American Pie, the movie that portrayed youthful lust and longing with such aching accuracy, is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. Sam Lambeth, a distinguished scholar of the film’s teachings, takes a fresh piece.
My introduction to American Pie was as awkward, inappropriate and strangely life-affirming as the movie franchise itself. My brother, a full five years older than me, had a license to brazenly buy copies of Nuts magazine and enjoy uninterrupted glances at the female form. One such example was his copy of American Pie, a movie that had penetrated my consciousness but left me confused and uninterested.
When I was eleven, my brother was enjoying a run-through of the celluloid romp when I walked in. After much badinage about Mom’s predicted fury, I was given permission to stay and watch. What would follow proved to be the simultaneous blossoming and deflation of my post-pubescent life. While I was asked to close my eyes during particularly raunchy scenes, and there were some aspects of the movie (and people’s anatomy) that I still didn’t understand, American Pie left, like the pie the lead character furiously fucks into, an indelible mark on this young, innocent virgin.
Twenty years on, American Pie is not considered a trailblazing movie, and its anachronistic dependence on defective dial-ups, boyish bawdiness and generous lashings of perky pop punk mean it has not aged well. Furthermore, writing out the phrase ‘the film that would go on to inspire The Inbetweeners’ doesn’t sound as impressive as one genuinely means it to. However, American Pie is a relic, a revelatory and fiercely genuine observation of raging hormones, relentless one-upmanship and realistic adolescent regret. It is a film that demonstrates a teenage boy’s flowering – and subsequent deflowering – in brutally accurate fashion, an outpouring of grubby voyeurism and character assassination that will never be, rightly or wrongly, repeated.
The genius of American Pie lies in the disparate characters it brings together. The star of the show is and always was Stifler, the best friend of jock-turned-sensitive hunk Oz. Despite being something of an outsider during the first movie (that was correctly remedied for the hilarious follow-up), the ‘Stifmeister’ stole every scene he was in, his rampant libido and blowhard intolerance making him the kind of character every person both loved, loathed and secretly wished to be. Within the confines of the keg and the schoolyard, Stifler was a self-anointed god.
Naturally, I did not relate to Stifler’s unbridled sexual success and intoxicating arrogance. I was more awed by Paul Finch, a sophisticated sap with a penchant for Latin and a vehemence for public school toilets. Finch didn’t truly belong in any friendship group due to his haughty hobbies and endless pursuit of high culture, something I related to and others within my school picked up on – there were many times where I’d be compared to Finch or simply called his most familiar moniker, Shitbreak. But what bound him to the other boys was his own feeble fascination with the opposite sex – for Finch, women were like speedboats. Beautiful, exotic, unattainable. He was, when his layers of pomposity were peeled away, a dirty dog with as much tangled testosterone as any locker room lackey.
In reality, I have found more likeness in Kev. Like Stifler, Kev lives for the school life but has a high dependency on his friends. He’s always an integral part of each party and never afraid to chip in with a plan (in fact, he is the protagonist for both this film’s prom pact and the sequel’s lake house), but is equally in need of help and guidance from the gang of nerds. The nerdiest of all of them, of course, is Jim. Like Will in The Inbetweeners, Jim is a fascinating bundle of complexities, built around searing self-loathing, cripplingly low confidence, a humdrum suburban setting and frequently thwarted ambitions. He’s an underdog darling that makes him perfect fodder for a variety of awfully embarrassing mishaps, most notably the bewildering moment he manages to ejaculate twice in rapid succession. Or when he’s caught by his gawky father masturbating into a pastry after his friends told him third base was like “warm apple pie.”
Another key part of American Pie’s success is its heart. Yes, on the surface it propelled the amorous acronym MILF into public diction and made ‘this one time at band camp’ a deliciously smutty icebreaker. But beneath these landmarks are moments with real soul that capture the highs and lows of growing up. Jim and his dad share a relationship that is somehow both cloying and cute. Vicky, Kev’s long-term girlfriend, battles with her relationship with sex in a refreshingly grounded way, and the final moment she surrenders herself to painfully losing her virginity is a stark, honest reminder that sex – particularly when it’s done for the first time – isn’t all scented candles and the first flush of womanhood.
Throughout the first three movies and the excellent American Reunion, I have found my own life lessons dovetailing with the characters’. There are moments that have touched me more than any film of more wisdom and credit have, including Stifler’s sad transition into a tragic hero, Kev’s resistance to change post-college and Finch’s careful cover-ups masquerading his dull reality. It’s been said life is like a box of chocolates, but twenty years on, American Pie reminds us it’s actually like, well, American pie – crusty, cold and ripe for fucking.
Words by Sam Lambeth