Released in 2013, the movie 21 & Over belongs to an overlooked but extremely significant Hollywood tradition: the adolescent comedy. While there have been plenty of films that feature characters in their late teens or early 20s engaging in the kind of reckless behavior that would get most adults arrested, it’s fair to say that not all of these films have been as successful as 21 & Over. More importantly, while the classics of this genre have earned loyal followings, critics often forget about just how culturally and personally meaningful these films can be for their audiences. This has been the case ever since the film industry came into existence. Some genres—and comedies in particular—simply don’t garner as much respect as serious dramas do.
This doesn’t mean the movies that belong to those genres don’t deserve celebrating. On the contrary, 21 & Over, like so many other movies of its kind, isn’t just about getting a few laughs by depicting the antics of less-than-responsible protagonists. It is about celebrating youth, admitting that life has to change, and reminding viewers that the most awkward years of life can also be among the most interesting.
Here’s how 21 & Over achieves these goals:
The Right Time Frame
A number of movies—Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dazed and Confused, and Superbad, for example—explore the lives of young people looking to have fun. They also share another important detail: a relatively short time frame. Each one takes place over the course of a single day or night. The same holds true for 21 & Over.
There’s a reason for this compressed timeline. For adults, life rarely changes very dramatically over the course of a day. Older people tend to settle into routines, and if they’re going to have life-changing experiences or learn valuable lessons, they’re going to need a significant stretch of time in which to do so.
This isn’t always the case for adolescents and young adults. For this demographic, life IS change. It is what has defined the first 20 years of their lives. Consequently, it’s not hard to imagine young characters having truly memorable, life-altering experiences in a very short span of time.
A Sense of Growth
Another feature these movies often share is the sense that these characters are on the cusp of a momentous change. Whether they’re graduating high school, planning to move out of town, or diving into major life commitments, the young people in these films are often looking to hold onto a feeling or experience they know will be all too rare very soon. This is why, along with being comedic, films in this genre are often very poignant.
In 21 & Over, the filmmakers use this trope to both dramatic and comedic effect. One of the main protagonists, Jeff, is preparing for a medical school interview that happens to be scheduled for the day immediately following his 21st birthday. Jeff wants to do the responsible thing and prepare for his interview, while his friends just want to celebrate.
This setup is ideal for a movie in this genre. The fact that Jeff is preparing to enter medical school tells the audience that he’s about to begin a very important period of his life. Like the protagonists of similar classics, his life is about to change.
However, the movie also uses this situation to elevate the humor. Jeff’s future isn’t exactly guaranteed. He’s not going to attend medical school in the morning; he’s simply interviewing to get in. There’s the very distinct possibility that he will not achieve his goals. This possibility turns into a probability when what was supposed to be a “one drink” celebration turns into a raucous night of young adult adventure.
For obvious reasons, this makes an already funny situation even more comedic. These characters aren’t merely being irresponsible without facing any potential consequences. They need to make sure their friend is ready for an experience that will affect the direction his life will take. That added layer of tension makes the film not only more poignant, but also more funny.
Again, 21 & Over belongs to a genre that attracts a lot of viewers and fans but doesn’t get the same degree of general recognition as other film genres. This is why it’s important to look back at movies like these from time to time. While great classics like Citizen Kane or The Godfather may teach us a lot about human corruption, faultless storytelling, and impeccable filmmaking, they can also be difficult to relate to. Sometimes, audiences just want a movie that captures the feelings of being young. That’s exactly what 21 & Over delivers.