1999 was a unique point in American history. It is that tiny sliver of time that post-dates the advent of the internet, yet pre-dates 9/11, The Great Recession, the smart phone, and the rise of social media. The American high school experience would be radically different in 2009 than it was in 1999. And, if the Great American Novel were a movie, it would be Varsity Blues, which perfectly captures the Zeitgeist of the late ‘90s. This week marks the nineteen-year anniversary of the movie’s release.
The premise of Varsity Blues is simple. In West Canaan, Texas – a fictional town that embodies pre-Great Recession middle America – legendary high school football coach Bud Kilmer is embarking on his quest for a 23rd district title and 3rd state title. The supposed protagonist is Jonathan Moxon, the “smart” back-up to two-time all-state quarterback and Florida State commitment Lance Harbor. To the untrained eye, the movie is the tale of an idealistic football player (Moxon) who sees through West Caanan’s misplaced priorities and backwards thinking and rallies his teammates to revolt against Kilmer – whom the filmmakers would have you believe is an old-fashioned and abusive coach. Yet, the conflict between Moxon and Kilmer is about so much more than just those two characters.
In Kilmer and Moxon, we see the values of two completely different types of Americans. If we assume that Varsity Blues depicts the 1999 football season, that would mean Jonathan Moxon was born in 1981 or 1982, and therefore was one of the first members of the Millennial Generation. But putting the technical birthdate definition aside, there can be no doubt that Jonathan Moxon was the first on-screen character to embody all of the Millennial traits – weak, self-entitled, unwilling to listen, blaming others for his actions, disrespectful to authority, etc. Kilmer, on the other hand, was part of a now-disappearing generation that valued hard work, respect, and a bunch of other vague but noble-sounding terms. You sympathized with one character or the other; there was no middle ground.
My lasting criticism of the movie is that it incorrectly portrays Moxon as the “hero” and Kilmer as the “villain.” In so doing, Varsity Blues sent a message to an impressionable generation of moviegoers that they should strive to be disrespectful, conniving, disloyal, ungrateful, and subversive little turds. It therefore should come as no surprise that when this generation started to hit the workforce a decade later, we were flooded with think pieces on how to “deal” with this awful group of people. This essay explains why we have Varsity Blues to thank for that, because it created the Millennial Generation.
Our first real insight into who Moxon is comes a few minutes into the movie, during the pep rally scene. While Kilmer delivers a rousing speech to the crowd and introduces Lance Harbor, where is Moxon? Standing with his teammates to show his support? Of course not. He’s standing off the side with his girlfriend, sulking about the attention Harbor is getting, and making a disgusting and unfunny joke at Kilmer’s expense. So the movie establishes very quickly that Moxon is not a team player.
The next noteworthy scene involving Moxon comes during that night’s game against Bingville, where we see his dishonesty for the first time. With his team trying to put the game away in the 4th quarter, we once again see Moxon sitting away from his teammates and using a playbook to cover up the fact that he’s reading a novel during the game. I also would be remiss if I didn’t take a second to talk about the book Moxon is reading, “The Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut. Along with “The Catcher in the Rye,” this is the book that every pseudo-intellectual, high school Millennial for the next two decades will lie and claim as their favorite. “It works on so many levels” they’ll tell you, without ever identifying what those other levels might be.
Also, while it doesn’t technically involve Moxon, a scene from the party after the Bingville game ominously foreshadows the Millennial generation’s lack of respect for the past. During that party, we are introduced to a former West Canaan football player from the class of 1980. By any objective measure, this is a man who deserves our respect. Despite having graduated from the school almost two decades before, he still attends games, wears his letter jacket, and “never miss[es]” the post-game parties.
And how is this pillar of the community repaid for loyally supporting the team? With Tweeder violently striking him in the genitals with a whiffle ball bat while other students laugh hysterically and videotape him writhing in agony on the ground. There’s no doubt that if this occurred in 2018, that footage would be up on YouTube within the hour. All in all, it’s an absolutely appalling scene that the filmmakers pass off as comedy.
From there, we as the audience are treated to a never-ending string of selfish and otherwise awful behavior by Moxon:
1. He intentionally breaks his father’s nose with a football during a backyard barbecue.
2. He demonstrates a complete lack of respect for the coaching staff and his teammates when he, as the second-string quarterback, disrupts a practice to install his own offense. Yet, during the next game, it is revealed he’s spent so much time dreaming up plays on his own that he doesn’t even know the team’s basics offensive plays.
3. He refers to himself in the third person during a radio interview.
Moxon’s low point, however, is when he decides to torpedo Kilmer’s perfect season by organizing an all-night drinking party and trip to a strip club for the team’s best players the day before a game. This could have been done immediately after the game, or on a Saturday, or after the season was over. The possibilities are endless. But Moxon, in his imminent wisdom, chose to do it at the time that would inflict the maximum amount of damage on the team. And it worked, as the team went out and laid an egg against a bad Elwood team the next night. The one bright spot is that the loss did give America perhaps the most well-acted exchange in cinematic history - Moxon’s Mother: “I thought you said Elwood wasn’t no good?” Moxon’s Father: “They ain’t. We’re playing like shit.”
If that were not enough, when confronted by his father after the game, Moxon responds with a mix of contempt and outright insults, culminating in the “I don’t want your life” line. For two decades, people have incorrectly focused on Van Der Beek’s accent when delivering that line, while overlooking the words. Just think about it for a second. Moxon’s father tried to discuss what happened rationally, while Moxon himself resorted to personal attacks. And the filmmakers would have you believe that Moxon’s father was the one in the wrong.
The remainder of the film is more of the same. Moxon and Billy Bob get heavily intoxicated and use firearms on a youth football field to destroy public property, yet blame Kilmer for their conduct. Moxon pouts like a baby when Kilmer threatens to imperil his scholarship to Brown and considers quitting on his teammates. Moxon attempts to substitute his own judgment for those of medical professionals when he stops the trainer from administering a potentially career-saving injection to Wendell’s knee. Moxon quits during the middle of the team’s most important game of the year and then organizes a coup to topple a Texas high school coaching legend. (This essay only barely touches on the movie’s shameful treatment of Bud Kilmer, which I’ll address in more detail at a later time.) Moxon evidently quits on his teammates after defeating Gilroy, because even though the victory meant West Canaan moved on to the playoffs, Moxon states in the closing voiceover that he “never played football again.” So Moxon basically got everything he wanted, and it still wasn’t enough. If there’s anything more “Millennial” than that, I’m unaware of it.
Almost twenty years later, we continue to fret about why Millennials act they way they do. We ask why they are disrespectful towards their parents and other authority figures, are self-absorbed, do not care about the greater good, are not team players, blame others for their problems, and refuse to listen to criticism. Thousands of articles, speeches, books, and studies have all been devoted to exploring these issues. Being a generational consultant has become an actual profession.
And who do we have to thank for that? The filmmakers who announced to an entire generation that this toxic behavior was not only acceptable, but was, in Moxon’s words, “heroic.” In short, Varsity Blues introduced America to its first Millennial, and we as a society have been paying the price ever since.