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In June of 1998 I turned 14, which was probably the least momentous birthday you could have as a teenager in South Carolina. 13 was your introduction to teenagerdom, 15 was when you could get your driver's license, 16 was Sweet Sixteen, 17 was at least at the center of a lot of pop culture references, and 18, of course, was the big one. 14 was the awkward, middle-sister of the birthdays, and came right at the time when you started feeling a little awkward about making a big deal around yourself at all. So how do you celebrate this non-milestone as a 14-year-old dying to be cool?
Duh: you go to the movies.
And the movie I chose was Can't Hardly Wait, a movie that essentially existed as a place for a group of 14-year-old girls to go, dropped off by parents, and spend a few hours giggling under someone else's roof. Nothing about this birthday stands out for me in particular-- I remember the girls who were there with me because a picture was taken, and in my journal there's a reference a few days later to my friend and I "getting Kenny and Preston" while two other girls got "the two dorks on the roof" (note: this did not happen). But Can't Hardly Wait was just part of a steady progression of late 90s movies I saw as something to do, right there that summer with Deep Impact and the Godzilla remake and Doctor Dolittle: not films, but time-fillers.
But then something happened that I think happens to everybody, when the many layers of pretension and confusion around being a teenager start to evaporate and memories and pop culture tokens start sorting themselves out, so that songs or movies or TV shows that seemed totally disposable at the time-- "Oops! I Did It Again," The Real World: Seattle, The Wedding Singer-- start to invest themselves with a power of nostalgia you never assigned them. By being funny and non-threatening and PG-13, Can't Hardly Wait was the automatic choice for my 14th birthday (our other options included The X-Files and The Horse Whisperer), and then became a stalwart on DVD too, popped in when my sister came to visit, when I was home sick, when I wanted to remember how easy Ethan Embry made it seem to go after the girl he wanted. A movie already all about nostalgia ("Hey Amanda, remember that time you danced with me at the sock hop?") made a pretty handy outlet for looking back, even if I first saw it at an age marked by insecurity, dramatic fights with my friends, and a crushing conviction that I would ever, ever get a boyfriend.
Can't Hardly Wait was the 74th-biggest movie of 1998, behind the Gwyneth Paltrow Great Expectations and just ahead of the Uma Thurman Avengers movie. But it has very clearly developed the same totemic, signpost-on-the-road-to-now power for plenty of other children born in the mid-80s. Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of its release and the tributes were everywhere, from 15 things you didn't know to 5 scenes we love to Ethan Embry's admission that he was so stoned during the shooting he barely remembers what it was about (don't break our hearts like that, Preston!) I don't know if these other people knew they loved Can't Hardly Wait when they saw it, but I suspect they went through the same thing I did, getting further away from it-- and their own high-strung teenage years--and realizing how much more it meant to them. Sometimes a film becomes a favorite the moment you see it. Sometimes the complicated, unpredictable powers of memory and nostalgia have to do it for you.