A High School State of Mind, by Tyler Smith
I’m kind of torn on Ryan O’Leary’s The Backseat. On one hand, I find myself thinking that many of the characters are a bit one-dimensional and the material covered is way too familiar. On the other, there is such vitality to the way the film is shot and editing- along with the general tone conveyed- that I can’t dismiss it.
The story is about Roy, an awkward high schooler who wants nothing more than to play in his punk band and be left alone. However, things take a strange turn when he suddenly finds that he has hemorrhoids. Word gets out around school and what little social cred he had vanishes. At the doctor’s office, he bumps into a friendly, attractive young woman. The two hit it off and soon embark on a romantic relationship. All while Roy tries to rein in the horndog drummer in his band just long enough to play their first real gig.
So far, aside from the hemorrhoid, nothing we haven’t really seen before. The romance- with its awkward physicality, misunderstandings, and self conscious dialogue- is very familiar. The frustration between band members, and the band itself- complete with a “pretty good for a high school garage band” sound- has certainly been explored in other movies. And even all the hemorrhoid stuff seems to echo certain gross-out teen comedies like the American Pie series. All in all, The Backseat isn’t throwing us any curve balls by way of plotting.
However, perhaps that is the point. Maybe the familiarity is exactly what O’Leary was striving to create. Does he want us to feel this way? As I watched the film, I got the distinct impression that the director was trying to do more than tell a simple high school coming-of-age story. Instead, it felt as though he was trying to capture the essence of high school. The well-meaning (but mostly clueless) parents, the oppressive teachers, the raging hormones; these are the things we all had to deal with in high school.
As the years have gone on, we have come to realize that our parents actually did seem to have a pretty good handle on things, that our teachers and fellow students were just flawed people like everybody else, and our hormones eventually gave way to a genuine desire to engage with another person, not just physically, but emotionally. These are the realizations that come with the adult perspective. But, if we were to really try to remember what we felt back when we were kids, when every little problem harbored the end of the world, we find that O’Leary has really done something remarkable with The Backseat.
Through his manic editing and often extreme camera work, as well as his use of montage over punk music, we get a pretty decent facsimile of what our teenage years felt like. And while I found myself questioning the eventual decisions made by our protagonist- and the strangely optimistic tone accompanying those decisions- it all made so much sense when run through the high school filter. Most- if not all- of us made decisions like this, motivated by hurt feelings, a desire for approval, and a fear of rejection. Undoubtedly, in a few years, these characters will look back on these events and shake their heads.
But, as they do, there will be a slight smile on their faces. When we think back to high school, I’m sure many of us are mortified at some of the things we did. However, for me, there is almost always an air of amusement and even wistfulness, as I think to myself, “How the hell did I ever think that was a good idea?”
These are the feelings that I had while watching The Backseat. It is far from perfect, but I get the feeling that it is a deeply personal film. It feels like a director trying to make sense of the most confusing years of our lives. But in that exploration, he is able to attain perspective and hold onto his sense of humor. And the result is a film that has affection not just for its characters or its story, but also for its world. Because it isn’t just depicting a time and a place, but an entire state of mind.