Freaky Friday, 13 Going on 30 and 17 Again: What’s With These Teenagers?
It is established at the beginning of Freaky Friday (2003) that Anna (Lindsay Lohan) feels deeply misunderstood by her mother, Tess (Jamie Lee Curtis). Her father passed away three years before the beginning of the film and Tess is now engaged to another man. Fifteen-year-old Anna, though she would never admit it out loud, feels lost and confused by all the changes in her life. She is constantly at odds with Tess, who never fails to gives Anna an earful about the teenager’s clothes, her grades, the boy she likes, and the band in which Anna is a guitarist. Most importantly, Tess doesn’t understand the difficulties Anna is having at school with a friend-turned-bully and a teacher who is targeting her.
“You couldn’t last one day in my high school!” Anna says to her mother, convinced that Tess, who is a therapist, has a cushy, conflict-free life.
The body swap — courtesy a spooky local Chinese restaurant — means Tess has to be Anna and navigate high school as an adult in a teenage body while Anna gets to be the grown-up. As it turns out, it is easier for the teenager to pass as an adult than the other way round.
Freaky Friday and 13 Going on 30: When teenagers are better at being adults
When one of her mother’s clients expresses concern about her teenage daughter not speaking with her best friend anymore and writing about a boy in her diary, Anna draws from her own experiences to provide valuable insight (“Nothing is going on between her and this guy. If there was, she wouldn't be writing about it. She'd be out there doing it!”). In Tess’s body but speaking as Anna, she reprimands the client for reading her daughter’s diaries (“That’s bad. ‘Bad Mom’ award”). What Tess and the mother see as petty drama and teenage rebellion is unpacked empathetically, thanks to Anna’s intimate understanding of how challenging high school can be.
The teenager is also the hero in 13 Going on 30 (2004). Jenna (Christa B. Allen) is teetering at the onset of her teenage experience and wants to be like the gorgeous women she sees in magazines: “Thirty, flirty and thriving.” Her wish comes true at her 13th birthday party, thanks to some magical fairy dust action. She wakes up in the body of her own 30-year-old self, transformed into Jennifer Garner. The adult Jenna seems to have a perfect life: She lives in a swanky apartment in New York City, is the editor of her favourite fashion magazine, and has a hot boyfriend. However, the shine is superficial. Adult Jenna is mean, insecure and unhappy.
Teenage Jenna in adult Jenna’s body starts fixing adult Jenna’s world, rectifying one mistake at a time. She reconciles with her parents and childhood best friend (Mark Ruffalo), and sincerely apologises to everyone she has hurt at work. Her enthusiasm and joie de vivre endear Jenna to people she had previously alienated, like the teenage girls in her apartment building. She brings a fresh perspective to her work projects (“Let's put life back into the magazine. And fun and laughter and silliness.”) and finds success, which effectively puts to rest the idea that cynicism and manipulative tactics are the only way to get ahead.
Freaky Friday: “High school is not that hard”
Grown-ups in teenage bodies get much more of a reality check. Prior to their body swap, a furious Anna asks her mother, “You think you can be me?” Tess replies, “Of course I can. Watch me,” and proceeds to do a caricature of the stereotypical teenager: “Oh, everyone's out to get me. You're ruining my life,” she whines, and then declares, “It's easy to be you.”
Once in her daughter’s body, however, Tess quickly realises being young is no cakewalk. Her attempt to be friendly with the high school mean girl backfires spectacularly and it turns out that Anna wasn’t being paranoid — there’s a teacher who really is out to get her. Tess’s response has no trace of adult maturity. She lashes out with antics like scrawling “I’M STUPID!” over the mean girl’s answer sheet. Tess’s experience in Anna’s body makes her realise what Anna has been going through, and how she as a mother has effectively failed her daughter. When she is forced to replace Anna during their band’s big performance, Tess has newfound appreciation for her daughter. “It was terrifying. I had no idea what it takes,” she admits later.
Something similar happens in 17 Again (2009) when a middle-aged Mike (Matthew Perry) finds himself in his teenage self’s body. When we first meet him, Mike’s life is in shambles — he’s quit his job after being snubbed over a long-overdue promotion, his wife (Leslie Mann) has filed for divorce and his two teenage children are little more than strangers to him. On a rainy night, Mike falls through a portal in the water (as one does) only to realise that everything about the world around him is the same, except he now looks like he did at age 17 (enter: Zac Efron). Believing he has been given a chance at a do-over, Mike decides to enrol in high school so he can get his life back on track.
17 Again: “I grew up and I lost my way”
Being a teenager shows Mike more of the world than he knew as a grown-up. He’s able to befriend his son and discover that he is being relentlessly bullied by another student (who happens to be dating Mike’s daughter). The relationship with his daughter is a little more unsettling because she seems to like teenage Mike a little too much, but he is still (eventually) able to be a better father as he earnestly encourages her to not settle for the mediocre. Mike is able to stand up for his children as a teenager in ways that he couldn’t (or didn't) as a grown-up.
The new body and its older memories (from when Mike was actually 17) also serve to bring Mike closer to his wife. By the end of the film, Mike has transformed back to his adult self, but he is happier, hopeful and more capable of dealing with the world around him because of his teenage self. He’s grown up by having grown younger.
The fantastical device of the body swap facilitates epiphanies within the world of stories like Freaky Friday, 13 Going on 30 and 17 Again. Underneath all the clichés of hormone-fuelled angst, growing pains and that defiant sense of ‘it’s me against the world’ lies remarkable wisdom and a resilience that seems to be whittled away by the time one becomes a grown-up. The teenagers who find themselves trapped in adult bodies use their distinctive perspectives and experiences to negotiate the jaded world of adults. They make (mostly) good decisions and are able to undo the damage done by the grown-ups. Look a little closer at these body-swap films and the world of the teenagers is revealed to be more complex than adults would like to think.