American Beauty Reincarnate: A Teen Masterpiece

American Beauty (1999) | photo: DreamWorks Pictures

Ask most people what they remember about American Beauty (1999) and they’ll point to the scene that has arguably redefined the most notorious symbol of twentieth-century consumerism: the plastic bag. You likely don’t need to have seen the movie to know this reference, a cinematic moment which seems to have failed at its attempted profundity before it even had the chance to be profound. Many of us cannot see a discarded plastic bag on the side of the highway without being reminded of the oh-so-intense Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) philosophizing about the unrecognized benevolent forces that control the universe.

Who am I kidding? Most of us will not even notice a plastic bag, let alone think something about it, which I believe is the whole point of that scene. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

To say American Beauty has not aged well is an understatement. Few other films have experienced a fall from grace of this magnitude. A five-time Oscar winner (including awards for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay), this once widely beloved film is now widely reviled for glorifying the woes of a middle-class white man whose lust for an underage girl inspires him to reinvent himself. That Kevin Spacey—who has since faced multiple allegations of sexual assault and misconduct—portrayed this character is merely icing on the cake. If you manage to make it past these two transgressions, you may still dislike American Beauty for a slew of reasons, such as its Breakfast Club-esque flattening of people into archetypes (The Failure, The Overbearing Career Woman, The Homophobic Closeted Gay Man), or the way it bangs you over the head with its use of the color red, as though it were made to be the subject of many a college essay.

But I’m less interested in why this film doesn’t work for a 2024 audience than I am in why it seemed to work so well in 1999, the golden age of low-rise jeans and Napster and choosing the red pill, when men like American Beauty‘s Lester Burnham could symbolize a decade’s dissatisfaction with conformity and 19-year-old women like myself could look upon him as an admirable antihero.

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American Beauty opens with an aerial view of the picture-perfect suburban neighborhood where Lester Burnham lives out his seemingly pathetic existence. He introduces himself to the audience through a monologue that narrates a day-in-the-life of his family, using a tone thick and dark with sarcasm. “Look at me: jerking off in the shower,” he says. “This will be the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here.” He exudes a kind of childlike oafishness, especially in contrast to the exhausting civility his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) oozes while trimming her roses (yes, red) and chatting with their neighbors. Lester also reveals to the audience that he will be dead in less than a year, which implies a sense of omniscience in contrast to his cluelessness. “Of course, I don’t know that yet,” he adds. “And in a way, I’m dead already.” 

To Lester, “dead already” means being trapped in the suburbs, living in the shadow of his overbearing wife, and stuck in a soulless magazine job, circumstances he blames for both his despondency and his inadequacy as a father to his teenage daughter, Jane (the great Thora Birch). Jane cannot relate to her parents for the same reasons as most teenagers, but Lester stretches the abyss between them when he develops a not-so-subtle obsession with her best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), an amateur teen model. This infatuation reignites his lust for life (or perhaps just his sex drive) and triggers an archetypal midlife crisis, during which he leaves his day job, buys a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, and begins lifting weights in his garage while getting high with the pot he buys from Ricky Fitts, the teenage boy who lives next door.  

Despite being inspired by his fantasy to fuck a 16-year-old girl, Lester’s metamorphosis is framed as empowering. While getting laid off from his corporate magazine job, he blackmails the company’s “efficiency expert” (aptly called Brad—a name that, in the 1990s, signaled the WASPy elite) into giving him a year’s severance with his intel that a higher-up used the company card to pay a sex worker. “What do you say I throw in a little sexual harassment charge to boot?” he adds, threatening to accuse Brad of offering to save his job in exchange for sexual favors. “You are one twisted fuck,” Brad says. “Nope,” Lester responds. “I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.”

Lester treats Carolyn with the same disdain, blaming her tyrannical need to keep up appearances for his emasculation. Carolyn is a frigid real estate agent whose career ambitions have seemingly extinguished all the passion and spontaneity in her life. She begins an affair with a handsome industry rival, Buddy “The King” Kane (Peter Gallagher, whose eyebrows are working harder than ever), an act that is attributed more to her professional aspirations than to her loveless marriage. Though Lester and Carolyn are equally dissatisfied with their lives (albeit for different reasons), the onus of their unhappiness is clearly placed on Carolyn’s infectious “joylessness.” In the scene I find myself thinking of now more than any other, Carolyn interrupts a rare moment of passion between her and Lester because he’s about to spill beer on her four-thousand-dollar Italian sofa. “It’s just a couch!” he yells, punctuating every word. “This isn’t life. This is just stuff. And it’s become more important to you than living.”

American Beauty makes some grandiose statements, but this seems to be its fundamental cautionary tale: don’t let the shiny trappings of the bourgeoisie distract you from, well, fill in the blank as you see fit (beauty, truth, happiness, etc.). For the purposes of this essay, I’m going with the 90s holiest value—authenticity, the natural antidote to selling out, which we all understood to be the greatest sin. “We all,” in this case, refers loosely to the Gen Xers and elder millennials toward whom all pop culture was pointed in the nineties. We weren’t necessarily the audience for American Beauty; we were just the audience in general.

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I was nineteen in 1999, long since indoctrinated with the anti-corporate values that had trickled down from Kurt Cobain to every loner-outcast kid in America. That year I was working at a discount clothing store in a strip mall, having opted out of the high school-to-college pipeline as part of my own anti-establishment fantasy. This was a wholly unglamorous and shapeless period of my life, between the familiar constraints of adolescence and the self-designed captivity we inevitably create for ourselves later on. I had a nice loner-outcast boyfriend who also worked a shit job, and we spent our nights hanging out in friends’ basements, proselytizing to each other about Bill Hicks.

It was this version of me who first saw American Beauty, and I have to admit: I was moved—by the meditations on death, by the music, by the plastic bag. I was perhaps most moved by the story of this 42-year-old man saying fuckall to the forces that had pushed him into docility. It didn’t matter to me that the character was a sexual predator and a neglectful dad; it only mattered that he was being real, saying and doing what he wanted, breaking free from the shackles of middle-class suburbia. I saw his death as a kind of sacrifice on the altar of authenticity. I thought it was capital-P Poetic. 

Rewatching American Beauty at 43 (having now outlived Lester Burnham by at least a year), it’s hard for me to not see the tragicomedy of his final year as a kind of last breath for the nineties (though, to be sure, it had many last breaths). By 1999, the anti-corporate sentiments of the early half of the decade had given way to the manufactured candy-pop of boy bands, the ironic artifice of reality TV, and the celebratory greed of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Authenticity had its moment to shine, and then it got commodified like everything else (just Google “corporate magazines still suck”). Lester Burnham crawling out of midlife to stick it to the man now seems like the true end of an era, of both our collective investment in authenticity and our ability to care about any white man’s midlife crisis.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m still admittedly a glutton for authenticity. I can even, if I squint my eyes, still look past Lester’s dirtbag motivations and see something laudable in the act of Marie Kondo-ing the things in your life that aren’t serving you. But something fundamental has shifted in my perspective. At 19, I saw Lester’s story as an allegory about the merits of nonconformity; I now see him as a man who is sad because life is not as fun or cool as he expected it to be when he was 17. 

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I do not believe this movie is entirely broken. What if we instead viewed American Beauty as a film about (and for) teenagers? Though it’s not a “teen” movie by any stretch of the genre, it cannot function without the adolescent characters there to reflect their parents’ fatal flaws. Much like The Ice Storm (1997), American Beauty juxtaposes the adults—in various states of midlife and sexual identity crises—with their kids, who navigate a dystopia where their parents have left them to fend for themselves. Ricky is the son of a retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel (Chris Cooper) who regularly beats the shit out of his son for anything, really, but mostly out of his frustration at not being able to live his truth as a gay man; Angela may not have parents at all, but Lester manages to let her down in their absence, unabashedly making her the object of his fantasies, coercing her into sex, and then “redeeming” himself by pulling back when she confesses to being a virgin (too little, too late, Lester); and Jane, whose parents ignore her at best and, at worst, treat her like both a byproduct and a constant reminder of their respective failures. 

In a way, the film ignores Jane, too, and perhaps that’s why she is now the character in which I find myself most invested. It’s easy to forget that Jane is the first character we meet. In the film’s prologue, we see a grainy image of her lying on a bed, viewed through Ricky’s camcorder feed. 

“I need a father who’s a role model,” she says. “Not some horny geek-boy who’s gonna spray his shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home from school…Someone really should just put him out of his misery.”

“Want me to kill him for you?” 

She sits up and looks deeply into the camera.

“Yeah,” she says. “Would you?”

Videotaped clips of Jane proliferate throughout the film, as Ricky becomes increasingly more interested in her. More importantly, he sees her, which is a thing no one else in her life can manage to do. In one of the movie’s most tender moments, Jane and Angela discover that Ricky has set fire to Jane’s front lawn in the shape of her name. When they notice Ricky filming their reaction from his window, Angela dances seductively in her underwear, flaunting her exhibitionism, while Jane retreats to the background. Ricky zooms his camera in past Angela to focus on the image of Jane’s face in her mirror, smiling shyly to herself. 

Jane resists fulfilling the common teen tropes of the era; she is unconventional without being “weird,” a cheerleader who also wears frumpy men’s pants to school. (Thora Birch is perfectly cast in the role, striking but not so unattainably beautiful as to seem unreal.) She lives in the shadow of Angela’s and her mother’s generic displays of femininity, both envious of and disgusted by them. She and Angela seem close, but only superficially; Angela’s relentless self-aggrandizing and conventionality prevent anything sincere to pass between them. This dynamic feels more real to me than it did when I was 19. I had barely shrugged off my own tenure as an adolescent girl; perhaps it was too close to my own reality for me to recognize it.

It’s Ricky and his video camera that finally coerce Jane out of her shell. She tries to resist him, but like Lester, she’s drawn in by his genuineness. Ricky functions as a kind of magical weirdo, wise beyond his years and put on earth to shake Lester and Jane awake from their suburban coma. He talks to Jane about death and beauty, and exudes a lack of shame and pretense that seems almost otherworldly. He self-describes as “curious,” but he’s more like transcendent. 

Ricky now reads as exaggeratedly histrionic to me, especially some of his more cringeworthy musings on death (many of which screenwriter Alan Ball got to flesh out more eloquently shortly thereafter in Six Feet Under). At one point, he justifies filming a homeless woman who had frozen to death because it was “like God is looking right at you.” 

“And what do you see?” Jane asks.

“Beauty.” 

This movie’s instruction on where and how to find beauty is so didactic that I’ve mostly stopped listening, and yet, I have to admit that its grand homage, the aforementioned plastic bag scene, still moves me. Set against Thomas Newman’s hauntingly sweet piano score, Ricky shows Jane a 15-minute video he took of a plastic bag blowing around in the wind before a snowstorm. “That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things,” he says, “and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid.” As he talks, Jane focuses intently on the video, her eyes following the bag’s fluttery, unpredictable movement. Ricky keeps going, descending deeper into his overwritten reactions to the bag’s supposed beauty, but that’s not the point. It’s not the plastic bag that’s beautiful, but the ability of an abused and damaged young person to choose to see beauty in a world that has routinely let him down, and then to share that beauty, however eye-rolly it may seem, with someone else. It is hokey, sure, but it’s totally appropriate to be hokey when you’re in high school.

If we’re able to look past the relative cheesiness of this moment, past the parodies and the Cinema 101 metaphors, and view the plastic bag from Jane’s perspective, it works. This scene still resonates with me precisely because of who I was when I first saw it: a misunderstood and slightly morbid girl uncomfortable in her own skin, not unlike Jane. The plastic bag moment was meant for the Janes and Rickys of the world. It’s melodramatic and obvious and overstated, and so is all of adolescence. That’s how most teenagers like their symbolism. (The same goes for screenwriter Alan Ball who, in his Academy Award acceptance speech, after all the customary gratitude, thanked ”that plastic bag in front of the World Trade Center so many years ago for being whatever it is that inspires us to do what we do.”) Perhaps if we view American Beauty with a remnant of empathy for our teenage selves—those cringey, underbaked versions of us caked in emotion—its merits will surface in a different light.

In the spirit of authenticity, I am okay with a little black-and-white symbolism now and again. On a recent long walk, I took a video of a piece of Christmas-tree tinsel snagged on a crack in the sidewalk, blowing around in the February wind. It reminded me of the bittersweet melancholy I feel looking at the detritus left behind from parties and dances and carnivals. The tinsel did not make my heart (in Ricky’s words) want to cave in, but it symbolized my ability to recognize and appreciate the slivers of the world that may otherwise go unnoticed. And that’s kind of, dare I say it, beautiful.