Some things never change.
The utter humiliation of high school, for instance, is evolution-proof, even if it looks a little different now than it used to.
While the heroes of 1985’s Weird Science merely had to endure getting pants’d in front of their entire gym class to be properly mortified, the leads of The Binge go viral for being forced to do something called the Siamese Tootsie Roll, the less said about which the better, while tripping face on magic mushrooms.
Yes, the methods of high school humiliation have escalated over the last few decades, reflecting many other changes in the world, but a lot about high school remains the same. That’s why director Jeremy Garelick is trying to recapture the spirit of the raunchy high-school comedies of yore with his production shingle American High—and movies like The Binge, which started streaming today on Hulu.
“No matter how big you go in terms of scope, even if a hundred thousand people are watching a character do something embarrassing, all that really matters is whether the person who it matters to the character the most sees it,” Garelick says of the modern high school landscape his characters inhabit.
In this new world, going viral for doing something gross is roughly the same as a gym class pantsing—adjusted for inflation—as long as it hits the character in a personal, relatable way. It’s one of the many updates on timeless themes Garelick is helping bring to the screen with his American High projection, which is bringing high-school comedies back in vogue at an aggressive pace.
The Binge, whose title is a smirking inversion of The Purge, is a high-concept teenage comedy set in an alternate reality where all drugs are legal for just one day a year. It follows this year’s other American High productions, Big Time Adolescence, a Pete Davidson-led Sundance hit which dropped on Hulu in March, and Banana Split, Hannah Marks’s women-centered high school comedy, which landed on Netflix over the summer. These films will precede many other offerings in the pipeline at American High, who struck up a distribution deal with Hulu last year.
Producing movies like these—and in the case of The Binge, directing them—has brought Garelick’s career full-circle. After growing up obsessed with Fast Times at Ridgemont High and John Hughes’s legendary early-’80s run, Garelick’s first-ever screenplay, penned in college, was based off of his own high-school experiences. A professor he shared the piece with didn’t think the time was right for a film like his, but advised Garelick to hold onto it, because every trend, including high-school movies, seems to come around again in 20-year cycles.
Sure enough, a year or two later, after he found a job at Creative Artists Agency, an early cut of 1999’s American Pie started making the rounds in Hollywood, and when Garelick saw it he knew: R-rated high school comedies were back.
A little over 15 years later, Garelick had moved beyond CAA and a position as Joel Schumacher’s assistant to become a successful comedy screenwriter and a director as well. He co-wrote the screenplay for Vince Vaughn’s hit The Breakup and worked on a draft of The Hangover, before eventually directing his own script, The Wedding Ringer, a modest hit starring Josh Gad and Kevin Hart.
For his next project, he wanted to get the jump on the next iteration of the 20-year cycle of high school comedies—2007’s Superbad having apparently been an anomaly—but studio heads refused to bite.
It wasn’t for a lack of quality scripts; Garelick had seen loads of those circulating. (According to him, just about every screenwriter has a high-school movie gathering dust in a drawer somewhere.) It was that superhero-obsessed Hollywood was, back in 2015, in the process of phasing out the $20 million comedy as a viable risk.
“It’s the same amount of energy for a decision-maker to oversee a $20 million movie as it is to oversee Avengers, and studios are only making so much money from $20 million movies,” the director says. “They’re all now run by either tech companies or corporations, and they use testing and formulas in a field where the science doesn’t always add up to the art.”
Rather than wait around for executives to have a change of heart in time for the next potential wave of high-school comedies, Garelick struck out on his own. In 2017, he purchased an abandoned high school in Syracuse, New York, to serve as an all-purpose set for an onslaught of new movies, and American High was born.
“We wanted to be Blumhouse for high-school comedy,” the director says.
A big part of purchasing the abandoned school was controlling the setting.
Every high-school movie in history has scenes in the same handful of settings: hallways for locker-side chats, classrooms for gazing at one’s crush, bathrooms for stealth smoking or puking, gymnasiums for taking a red rubber kickball to the dome, and auditoriums for the inevitable student body election or general assembly. Garelick realized that if he could control the location, he could reduce the costs of finding and building sets, let alone moving operations from one to another all the time. With an actual high school at its disposal, the American High team could shoot one teenage comedy after another at a wildly reduced cost.
Garelick is following in the footsteps of his old hero, John Hughes, who re-used the same location to shoot Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, back to back, with largely the same crew. High-school movies aren’t exactly popping in Hollywood as much as they were in Hughes’s heyday, though.
Aside from the financials, Garelick puts some of the blame on the potential to offend audiences in the era of so-called cancel culture.
“You can’t really make the jokes you made back then, because somebody will probably be offended by them,” the director says. “That doesn’t mean they’re not funny and that the audience wouldn’t respond. It’s just that the gatekeepers are highly sensitive to offending different types of people these days—or anybody, really.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Sixteen Candles, with its Long Duk Dong stereotypes and casual rapeyness, coming soon to a theater near you in 2020. But that doesn’t mean young, recreationally stoned viewers aren’t ready for the kind of raunch that’s part and parcel of movies like The Binge.
Santa Clarita Diet’s Skyler Gisondo stars in the new film as Griffin, a tight-laced graduating senior who agrees to partake in the titular binge to appease his best friend (Dexter Darden) and impress his crush (Grace Van Dien). Vince Vaughn is on hand as well, lending a little star power as the most unorthodox high-school principal since Ferris Bueller foe Edward Rooney. The day’s intoxicating adventure ends up in the only place they could: a blow-out party with a well-organized alcohol-and-drug gauntlet, featuring formidable events such as Liquid Plumber and the Alligator Donut.
Garelick decided to direct this project himself, his first outing since Wedding Ringer. It would be the first in a string of movies in American High’s recent deal with Hulu, after making the company’s first five films independently, and he wanted to throw down his own gauntlet. For that reason, the director worked closely with writer Jordan VanDina on the script—relishing the opportunity to ensure the climactic scenes were sufficiently over-the-top.
“I think Jordan initially wrote it as a million-dollar movie, something super contained, and I wanted to make it more of an event,” Garelick says. “Especially with the gauntlet of it all. I thought, if this is going to be the party everybody’s going to, and all drugs are legal, it couldn’t just be a regular high-school house party. So we spent a while trying to figure out what exactly they would be getting into and how to make it insane.”
That’s the American High ethos in a nutshell: Bringing back what high-school students in movies have always done, but bigger, from a fresh perspective, and a touch more insane.