On paper, Teen Witch has all the trappings of a classic ’80s high school movie: A middlingly unpopular teen, Louise (Robin Lively); a dreamy, but ultimately asexual crush, Brad (Dan Gauthier); a big transformational makeover—triggered, delightfully, by Louise gaining magic powers rather than hitting the mall; a nerdy but awesome best friend, Polly (Mandy Ingber); an unprecedented number of spontaneous yet intricately choreographed dance sequences; several white-boy raps; a super-cool, older-lady guide, in the form of witch-master Madame Serena (Zelda Rubinstein).
It is, in short, very much my shit. But despite a predilection for the supernatural and anything involving the quests of teen girls, I somehow missed the very existence of Teen Witch. Turns out, most people did. After debuting to appallingly low box office numbers in 1989—despite a $2.5 million budget, it made just $3,875 in its opening weekend—Teen Witch has slowly dug its way into the collective consciousness through ABC Family reruns, where a generation was able to appreciate such camp mainstays as, “I like boys,” a musical number performed unprompted by a cadre of cheerleaders while they change. “We thought we were making a very serious movie,” Lively told Buzzfeed in an interview for the film’s 25th anniversary. “We didn’t know we were making a cult classic.”
Since there’s no better time to revisit this fighter of a movie than the bitter midpoint of summer, Esther Wang, a Teen Witch connoisseur who nonetheless had not seen it in years, and me, Alexis, who’d barely heard of it, decided to watch. Would it live up to its delightfully genre-embracing standards? Or would it read as nonsensical bedlam in the year of our lord 2019? Yes and yes.
Alexis: First, we gotta talk about the opening. Which features Louise in a red tube dress and stilettos trawling a roof, with her crush Brad in an uncomfortably close pursuit. I believe you shrieked: “These are TEENAGERS!!!”
Esther: Even though I saw Teen Witch at least 10 times as a young pre-teen, I had forgotten that epic opening dream sequence, which now as an adult made me squirm a little bit, despite knowing, as a former teenager myself, that teenage girls are very horny. Am I a prude? Maybe! I blame my church upbringing. But Louise is quite a lusty girl, and it made me think that for all of the ways that the teen romances that followed it—Save the Last Dance, 10 Things I Hate About You, just to name a couple—are ostensibly about teens who fall in love, do they even want to bone like Louise and Brad want to bone? I felt the movie had a refreshing attitude towards sex, and there were a lot of scenes that stood out to me now that didn’t when I was a kid—how Louise’s high school taught about birth control, how Louise, clearly a very smart teenager, herself was on birth control. Nice for a movie that came out in 1989! But my main question is—did you love it???
Alexis: I did!!! But not in the way I expected to. Teen movies, especially classics from the ’80s, usually hold to a certain tight formula, which I find deeply comforting. There’s a love interest, an obstacle, a great awakening that peaks at some sort of big dance. Teen Witch is all of that, but unhinged. I loved the bonkers dance sequences—which spring up out of nowhere and are so intricately, even inappropriately choreographed, to accompanying lyrics that, in one instance are just the phrase “I Like Boys!” repeated ad nauseam.
I loved how everyone constantly objectifies Brad; there is what felt like a very long scene where Louise lusts after his sunlit, sweat-dripped chest. And I love that the agent of change is a chaotically dressed older woman. What did NOT sit well with me is Madame Serena’s sacrifice. Presumably, she’s been saving up the last of her magic for many years, for security or a whim (I think she mentions conjuring a mink coat) and, instead, uses it (ALL OF IT) on a gratuitous spell to make Louise popular. Which Louise, being a teenager, ultimately decides she doesn’t want. But by the time she reverses her decision Madame Serena’s magic is spent! This is a careless choice which remains unexamined at the end of the movie, but left me VERY AGITATED and bordering on a rage. What. The. Fuck. Am I right?
Esther: Serena is hands down the best adult role model in any teen movie I have ever seen. I love that when Louise worries about using a love spell on Brad to turn him into her “love slave,” Serena tells her, “What does it matter?” So true! Love is a mystery! When Louise whines that she’s not happy being the most popular girl, Serena’s response—“Who IS happy? You’ll get used to it!”—is the most on-point rejoinder to teenage angst that I can imagine. I’d like to think that Serena gets her mink coat and everything else that she wants in the end, as Louise tosses her magic amulet to her at the school dance and, I assume, transfers her powers to her mentor.
Alexis: The magic amulet toss is a truly epic ending. It’s easy to read it as a subtle feminist critique: she’s throwing away the tools that triggered her popularity and the winning of her man, and trading it for—well, it’s unclear! A normal life with cool mentor Serena. Though, may I point out, that her voluminous hair, which rises to its permed ’80s glory only through magic, stays lofty even after she’s given away her powers. But another unresolved plot line is her relationship with best friend Polly.
Esther: I love that the movie ended with the status of their friendship up in the air. Maybe they won’t ever be friends again, which happens all the time in high school—the psychic space occupied by your most intense romantic yet platonic relationships is too often then filled (for heteros at least) by boys. But Polly—and can we please talk about why the writers named her Polly???—seems to be doing pretty well for herself by the end, linking up with the white boy rapper she had that epic, cringeworthy yet awe-inspiring dance sequence with earlier in the movie.
Fuck yeah, Polly! The true hero of the movie.
Alexis: I’m curious, though, Esther, how did the movie differ from your memory of it? Did you remember it as so genre-breaking? Did you remember the dance sequences? Did you remember… um... all the sex?
Esther: I didn’t think about it as genre-breaking at the time, and remembered it just as a movie about wish fulfillment that I loved because I too was a kid who desperately wished to have the power to transform myself. I had absolutely forgotten about the sex scene in the rundown abandoned house, which ew? But the dance sequences are forever burned into my brain.