I don’t remember the first time I watched Superbad. Some movies you’ve seen so many times it feels like you came out of the womb knowing them. I’m sure it’s the same way for a lot of people my age. It was hard to think about a fake I.D. without immediately seeing the name “McLovin.” You might tell a story and have a friend reply, “That’s the coolest fucking story I ever heard. Can you tell it again? Do you have time?” Probably you expressed, with a great deal of confidence, that you were DTF despite never having kissed anyone before.
Fifteen years later, Superbad still feels like the defining film, not just of my own teenage years, but of all teenagedom. It’s true that it captures the last gasps of a Millennial generation who remembers dial-up and VCRs and renting movies at the video store before we accumulated seven different passwords to various streaming sites. We had flip phones with horrible cell service and hung out at the mall on the weekends. All the while, we increasingly straddled two worlds: one online and one still analog. The kids in Superbad have cell phones that don’t always work. An adult mentions MySpace at one point and receives silence in response. Interactions with other teens unfold entirely in real life without the protection, or peril, of a screen.
In spite of what makes Superbad such a distinctly Millennial teen film, when I revisit — as I have done, and continue to do, countless times — it strikes me as among the most honest cinematic representations of what it feels like to be a teenager. It helps that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg first started writing Superbad when they were 13, loosely based on themselves and their experiences as kids. They wanted to make a movie about teenagers where the characters really behaved and talked like teenagers. It’s a difficult task that tends to produce shaky results in teen films written by adults. Directors like John Hughes and Richard Linklater are singularly adept at recapturing the linguistic tendencies and attitudes of younger generations. Superbad producer Judd Apatow’s own Freaks & Geeks succeeded here as well, but it’s rare.
Too often, teen characters will be made to seem either wise beyond their years, or sound like a pantomime of what some middle-age writer thinks kids must be like. The authentic immaturity written into that initial Superbad script carries through to the end product of the finished film, about two best friends, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) trying desperately to get to a party and get laid while tensions over their impending college separation simmer below the surface.
It strikes me as among the most honest cinematic representations of what it feels like to be a teenager.
Seth and Evan are very straight, very horny, very insecure, very dumb teenage boys. We’ve all known guys like Seth and Evan — and also their frenemy, the infamous Fogell/McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a scrawny boy who deflects his loser status with ludicrous amounts of confidence. These boys are intrigued by girls and infatuated with their own dicks. But it’s that vulgarity — even that objectification of women — which keeps Superbad so true to the age group its representing (and later on, we learn that the boys were not alone in their immature, lustful desires for the opposite sex). Rogen and Goldberg are ruthless in the consistently thorny dialogue they give to their characters, highlighting with true artistry the undaunted cruelty of teenagers, these almost-adults guided by a lack of empathy and pure id.
Still, beneath all the bravado and innuendo there is a very heartwarming depiction of platonic love. Seth and Evan, safe at home, snuggled in sleeping bags after their odyssean evening, admit their profound fondness for one another. “I love you,” they tell each other over and over, until they draw close and embrace. In an interview with The Ringer for the film’s 10th anniversary, Apatow remembers an exchange with fellow comedy writer and director James L. Brooks: “[Brooks] went to see it and brought his son and all his friends, and afterward he said to us, ‘It felt like that was the first time they realized they loved each other.’” But when Evan and Seth arise the next morning and exhibit instantaneous caginess over what they told one another the night before, it only makes the moment more thoughtful. Equipped with all the dirty words adults use, they still don’t quite know how to talk to one another like adults.
Such a moment is just part of what allows Superbad to defy generational pigeon-holing, despite being a film that so succinctly captures one very specific place in time, seizing this period right before the internet fundamentally changed how we exist in the modern world. It’s a moment catalyzed by the very purgatory of being no longer a child but not quite an adult, and the paralyzing fear that comes with it. Fortified by the language, the money, the libido, and the driver’s license, the precipice of impending adulthood is marred by the frustrations of learning how to navigate literally all of it. With this fear of beginnings and endings, of a new life in place of an old one, Superbad encapsulates the thrill and the terror of being at the precipice of adulthood.
Maybe there are things in Superbad that a Zoomer wouldn’t like. There’s a joke or two that crosses a line, I can see the misogyny being a bit much. But this is all pure conjecture. I’m nearing 30. I don’t talk to teenagers (I’m an adult), I don’t know what’s going on with teenagers (not my problem), and I don’t really care (none of my business). I don’t know what teenagers are into these days besides, from what I can tell, using the app TikTok in ways that genuinely frighten me. But I firmly believe that most people can find something worthwhile in Superbad. Its appeal transcends decades, and speaks to everyone: popular kid or burnout; jock or stoner; prep or goth. I might not know what’s going on with modern teens, but I know that they have more to be afraid of now than they ever did. Hidden under the audacious dialogue that flies a mile a minute, jokes about blowjobs, and dick sizes, and someone pissing their pants eight years ago, Superbad is a film that loves its stupid teenagers.
Brianna Zigler is a film and entertainment writer whose work has appeared at Paste Magazine, Consequence, Polygon,The Playlist, and elsewhere.