Southern California is first and foremost a car culture. Everything’s so spread out, any trip to the mall, the movies, the beach takes place on wheels. For today’s SoCal teens, these trips offer a chance to catch up on cellphone conversations, podcasts, maybe NPR, but back in the early ’80s, drive time was dominated by pop radio, and the stations competed to be cutting edge. You can hear that in the original “Valley Girl,” a generation-defining opposites-attract romance that opens with a helicopter shot that pans from Hollywood, up over the hills, past a radio tower, to the San Fernando Valley. We hear the L.A.-based station fade out and the Valley-side DJ take over.
From there, “Valley Girl” was basically wall-to-wall new wave discoveries — catchy, synth-powered songs from bands that hadn’t yet broken, lending cred to an otherwise conventional tale of the edgy, slightly older guy who shows a materialistic high school junior there’s more to life than shopping. Director Martha Coolidge spent nearly half her budget on music rights, recognizing that the soundtrack would serve as the pulse to a movie that made a far greater cultural impact than anyone could have imagined: It popularized Valleyspeak (of the original lingo, only “tubular” and “bitchin’” haven’t stuck), made a star of Nicolas Cage and redefined the way teen movies used music.
Now a remake has arrived, and get this: It’s a musical. That seems fitting, except the 2020 update — a sparkling but unwanted bauble directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg, who wasn’t born until two years after the 1983 film opened — is so steeped in nostalgia that it’s an entirely different animal, “a million miles away” from the cult classic that only just found its way to VOD for the first time last month. Instead of feeling ahead of the zeitgeist, as “Valley Girl” was, this “High School Musical”-style cover version is stuck in the past, a strange pastel-colored, big-haired, thrift-store tribute to one of America’s tackiest decades, hitched to a retro roster of vintage pop tunes. Some were there in the original; others, like an aerobics-class workout to Madonna’s “Material Girl,” would’ve fit right in.
Plot-wise, this is still a film with just enough in common with “Romeo and Juliet” — two teens from rival “families” who, like, totally love each other — to justify its lead couple making out beneath a marquee touting Shakespeare’s tragedy: After noticing one another at the beach, Jessica (played by “Happy Death Day” actor Jessica Rothe) and Randy (Josh Whitehouse) meet at a house party in the Valley, where she sneaks off with him to a night at an L.A.-side live-music club (Goldenberg recycles actual shots from the earlier film for the Hollywood cruising montage).
Goldenberg and screenwriter Amy Talkington have upgraded Jessica’s and Randy’s ambitions. She makes doll-sized dresses in her spare time and dreams of going to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, rather than Northridge, as her parents (Judy Greer and Rob Huebel) expect. He belongs to a band the film describes as punk, but when given the opportunity, he sings an acoustic-sounding version of another Madonna number, the not-yet-released “Crazy for You.”
Generally speaking, the ’80s was a time when poetry went out the window and virtually meaningless — but insidiously catchy — lyrics took hold. That’s bad news for Goldenberg, whose jukebox musical relies on shallow songs to replace (rather than merely augment) her characters’ emotional states. Of course, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” And why shouldn’t Jessica also wanna have “More Than This”?
Audiences don’t necessarily have to settle for less. Certainly, “La La Land” choreographer Mandy Moore’s squeaky-clean dance numbers — a flash mob on Santa Monica Pier, a couples’ contest at the local skating rink — bring a certain visual freshness to the delivery of songs we know by heart. And a framing device involving “Clueless” star Alicia Silverstone as Jessica, all grown up, signifies the director’s commitment to reaching the millennial crowd, while cameos by Deborah Foreman and her fellow Valley girls turn up as winks to older viewers (although why doesn’t Foreman play Silverstone’s part as adult Jessica?). Still, this “Valley Girl” remains a slickly produced but rather soulless movie whose only off-formula surprises come in finding slightly different solutions to aspects of the earlier film.
Coolidge has been quite clear in interviews that she was reluctantly obliged to include topless scenes to satisfy the producers; Goldenberg didn’t have that pressure, so she doesn’t. Coolidge also wanted to cast an African American actor among Jessica’s core quartet of Valley girls; Goldenberg does just that. Here, Jessica’s friends — Karen (Chloe Bennet), Courtney (Peyton List) and Stacey (Jessie Ennis) — aren’t nearly as judgmental as her parents, who were easygoing, pot-smoking ex-hippies in the original. And things are complicated slightly by the fact that Jessica and her boyfriend (Logan Paul, a controversial YouTube personality whose poor judgment played a big part in the film’s two-year delay) haven’t broken up.
But the casting question that really matters is who could play Jessica and Randy, two halves of an iconic on-screen couple. While doe-eyed Rothe manages the title role enthusiastically enough, Whitehouse reads as just the kind of superficial pretty boy Coolidge was determined not to cast, and of which Cage represented the antithesis. Whitehouse has a couple of tattoos and the baby scruff of a CW heartthrob, which do not a “bad boy” make. He’s so clearly a 21st-century creation, one of those Disney Channel-esque emo boys who seems entirely disinterested in sex — whereas the earlier Randy famously crowed, “No one tells me who I can score with!” and hid out in a shower like some kind of stalker. If Cage embodied a tiger unleashed, this kid is a caged pussycat by comparison. Zero danger.
Will there be young people who love this movie as much as their parents loved Coolidge’s “Valley Girl”? Sure, that’s bound to happen, but no one will be talking about this movie in 37 years. And with no new music — just second-rate covers of classic songs — it may well be forgotten in fewer than 37 days, lost to the void of VOD.