The Secret Lives of Teenage Sidekicks

Lara Solanki / Netflix

When you think of the quintessential high-school movie, who is the star? Is it Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz, with her lustrous blond hair and Valley Girl aphorisms, from Clueless? Or maybe a bit further back, any one of Molly Ringwald’s characters from Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, or The Breakfast Club? Perhaps your mind goes to one of the Stratford sisters from 10 Things I Hate About You, the ultra-popular socialite Bianca or her curmudgeonly older sister, Kat.

The leads of classic American coming-of-age films tend to have at least one thing in common: Beyond their youthful ennui, most of them are white, well-off, and surrounded by people who look a lot like them. These characters’ troubles aren’t necessarily trivial—high school is, after all, a petri dish of anxieties for everyone. But these films consistently focused on teens from a narrow demographic; when their peers of color were included, they were usually relegated to sidekick status. If you revisit the likes of American Pie, Lizzie McGuire, and My So-Called Life, you’ll remember the black best friend or the Asian neighbor or the Latino love interest who added some color—literally and figuratively—but mattered little to the plot. Often sycophants or bullies, these one-note characters usually existed to teach the protagonist some kind of lesson.

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A few recent productions, however, seem to imagine what it’d be like if these girls were at the center of the story. Mindy Kaling’s new TV series, Never Have I Ever, and the film The Half of It (both on Netflix), as well as the movie Selah and the Spades (on Amazon), give would-be sidekicks the star treatment. In each, a teenage girl of color navigates the drama of adolescence in a way that feels messy and real. Unlike their predecessors—think of Lane from Gilmore Girls or Angela from Boy Meets World—they don’t have to meet an impossible standard of acceptable behavior, nor are they treated as villains simply for participating in the rituals of high-school life. They don’t earn straight A’s, manage a suite of extracurriculars, or charm everyone around them. They do drugs, start fights, sneak around behind their parents’ backs, and fantasize about their crushes—all without being defined by those antics. That freedom to fumble their way through their teen years is what makes these girls such vibrant and necessary additions to the coming-of-age canon.

Perhaps no recent character epitomizes the petulance and mundanity of teenage rebellion better than Never Have I Ever’s Devi Vishwakumar (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). A first-generation Indian American girl whose story is inspired by Kaling’s own childhood, Devi spends most of the show being a real brat, in part to evade the grief from her father’s recent death. She’s selfish, rude, and obsessed with boys and popularity to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Devi’s best friends, the robotics nerd Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez) and the fledgling thespian Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young), consistently express frustration with her behavior—so, too, does Devi’s mother, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan).

The push and pull between their hopes for her and Devi’s more shallow exploits is a relatable struggle, one that can plague young people regardless of their background. Kaling also infuses Devi’s specific dilemmas with plenty of diasporic drama, raising the usual stakes: It’s hard enough to deal with your own changing body, but grappling with that relationship when you’ve got a supermodel-gorgeous cousin from back home staying with you so she can get a college degree? That’s adolescent purgatory, the likes of which would make Lizzie McGuire flee back to Rome.

Never Have I Ever has its faults. The series traffics in unexamined Islamophobic sentiment, introduces a black female character only to serve as Devi’s emotional support, and punches up the fake Indian accents of Devi’s relatives to caricature-like effect. These are disappointing turns, no matter how endearing the show can be. Fortunately, Devi is a compelling lead: Though the character often alienates the people around her, Ramakrishnan plays her with a magnetic warmth, balancing a surplus of angst with an undeniable charisma.

Ramakrishnan shines in some of the show’s weightiest scenes, too. When Devi finally acknowledges the pain she still carries after losing her dad, her catharsis is palpable. Coming-of-age stories have long featured scenes where a protagonist comes to terms with the trauma that’s been holding them back—but rarely have Indian and Indian American characters’ internal conflicts been given such close attention. Devi and her mother deal with their grief differently, in part because of their divergent relationships to Hinduism. Where Nalini heeds the gods’ blessings, as Siri Chilukuri recently wrote for Teen Vogue, Devi’s “journey through the myriad emotions that follow the death of one’s father closely mirrored my own—and … the experiences of so many other young Indian Americans who know death too well.”

While some of their conflicts are rooted in trite views of immigrant parents, Devi and her mother ultimately move through their mourning together. Devi’s friends grow, too; they don’t linger in her shadow or exist just to remind her of her shortcomings. Unlike so many teen sidekicks of color, each gets her own emotional arc: Fabiola acknowledges a part of herself she’s long denied, and Eleanor learns to deal with her own major loss.

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Never Have I Ever arrived on Netflix a week before another popular and similarly refreshing young-adult release. The Half of It tells the story of a Chinese American teenager named Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) who agrees to write love letters on behalf of a white American classmate. The film puts a queer spin on the awkward love triangle: A jock named Paul (Daniel Diemer) begs Ellie to write notes under his name to his crush, Aster (Alexxis Lemire)—without realizing that Ellie has a crush on her, too. In a refreshing subversion of an old trope, Ellie and Paul become unlikely platonic friends. Even when it becomes clear that their plan was ill-conceived, Paul and Ellie maintain a friendship that pulses with tenderness and sincerity. Ellie isn’t discarded after Paul runs off with Aster, nor is she relegated to the shadows of their romance. That Ellie receives such warmth—and even tentative affirmation from her crush—despite her own self-doubt is a welcome onscreen rarity.

One of the joys of the film from the writer-director Alice Wu is seeing Ellie get to figure out her relationship to her own queerness on a timeline that feels right for her. Even though viewers don’t see what happens after Ellie leaves for college, Wu makes clear that her sense of self will continue to evolve there, and that she’ll meet people who might help her learn more about herself. That attention to the various social forces that shape Ellie extends to her home life, and Wu brings gentle observation to Ellie’s strained but loving connection with her father (Collin Chou). In the cramped apartment they share, Ellie often sees her father watching American TV to continue sharpening his English skills. The sound of his television is like white noise for Ellie; it’s just part of what defines home for the teenager.

Contrasted with the many shows and movies in which Asian American characters and young queer people of color stick close to their white friends, distancing themselves from stereotypically strict parents, The Half of It includes Ellie’s father in her growth. While Gilmore Girls’ Lane Kim (Keiko Agena) was one of precious few Asian American supporting characters on TV in the early aughts, her story line ended up being the show’s biggest disappointment. But imagine that a coming-of-age series had been built around her, rather than Rory; what might Lane’s life have become if the series had been about her and her mother? Or if Rory and Lorelai hadn’t been the fictional benchmark against which all mother-daughter relationships were measured? The Half of It doesn’t offer a corrective to past TV and film failures, nor does it wholly reinvent the teen rom-com. Ellie Chu doesn’t need to bring the Lanes of yesteryear into her future with her. All she needs to do is figure out how to navigate her crush.

Another film that debuted last month, Selah and the Spades, is a less intimate work, but one that takes on the timeless subject of high-school hierarchies in a way that rivals Mean Girls. The queen-bee lead of Selah rejects the kinds of close ties that shape Ellie and Devi, because she doesn’t think she needs them. Sharp-tongued and suspicious of those around her, Selah isn’t the straight-talking Dionne Davenport to someone else’s carefree Cher Horowitz; she stands on her own. At her predominantly white boarding school, she presides over her “faction,” one of the groups responsible for keeping the students’ social life buzzing, with all the ferocity of Regina George. Selah sheds light on a more miserable dimension of teenagehood: the fear and loneliness it can engender, even in those at the top. (In a recent conversation with my colleague David Sims, the filmmaker Barry Jenkins named the writer-director Tayarisha Poe’s debut feature one of his eight quarantine selections.)

Crucially, Selah’s antagonism isn’t positioned as an evil force that a white teen must overcome in order to flourish. It’s just a mechanism by which Selah keeps things the way she wants them. The show’s racial dynamics don’t bother with faux-solidarity between Selah and the other black characters. Her relationship with the school’s headmaster and primary disciplinarian (played by a somewhat distractingly cast Jesse Williams) isn’t one of obvious de facto racial camaraderie. And sometimes the person who presents the greatest risk to Selah’s authority is another black girl attempting to navigate the same hostile environment.

Selah’s empire extends further than the domain of any Mean Girls extra—she doesn’t just lead the “Unfriendly Black Hotties,” though all three descriptors may apply to her. Free to roam the entire proverbial cafeteria, rather than being restricted to one table, Selah never rests. The film brings a Machiavellian energy to its depiction of Selah’s escalating insecurity about her own power; unfortunately, it stops short just as it builds the most momentum. Still, Selah’s portrait of a troubled teen girl is bracing in its specificity and in how it revels in her capacity for villainy without turning her into a villain.

During one scene, in which Selah’s stern mother (Gina Torres) reminds her daughter that only excellence is accepted in their household, I thought of an exchange from MTV’s Daria that’s stayed with me over the years. Jodie Landon, one of the only black students at her school, tells Daria that the disdain she feels for Lawndale High doesn’t stem just from the lameness of her classmates. “At home, I can say or do whatever feels right,” Jodie laments. “But at school I’m the Queen of the Negroes, the perfect African American teen, the role model for all the other African American teens at Lawndale.” Jodie’s parents instilled in her a drive to succeed, particularly in that setting—one in which white students get to be individuals and rebels but their black classmates can’t.

Selah’s familial lessons are more understated. Aside from the one scene at her mother’s kitchen counter, Selah’s home life is largely unaddressed. References to her early childhood carry notes of the “twice as good” aphorism, but not much else. Selah nearly seems to have created herself on campus, which lends the film a sense of focus that doesn’t sacrifice its protagonist’s complexity. The camera follows Selah’s gaze, fostering a kind of intimacy the teenager doesn’t experience with any of her peers. Poe’s film feels almost voyeuristic at times, as though viewers are being invited to read its protagonist’s journal. What we find there often isn’t sanitized, but it’s rich and honest. In the broader history of teenage heroines, Selah, Devi, and Ellie aren’t uniquely conniving, lustful, or brooding. But as the leads of their respective works, they broaden a canon that’s still expanding, all too slowly. They each tell more than one story.