture Association of America?
Founded in 1922, the Motion Picture Association has many duties in representing the major motion picture studios in the United States, but one of its longest standing duties has been overseeing the content of mainstream films. This oversight has been reflected in the MPAA rating system established in 1968. Monikers such as a G, PG-13, or R rating meant to viewers what kind of content they could expect to see in a given film, as well as what age group a given production was aimed at.
What sounds like a nonchalant and even essential service on the surface has a very ugly underbelly thanks to the material the MPAA has deemed particularly serious over the years. Language and sexual content are what earn films their R-rating, while violence is something that is much less scrutinized by the organization. In other words, material that people encounter in their everyday lives may end up securing a film the dreaded NC-17 moniker, but stylized violence divorced from reality is a much lower priority for these people. It’s a strange double standard, but one that affects countless projects every year, including films aimed at and about teenagers.
Realistic teen stories don’t always fit into PG-13 ratings
Many films strive to paint a realistic portrait of what teenagers go through, which isn’t always going to fit well into a PG-13 box. Sometimes teens swear, use drugs, engage in criminal activity, or do anything else that might warrant an R rating. However, with such a rating, the majority of teenagers, the group most films about teenagers are aimed at, may not see it unless accompanied by a parent. Boyhoodfor example, and its depiction of mundane adolescence is prohibited for unsupervised children, but Glass had no trouble securing a PG-13 despite barely covering a moment where James McAvoy eats away at a guy’s guts.
This is a big problem for R-rated movies about teenagers like The Edge of Seventeen on the big screen, but that’s a non-existent problem with something like Netflix. While many Netflix titles go through the MPA review process, there are no measures in place at this and other streamers to guarantee that people under the age of 17 will not be exposed to this film. Teenagers can now have a comfortable and safe place to watch movies like The fallout who struggle with problems they experience daily. Art is how we process the reality that surrounds us, and thanks to streamers becoming a home for R-rated movies about teenagers, a key demographic can now realize that at an impressionable age.
It doesn’t hurt that even in a time before original streaming movies were ubiquitous, the financial impact of restricting teens from watching R-rated movies about teens was evident at the box office. Movies with rave reviews like The Edge of Seventeen failed to take off financially, while cult classics enjoy Donnie Darko had to wait until home video to grab from their target demo. Considering how often these titles struggled at the box office and caught on like wildfire on home video, it only makes sense that many R-rated films about teenagers would just cut out the middleman and go straight to streaming in the modern world.
Streaming opens exciting new creative doors for youth-centric storytelling
Additionally, ideally, the flexibility of having a streaming home for R-rated films about teenagers should open up exciting new creative doors for these titles. Granted, several of these films could just use a Hulu launchpad as an excuse for uneven pacing or cutting costs on proper camerawork. But projects like Share (which debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival as a big-screen title before being acquired by HBO) doesn’t have to worry about being altered or watered down in an effort to fit into a PG-13 box or appeal to a broad selection of big screen films as a theatrical film would.
The presence of these titles on streamers and why these platforms seem so appealing to modern filmmakers like Jennifer Kaitlyn Robinson may also be useful in providing a much-needed wake-up call to MPA. The double standards and outdated practices of this ranking group have been derided for decades now, but their shortcomings are downright embarrassing in the modern world of pop culture. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to R-rated material on the big screen is comical when a youth of any age can watch an episode of Euphoria with a click of a button on the TV remote control. The transition of these films to streamers should inspire the MPA to finally recalibrate its rating system, a move that could allow these films to return to theaters and line up at the box office of studios and theaters alike.
Alas, the last hope is an undeniable pipe dream, but one can dream. Even if those kinds of sweeping (and essential) ratings changes never come, the realities of who gets to see R-rated cinema on the big screen mean that streamers are a perfect fit for R-rated movies about teenagers. It sure would be fun to see these features with a crowd again – the first appearance of Sarah Michelle Gellar in Take revenge would surely have inspired a huge audience response. But at least Netflix and other streaming platforms are giving teenagers a chance to watch movies that can reflect and normalize the hardships of their everyday lives. Getting art out to the people who need it, contrary to what the restrictive mandates of the MPA Review Board believe, is unspeakably important… even (or especially) when that art involves chaotic gay Maya Hawke.