The Daily Stream: Is There A Better High School Rom-Com Than Clueless? As If!

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Clueless"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) has everything she could possibly want: status, money, equally beautiful friends who follow her every move, and a dad who adores her. But this popular girl with a heart of gold wants to do something good with her power, and if that means setting up teachers to get everyone better grades, or taking the socially inept new kid (Brittany Murphy) under her wing, then so be it. But her do-gooder ex-step brother Josh (Paul Rudd) keeps getting on her case that she's meddling in other people's lives just for her own self-interest. What's his deal, anyways?

Why It's Essential Viewing

So, OK, you're probably thinking, "Is this like a hot take or what?" I can already feel the people on their haunches about the sweeping statement in the headline. But I have an argument for why "Clueless" is the truest rom-com of the many teen classics. "Mean Girls"? More sharp, satirical comedy than rom. John Hughes movies? Coming-of-age dramedies. "10 Things I Hate About You" or "She's the Man"? In true Shakespearean fashion, more comedies of error than true rom-coms. "Bring It On"? We all know that's about cultural appropriation and lesbians.

Meanwhile, "Clueless" wears its heart on its designer sleeve and owes its greatness to the progenitor of the rom-com herself, Miss Jane Austen. Many are surprised to learn that "Clueless" is a contemporary adaptation of "Emma," (except for those who have the misfortune of watching "Clueless" with me and have to listen to me rattle off the trivia that Cher wears empire-waist dresses as an homage to Austen) one of the last novels that Austen wrote and one of her sharpest social satires, by virtue of the book's unusually spoiled and bratty protagonist. But in creating such an unlikable character, one that Austen herself admitted "no one but myself will much like," she created a romance that translates perfectly to the modern romantic-comedy — even more so than her timeless classics like "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility."

But before we get to the swooning romance of it all (and boy, can Silverstone and Rudd both swoon), I want to touch on the social satire that "Clueless" deftly picks up on from its source material. We're so far removed from the '90s now that people forget that "Clueless" was as much a satire as "Emma" was. The blocky phones that teens talk to each other through while walking side by side; the countless nose job bandages; the designer outfits that Cher and Dionne (who are both named after famous singers of the past who now do infomercials, mind you) wear, which are put together by a computer — that's looking camp right in the eye, baby! But of course, the fate of every wildly popular teen movie is to become a part of the very thing that it's poking fun at, and the legacy of "Clueless" has become that of a shallow, glossy quote machine rather than an effective social satire of the MTV generation.

But while the social satire lends "Clueless" depth, it's Alicia Silverstone's gloriously guileless performance that gives "Clueless" heart. That, and her really shiny hair. Silverstone perfectly toes that line between lovable ditz and destructive diva, with a heroine that might be a bit more naïve and likable than Austen's creation. But that doesn't make her transformation any less satisfying, as Cher learns that she was the one that was — wait for it — clueless all along, and sets out to "make over her soul." Writer-director Amy Heckerling's surprisingly earnest approach to the story may be what makes "Clueless" the superior "Emma" adaptation (that's right, I said it) and the best high school rom-com. It helps that Rudd was, and remains to be, a major Baldwin.