"The Boy Next Door" Teases but Leaves You Frustrated
The Boy Next Door (2015) Starring Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, and Kristin Chenoweth. Written by Barbara Curry. Directed by Rob Cohen.
The Boy Next Door is essentially a rip-off of 1987's Fatal Attraction, but largely replacing Fatal Attraction's much discussed sexism with ageism. The plot concerns a middle-aged teacher who has a one-night stand with a student at her high school, a friend of her son's, and then tries to put the affair behind her while he refuses to go away, obsessing with her, stalking her, and then finally giving her the chance to kill him in self-defense.
Overturning Ageist Clichés
Perhaps what makes The Boy Next Door most aggravating for a youth rights supporter is that the film is not all bad. While the plot rehashes some ageist clichés, there are also moments here and there that challenge ageist clichés. Indeed there are moments that could make Noah (the young stalker played by Ryan Guzman) the best young hero Hollywood has offered in years (a sad statement about what the rest of cinema is offering).
Most fictional youths, especially those who are male and good-looking, are portrayed as idiots, a male version of the bimbo. Noah, however, is sophisticated, discussing classic literature with intelligence and understanding, not pretentious or showing off, but simply revealing a genuine love for analyzing literature.
Later in the film, Noah is lectured in the vice principal's office because he beat up a bully. Rather than meekly apologize to his vice principal, Noah rightly tells her off for failing to end the bullying herself and to provide the safe learning environment she is paid to provide. Then she tries to slap him. Many, many films have subjected us to scenes in which an adult slaps a teenager and the teenager meekly accepts it. Not here. When the vice principal tries to slap Noah, he grabs her hand and prevents her. He won't be her passive victim. He understands that his safety and his dignity are worth fighting for.
Scenes like these are long overdue and are worth cheering. These scenes demonstrate that the filmmakers recognize young people as human beings deserving respect and dignity and compassion. And this makes it all the more frustrating that nearly every other scene in the film insults the young.
Motives for Sex
Much of the film's first act is spent explaining all the reasons that this teacher, Claire, would succumb to sleeping with her son's friend. We see Claire's marriage fall apart. We see her go on a blind date with someone her age who turns out to be a terrible match for her. We see her meet young Noah and finally enjoy thoughtful discussion of literature. We see her ogle his muscular body while he fixes mechanical problems for her.
On the DVD's Director's Commentary, Rob Cohen explains why he put so much work into this: "The whole film turns on you believing that this 44-year-old woman would take this 20-year-old kid into her bed."
Strangely then, the film never explains why Noah would want to sleep with Claire. There is no suggestion that this charming hunk is lonely. There is no hint of emotional needs he might have that she satisfies.
Admittedly, this particular 44-year-old is played by Jennifer Lopez, a very attractive woman. But looks alone cannot win this kid's heart — we know that because later in the film Noah beds a student who, we are clearly told, is the most beautiful girl in the entire high school, yet Noah shows no interest in her except as a means to make Claire jealous.
So if physical beauty alone isn't enough to interest Noah, why does he sleep with Claire and then obsess over her? No answer is offered. The filmmakers simply didn't bother to ask this question, or else they assumed audiences wouldn't. Logically, the filmmakers must have known that their film also turns on audiences believing that this 20-year-old kid would take this 44-year-old woman into his bed, but the filmmakers apparently viewed that as a given, like 40-somethings are so superior to high schoolers that, of course, any high school student would jump to have sex with his friend's mom, no questions asked.
The next morning, Claire is sober and suddenly eager to end things with young Noah. Showing us how noble she is, she even tells him, "I don't want you to think this is your fault. I'm the adult. I'm the one that should have — " But of course it's too late. The young man who had no reason to care about her, who knows he can have his pick of hotties his own age, is now smitten with the middle-aged woman. So smitten that he will do anything to force her back to him. So smitten that he will commit violence, even murder. The only thing he won't do is hit her back when she slaps him. (Yep. That ageist cliché, defied at one point, is reinforced at another.)
Noah isn't the only young character who does things without a plausible motive. The other major character who is young, Claire's son Kevin, likewise breaks plausibility. Noah manipulates Kevin as part of his evil scheme, and he has an amazingly easy time doing so. First, Noah turns Kevin against Kevin's father to remove Noah's romantic rival for Claire's heart. Kevin has nothing but love for his father, always wanting to bring his divorced parents together so he can live with good ol' dad as well as good ol' mom. But then Noah has one brief conversation with Kevin, telling Kevin he thinks Kevin's dad is no good, and in the very next scene, Kevin is ruining his parents' dinner by lashing out at his father. The "impressionable teenager" stereotype has never been more blatant.
Later, Noah turns Kevin against his mom just as easily.
And once again, Hollywood gives parents the flattering and sometimes dangerous lie "If your children are angry at you, don't listen to them. You've done nothing that needs to change. Your kids are just being poisoned against you and don't know any better." Negligent and abusive parents cling to this lie and miss the chance to be better parents.
Again and again, this movie attacks youth. The fact that these filmmakers seemed, at moments, to know better just makes it all the more frustrating when they spend nearly the entire movie pandering to the most ageist adults in the audience. Great potential is thrown away.