In my memory it’s sometime in the late eighties, and the lights have dimmed in the theater where I sit munching popcorn and watching trailers. In one, a young attractive couple have a series of wacky flashbacks leading up to the birth of their child. When I hear that the appropriately-titled “She’s Having a Baby” is a John Hughes film, a thrill shoots through me – but then I hear the names of the stars: Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern. The latter I’m not familiar with, but the mention of Kevin strikes a jarring note. “Wait,” I think to myself, “isn’t Kevin still a teenager? Wasn’t he the guy who taught an intolerant Midwestern town about the power of healing through rock-and-roll just a couple of years ago? How can he own his own home already? Who does he think he’s fooling with those glasses?” Though I know movie teens are frequently played by actors in their twenties, it suddenly occurs to me to wonder where all the movies with sensitive, passionate and smart college protagonists are. Once these actors get their metaphorical braces off, all of a sudden, they’re buying homes and being full-fledged adults. People my parents’ age (who are, like, ancient) do stuff like have kids and fret about mortgages. People my age who are barely in high school are still searching for clues on how to navigate the treacherous waters of adolescence. Forget agonizing about marital infidelity, we were still in the stages of handling one romantic relationship at a time.
The movie I’m about to see is called “Say Anything” and by its end, I will be ready to hop on the nearest plane and follow its couple, played by Ione Skye and John Cusack, to England just to see what happens next. In real life, I lose track of Skye, but watch Cusack wisely make the decision to ditch teen movies, after all like Hughes, he’s already made plenty of decent ones. (Besides after he “graduated” high school and had sex onscreen, how could he really return to playing virginal dorks?) In real life, too, the “Brat Pack” is struggling to gracefully make the transition to adult roles, something that many critics will analyze, concluding that for many fans, their growing up is the last thing anything wants. In other words, so many stars – despite roles in movies like “St. Elmo’s Fire,” – have been frozen in our collective memories in adolescence. Think Molly Ringwald gazing at Michael Schoeffling over a blazing birthday cake in “Sixteen Candles,” Matthew Broderick camping it up on a parade float in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” or Judd Nelson pumping his fist in the final shot of “The Breakfast Club.” For me, though, it wasn’t that I didn’t want these actors to mature – I just wanted it to be at a pace that paralleled my own.
With Hughes, there’s a simple explanation for the transition – he, like many creative geniuses, found college superfluous and dropped out after a year, then married and had children as his film career took off. So experiences like dealing with an incompatible college roommate, mountains of student loans, or an unsympathetic professor from his viewpoint never made it on the big screen. Instead, Hughes’ protagonists became either full-fledged adults or began to shrink (“Curly Sue,” “Home Alone,” “Baby’s Day Out“). (I half-expected Hughes to keep going and pen a script in which a group of unborn kids have adventures and learn valuable lessons.) And while this was not necessarily a bad thing – he helmed some hits along with his share of bombs – it rather left Gen Xers around my age adrift. Most college movies played their characters’ problems for laughs, which while entertaining, did not provide the kind of idealized guidance you could take away from a Hughes’ teen film. I knew – at least in theory – not to settle for just anyone when it came to romance, and the importance of holding on to my values despite peer pressure – but how would I navigate the unknown waters of college life once I finally arrived there?
Of course, it’s a tad unfair to expect movie directors to fashion their films solely to please a certain demographic without letting them move on when they feel they’ve outgrown the material and need a new challenge. And of course, college isn’t a required station en route to adulthood – but Hughes’ onscreen teens: suburban, white and middle-class do entertain at least vague plans for this (even the Peter Pan-ish Ferris alludes to higher education). It’s true that there was really no template for a “serious” college-set film at the time, but then that was also true of high school ones before Hughes came on the scene. And even today, coming-of-age films tend to stay firmly in high school. (Richard Linklater did finally get around to making a college film about Xers, “Everybody Wants Some!”, but by that time, college was a misty memory for most of us.)
Still the lessons I learned from Hughes’ teen films, however hokey they sound stated here: that you should stand by your friends, take time to stop and smell the roses once in awhile, and never, ever compromise your integrity to try and be someone you’re not, are the kind that ring true regardless of age. They’re the kind that you can take with you (along with a stereo and a bucket to transport toiletries to a coed bathroom) to college to make sure, as Ally Sheedy puts it in “The Breakfast Club” that your heart doesn’t die once you become an adult. Growing up in the era where “Greed is good,” was a catchphrase wasn’t always easy, and Xers owe a big thank you to filmmakers like Hughes who reminded us – regardless of what life held for us after high school – what mattered when it came to being a decent person wasn’t material.