When I think about the formative influences on how I watch and think about cinema, it doesn’t take long to get to John Hughes. His teen movies – The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful as well as, to a lesser extent, Sixteen Candles and Weird Science, and his teen-movie coda about twenty-somethings, She’s Having a Baby – are baked into my DNA. Hughes comes before everything, for me, a near-inarticulable kind of deep-down fundamental. John Hughes’s movies are a key part of a largely unwritten pre-history of how the part of my brain that watches films was formed, and – much later – thinking and reading about them was part of the slowly-and-then-all-at-once of my figuring out that all I really wanted to do was write about movies. Before Hadley Freeman decided to devote herself to full-time transphobia, she wrote a book about 1980s movies including Hughes’s called Life Moves Pretty Fast, and it’s barely an exaggeration to say I’m not sure if I would be the person I am now without reading it. Even when I wrote about the formative role The Social Network played in my development as a film critic – literally calling it the movie that made me love movies – I exalted it in part by citing its John Hughes influence. To say they’re good films feels like a tautology – they’re such a basic part of what I understand the words “good film” to even mean.
A lot of things I loved as a teenager, I return to them with a worry in my chest about having grown out of whatever it is. That’ll it seem hollow and superficial to my adult eyes and ears. But I never worry that about Hughes’s teen movies. The opposite is true: whenever I revisit these films, they reveal new depths, new pleasures, new wits, new layers of emotional complexity.
Hughes has, I think, become reasonably well-respected – as well as being beloved of beloved filmmakers like Sofia Coppola or Greta Gerwig, his work has endured in a way you couldn’t ignore if you tried – but a part of me will always think of him as misunderstood. John Hughes gets used as a shorthand for teen movie clichés in a way that seems disconnected from the work itself. It’s been years since I read this quote from Richard Linklater about wanting Dazed and Confused to be the inverse of a John Hughes film, and I still get annoyed about it regularly:
The drama is so low-key in [Dazed and Confused]. I don’t remember teenage being that dramatic. I remember just trying to go with the flow, socialize, fit in and be cool. The stakes were really low. To get Aerosmith tickets or not? That’s a big thing. It was really rare when the star-crossed lovers from the opposite side of the tracks and the girl gets pregnant and there’s a car crash and somebody dies. That didn’t really happen much. But riding around and trying to look for something to do with the music cranked up, now that happened a lot!
But John Hughes didn’t make films about teen pregnancy and car crashes and dying. Sure, Pretty in Pink is about a rich boy and a girl from the wrong side of the tracks falling in love, but it spins that story with a grounded realism that’s quietly devastating. If you want a teen movie where the drama is low-key and the stakes are really low, John Hughes is your guy. After all, his best films are about getting detention and skipping school. The stakes are – from an adult point of view – rock bottom. Hughes’s genius, in part, is that they don’t feel that way.
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