When I was still a film critic for The Michigan Daily, I went to a film festival at The Michigan Theater showing classic 1980’s films starring the Brat Pack as part of its “Kids in America: 80’s Teen Classics”. The theater didn’t publish why these films were being shown in the midst of Halloween (even after I sent them an email, the assholes), but their pervasive influence in pop culture from enduring quotes to merchandise is proof their legacy lives on.
Of course, a showcase of these movies would be incomplete without discussing the work of director-screenwriter and Michigan native John Hughes. He is said to be the pioneer of the teen film genre for good reason. His careful attention to organic dialogue is consistent throughout his repertoire. But what sets Hughes’ films apart is that he gives his teenage protagonists the respect they deserve. There is never a hint of condescending even in the midst of teenage problems one quickly outgrows after graduation.
Something I appreciate of his work is that he used vastly different protagonists to tap into different facets of American ideals in adolescence. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. I have heard friends and celebrities alike call the film their favorite of all time due to the quintessentially American joie de vivre it conveys. If a baseball game, an art museum and fine dining is supposed to be the epitome of the good life in America, then I am underwhelmed. Lots of people have attained these ideals, as fortunate as they may be. But the way Ferris sticks it to The Man by refusing to take an exam on a subject he plans on never using is what keeps the film timeless. It kept the movie for me from being a purely hedonistic romp through Chicago to an escapist trip the “everyteen” protagonist deserves as they make their way through the awkward stage of not being a child yet not quite being an autonomous adult.
The grandeur of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”’s plot distracts from one of Hughes’s strengths that keep his legacy alive: having a keen eye for high school social hierarchy. “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink”, both starring Molly Ringwald, feel a lot like the same film on the surface. The well-trodden tale of a girl pining for a boy who is unattainable due to age or socioeconomic status could have easily fallen flat as a cliche romance starring teenagers. But the world in these films are so lushly populated by opinionated friends and family that the societal pressures driving the heroines’ decisions recreates those faced by teenagers in real life.
In the same vein, the director-screenwriter had a keen appreciation for the stock characters that populate American narratives of high school. This is showcased best in his classic “The Breakfast Club”. Having essentially caricatures of the five kinds of people you meet in high school forced into interacting with one another might sound lacking in depth. But the honest backstories and sincere performances elevate it to a gripping look at detention as a microcosm of high school social ills that ring true today. Though a friend of mine recalls laughing hysterically at the scene where the club divulges why they were in detention in the first place (after smoking weed no less), I was moved deeply. Here was a screenplay that understood how teenagers present themselves. Moreover, here was a movie that knew that teenagers’ problems are as real as those of any adult drama.
YA author John Green seems to have carried on Hughes’s torch in contemporary times, not only in content but in commercial success as well. Green’s novels and indeed the YA genre in general transcend their target audience to assimilate into America’s mass culture, much like Hughes’s films did thirty years ago. So while there is no obvious reason why to screen teen films from the 1980’s in October, there is never a wrong time to do so. Adolescence is an exciting time. Capturing the period you have your whole life ahead of as you begin to gain independence lends irresistible optimism and romanticism to any story, regardless of who experiences it.