What’s the matter with kids’ movies today? There are too damn many of them, that’s what, and they are all about the same damn thing. Since 1978, when National Lampoon’s Animal House revived the teenpix genre, rites of passage have become Kabuki rituals: popping zits, snapping towels in the locker room, dancing in the streets, ogling the girls in the shower, getting crazy drunk and tearing up the strip in a “borrowed” Porsche and grossing out Mom and Dad. Sentient adults must unite to cry: Enough already! The glandular convulsions of adolescence are just not interesting or complex enough to sustain the plots of half a hundred Hollywood films each year.
And still they breed, obeying the first law of commerce: You tailor your product to your market. More than half the U.S. movie audience is in the 12- to-24 age group, so Hollywood keeps grinding out these smudged, cracked fun- house mirrors of teendom. It matters not that most megahits cast their nets over broader demographics. Teenpix come close to guaranteeing a decent return on a modest financial and creative investment. They will keep coming until Chip and Wendy Q. Public weary of seeing their screen doubles lose their virginity for the zillionth time to an MTV beat.
Now here come seven new youth movies to glut the glut. Tuff Turf, a gang movie set in Los Angeles, plays like the Beat It video at feature length. Fandango sends five college guys on a West Texas spree. Heaven Help Us has five Roman Catholic schoolboys getting cute in the confessional and decapitating a statue of their school’s patron saint. Mischief pairs a wimp and a stud in the small-town ’50s. In Tomboy, Betsy Russell is a Flashdance- style mechanic who goes stock-car racing. In Vision Quest, Rocky pins Flashdance on the high school wrestling mat. One can find vagrant felicities in these films: a snap to the style of Tuff Turf; the bang-on casting of young actors with unassimilated Irish-American faces in Heaven Help Us; and in Vision Quest some nice quirks of dialogue and a lovely performance by Matthew Modine that makes the whole hokey business the tiniest bit affecting. But even to search for these privileged moments is to lower one’s expectations to ankle level. It is like judging a taste-off among six Snickers bars.
Every once in a while, somebody infiltrates the teenpix genre, bends a few rules, applies a little intelligence and comes up with a Risky Business or, last spring, a Sixteen Candles. That funny, good-natured romance offered two teen fantasies for the price of one: a nice girl connects with her prince charming, and a horny dork gets to drive the prom queen to distraction. The Breakfast Club, the new film from the writer-director of Sixteen Candles, John Hughes, is an even odder beguilement. A nine-hour Saturday detention class is called for five balky students: a jock (Emilio Estevez), a grind (Anthony Michael Hall), a punk (Judd Nelson), a deb (Molly Ringwald) and a feral cutie (Ally Sheedy) who eats Cap’n Crunch sandwiches and comports herself like a baby Maoist from May ’68. They sit around and rank one another. They strike out, then strike bargains, then strike sparks of affection. By the end they are one big underage encounter group.
Hughes must refer to this as his “Bergman film”: lots of deep talk and ripping off of psychic scabs. But this film maker is, spookily, inside kids. He knows how the ordinary teenagers, the ones who don’t get movies made about them, think and feel: why the nerd would carry a fake ID (“So I can vote”), and why the deb would finally be nice to the strange girl (” ‘Cause you’re letting me”). He has learned their dialect and decoded it for sympathetic adults. With a minimum of genre pandering–only one Footloose dance imitation , –and with the help of his gifted young ensemble, Hughes shows there is a life form after teenpix. It is called goodpix.
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