Why American Pie Has Stood the Test of Time

The Original, Its Sequel and Three of Its Best Spin-Offs Just Arrived on Netflix

By Sam Eichner ·
Photo: Universal Pictures

The misadventures of teenage boys trying to get laid are a timeless, evergreen stitch in the fabric of American culture, simply because teenage boys have never tired, nor will ever tire, of trying to get laid. Countless movies, TV shows and books have been devoted to the subject—either completely or casually, sweetly or crassly, dramatically or comically. Some are more remarkable than others; most, in fact, are forgettable flings, the cultural equivalent of the kind of overexcited adolescent sexual experiences you had but would rather not recall. The ones that succeed in transcending their particular moment, though, have the potential to become all-timers, and downright canonical in their capacity to cater to audiences of any generation, in perpetuity.

No trying-to-get-laid film has stood the test of time better than American Pie, which first came out in 1999, and, just today, arrived on Netflix (along with the sequel, and three of its spin-offs, Band Camp, The Book of Love and Naked Mile). The premise could serve as a template for any male-focused teenage romp that came before or after it: four friends make a pact to lose their virginity before the end of the senior year. Jim (Jason Biggs), basically the average American teenager, is nervy and desperate, setting his sights on the hot foreign exchange student, Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth); Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is the one with the serious girlfriend, Vicky (Tara Reid); Oz (Chris Klein) is the dreamy-eyed jock; and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is the wild card, who rather insecurely relies on hatching pretentious schemes to woo members the fairer sex. Then, of course, there’s Steve Stiffler, played by Seann William Scott—the everybro, the alpha male, the shallow pre-frat-star who will say anything to get a girl into bed.

Together, the protagonists reflect the bell curve of American teenagers, running the gamut from less-than-popular (Jim) to definitely-upper-crust (Oz). That they’re neither the coolest nor the lamest kids in school—that they’re defiantly “normal”—is ironically unique, given the amount of popular high school movies and shows which tend to focus on either the experience of the nerds (Freaks and Geeks) or the cool kids (Clueless), or else the experience of those who dare to bridge the gap between the two (She’s All That, The Breakfast Club, so many more). In my humble opinion, the only other movie that captures the scope of (a certain white, heteronormative) American high school experience better than American Pie is Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater’s classic from 1993.

But where Dazed and Confused is timeless for its depiction of friendship, American Pie is timeless more for its depiction of the universal desire of American males of a certain age to have sex, whatever the costs. And while the most memorable bits in American Pie are often the dirtiest—Stiffler drinking Kevin’s cum-beer, Finch shitting in the girl’s bathroom, Oz saying the ever-quotable words “suck me, beautiful” and, of course, Jim fucking an apple pie—the film has aged better than most because of the tenderness and vulnerability all that crassness sought to mask. The profundity of American Pie is that it’s a sex romp only insofar as that lust is an easier and safer for teenage boys than love; and, concurrently, that its characters are only driven by sex insofar as they are unaware of the prospect of real romance. At its hot, red, apple-y center, American Pie is less about losing one’s virginity and more about discovering the joy of first love (although it’s also very much about losing one’s virginity).*

This balance, between a surface-level dirtiness and underlying tenderness, lies at the heart of what makes American Pie work, and has become an unofficial hallmark of its extended universe, as well as films like it (à la Sex Drive, EuroTrip and the underrated Miles Teller flick, 21 & Over). The two sequels, and numerous spin-offs, three of my favorites of which are on Netflix now, have only grown more outrageous (the game of gay chicken and superglue incident in American Pie 2, being two prime examples). Yet once you move past the testosterone and beer-soaked floors and physical dick gags, the naked fun-runs and orchestral anal penetration, the movies all still reveal themselves to about misguided boys who, in their failed attempts to act how they think they should act, reveal themselves to be a bunch of hopeless romantics. And I’ll always be here for that.

*It is also, perhaps, the first teenage romp to really reckon with the brave new world of the internet. The botched video sex between Jim and Nadia, which is accidentally broadcast all around town, is both a relic of the days of the early internet and a potent sign of what was to come (no pun intended). It’s one of the few scenes involving pre-2000 technology that felt as accurate then as it does today, when the ease with which high-schoolers can share and expose themselves to the masses, via Snapchat and related apps, is startling to even the least prude amongst us.

Sam Eichner

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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