HomeMovies1999 Movie-versaries: American Pie

1999 Movie-versaries: American Pie

1999 was a big year for movies. It was the year that The Matrix‘s slow-motion bullet influenced action movies for years to come. It was the year American Beauty won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Oscar fans have been arguing about it ever since. It was the year Pokémon jumped from Gameboys and TV to the big screen. And worst of all, it was the year that disappointed a generation of Star Wars fans with the release of The Phantom Menace.

To celebrate that landmark year in film’s 20th Anniversary, The Pop Break continues its year-long retrospective of 1999’s most influential (at least to us) films with TV editor, Matt Taylor, reflecting on the movie that learned about sex and friendship in all the wrong places, American Pie.

I was only 5 when American Pie hit theaters – long before I’d actually watch it. But even I couldn’t escape the controversy that came with its release. A Catholic elementary school student at the time, I remember the film being whispered about amongst the parents as the most lurid, disgusting, and totally irresponsible film released in years. So, while I didn’t even know the plot of the film, or the content in it that caused such intense scandal, I knew one thing: this film was bad news.

Eventually, American Pie became something of a source of rebellion for my pre-teenage self. My parents weren’t exactly strict when it came to moderating my content intake, but they knew enough about American Pie to know that I shouldn’t watch it — and that only made me want to watch the film more. I, unfortunately, don’t remember exactly how old I was when I finally got to watch the film for the first time, but I do remember it was at some point in middle school, at a friend’s house, and long before I received any proper sexual education. At the time, I remember thinking my parents were ridiculous for not letting me see this film. At 25, I sort of see their point.

But first, let’s talk about what made the film so likable for a generation of teens. For one thing, the movie is pretty funny. Obviously humor is subjective, and this film is far more broad and silly than your average comedy, but the cast is charming, the jokes land, and any set piece about having someone walk-in during an intimate moment will always have some sort of relatable horror to it. Many of the film’s most memorable moments, and the entire character of Stifler (Sean William Scott), would eventually be done-to-death by other teen sex comedies and this film’s own sequels. But, at the time, there was a freshness that resonated with critics, audiences, and tweens watching the movie in their friend’s basement even though their parents told them not to.

While I certainly didn’t know it at the time, I can look back and confirm that American Pie resonated with me, on some level, because I desperately wanted what these characters had. No, not a virginity pact — a close group of male friends. As an overweight, athletically inept, deeply self-conscious middle schooler who could name more Tony winning musicals than he could football teams, it was always easier for me to make friends with girls than it was boys. And, in hindsight, that was a great thing: most of the girls I met in middle and high school have stayed in my life up through adulthood. But, in the moment, there’s a bizarre torture that comes with being the only guy in a friend group of girls; it only makes your weirdness stand out more to the other boys. Whenever I had a male friend, I’d cling to them in a way that probably looked incredibly desperate, and would often hurt the relationship more than anything.

Watching American Pie, I so badly wanted to be friends with Jim (Jason Biggs), Oz (Chris Klein), Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), and, for reasons I would understand later in life, especially Kevin (Thomas Ian Nichols). They were incredibly loyal to one another, hung out all the time, told each other everything, and didn’t make fun of one another for their quirks. They were the supportive friend group I dreamed of having and even in 2019, their friendship still stands out as one of the main selling points of the film. In a vacuum, their relationship is nice and even somewhat wholesome.

The same can be said about some of their eventual romances: the mature way that Kevin and Vicky (Tara Reid) decide to call things off, or the cute way Oz courts Heather (an excellent Mena Suvari). Even Jim and band geek Michelle (Alyson Hannigan, always wonderful) have an exciting, rom-com-esque relationship in the first sequel. There’s a lot to love about this movie, and it meant a lot to me as a kid.

But watching American Pie in 2019 is an incredibly difficult task, and it’s even somewhat troubling that we weren’t so concerned with its content 20 years ago. I’m not talking about the technical content — nudity, graphic sexual references, and underage drinking won’t scar young film viewers. But this is a film where a central plot point, and one of the biggest gags in the film, involves a character broadcasting a girl’s naked body to his entire population without her consent, and that sequence is depicted as a normal part of growing up.

And that same girl, Shannon Elizabeth’s Nadia, is then mocked throughout four whole films. Her entire presence is a joke, and she’s given no character traits except for the fact that she’s desirable. In an age of revenge porn and rampant online sexism, this subplot is deeply troubling…but it always should have been. And, when juxtaposed next to the sweet friendship the four main characters share, the whole film’s tone is changed. American Pie is troubling because it emphasizes that, above all else, “boys will be boys.”

I’d learn as an adult that there was a method to my parents’ madness, when it came to media censorship. My parents didn’t really care about whether or not I’d see nudity or teen drinking, but were terrified that I’d learn about sex and intimacy from a movie where a teen boy decides to stream the loss of his virginity online for his friends to watch along. It’s no secret that sexual education in American schools is severely lacking, and while I may have thought I knew everything there was to know about sex at the time of viewing, it’s honestly a minor miracle that I had a normal development after watching the film.

I don’t think all the controversy was called for, and I’m sure that some parents banning their kids from watching the movie had more simplistic concerns. But, on my most recent re-watch, I’ve grown to understand that my parents were probably right: I shouldn’t have seen this so young, and I hope that any young teens watching the film today get a long talk about what sex is actually like, and learn the importance of consent. (Are kids still watching American Pie? I don’t know what they like these days).

Look: I’m not trying to cancel American Pie, a 20-year-old film whose impact on American cinema has already been made. To do so would be silly, and disingenuous. Because I still like this movie, at least in parts! I still listen to large chunks of the soundtrack, I still think about Jennifer Coolidge’s legendary turn as Stifler’s mom, and I still laugh at Alyson Hannigan’s oft-quoted line about what she did to her flute. Hell, I even like American Pie 2. But if I’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that we need to learn to qualify our affection for older films made in less sensitive times. It’s okay to have complicated relationships with films, especially if they are tied to nostalgic memories. What’s not okay is pretending that the film is fine when it broadcasts dangerous messages.

Earlier this year, Netflix debuted a new series, Sex Education. The show was fun, but it was also not really for me. This show, about a teen who becomes a sex therapist of sorts for his peers, is very clearly meant for younger viewers. And I think that’s a wonderful thing. I’m so happy that teens today get a sex comedy that’s raunchy, but also emphasizes the importance of consent, encourages men to talk to women and understand their wants and needs, and includes queer sex in their lessons. As much as I loved American Pie as a kid, I think I’d rather live in a world with stories like Sex Education. I think I would have gotten more out of it.

American Pie is currently available for streaming, and purchase on Amazon Prime.

Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.

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