For decades, John Hughes’ six-movie run between 1984 and 1987 was the gold standard of teen-centric high school films including “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “Some Kind of Wonderful.” Hughes didn’t direct all of those films, but was sole screenwriter on each — enough to stamp them in the cultural consciousness as “John Hughes films,” a term that became synonymous with the teen cinematic experience.
Save for perhaps “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which centers on a kid who is literally too cool for school, Hughes’ work centered on characters who were “other.” That’s also proved to be a saving grace in reexamining Hughes’ work. His ’80s-era muse, Molly Ringwald, recently wrote an essay for The New Yorker that explored her relationship with his films from her 2018 perspective.
What she unearthed was well-considered and thoughtful, and it forced both her and her readers to confront some hard truths about Hughes’ work: Despite its impact and honesty, his films are rife with uncomfortable and outdated behaviors, including some from the very outsiders who brought Hughes’ stories to life.
As the world grapples with the dated politics of old teen romances, new standard-bearers are taking their place. Greg Berlanti’s “Love, Simon” is one of the first. While the March release may have initially traded on trivia — it’s the first studio movie focused on a teen gay romance — it’s become a phenomenon of its own. It’s inspired audience members to come out, charmed filmmakers like Xavier Dolan, and even pushed Hollywood execs to open their own wallets to buy out screenings.
As BuzzFeed’s Adam B. Vary noted, after less than a month at the box office, Berlanti’s film has become one of the most domestically successful teen movies in four years. (Also heartening: Of the top 10 films on Vary’s list, “Love, Simon” is one of the few that’s not about imminent death, chronic illness, or life-threatening drama, signaling that audiences are ready to break out of the “Fault in Our Stars” doldrums that have ruled since that film came out in 2014.)
Berlanti’s film is straight from the Hughes mold: It’s focused on a handsome, well-liked kid (Nick Robinson, the rising star of films such as “The Kings of Summer” and “Jurassic World”) who has a nice family and good friends, but who feels personally defined by a big secret. Hughes’ characters often concealed (sometimes, not so well) various issues related to class, family life, and emotional health — specific dramas, speaking to the sense that everyone has some sort of cross to bear.
The hope, of course, was that through some kind of reckoning — Saturday detention, a wedding, a really great prom dress — characters could reach a new place of honesty with both themselves and everyone around them. That’s exactly what Simon goes through in Berlanti’s film, as Robinson’s closeted character discovers that at least one of his fellow classmates is also gay, and making tentative moves towards coming out. The pair take to emailing each other, even as Simon attempts to find his new friend (and perhaps more) in the wilds of their high school.
From the outside, Simon might not seem like an outsider, but he feels like one, and that’s the person viewers get to know. What teen, what person, has never felt that way?
Even when Hughes’ films veered into the fantastic (like “Weird Science,” where the creation of a perfect woman is one of the more believable elements) or into comedy (“Sixteen Candles” is always more off kilter than you remember), his characters grounded the stories. Most were outsiders — geeks and nerds, awkward boys and shy girls, from the wrong side of the tracks, from poor families — even if Hughes almost exclusively trafficked in stories told by good-looking white people.
In addition to considering his films from the vantage of #MeToo, Ringwald’s thoughtful essay also included anecdotal evidence that the films spoke to members of the LGBTQ community, the same people now more closely served by “Love, Simon.” As Ringwald wrote, “I have been told more times than I could count, by both friends and strangers, including people in the L.G.B.T. community, that the films ‘saved’ them.”
Ringwald wrote about Emil Wilbekin, who is both gay and African-American, and who told her that “The Breakfast Club” “saved his life by showing him, a kid growing up in Cincinnati in the eighties, ‘that there were other people like me who were struggling with their identities, feeling out of place in the social constructs of high school, and dealing with the challenges of family ideals and pressures.’ These kids were also ‘finding themselves and being “other” in a very traditional, white, heteronormative environment.'”
Ringwald added that Duckie, the best friend of her “Pretty in Pink” character, “was loosely based on my best friend of forty years, Matthew Freeman … Like Emil, he’s out now, but wasn’t then,” and Freeman told Ringwald, “The characters John created spoke to feeling invisible and an outsider,” adding that they captured “how we felt as closeted gay kids who could only live vicariously through others’ sexual awakenings, lest we get found out with the very real threat of being ostracized or pummeled.”
While the need for films about outsiders hasn’t changed (and likely never will), living vicariously doesn’t need to cut it anymore. “Love, Simon” is a film destined to enter the teen canon, alongside Hughes’ own oeuvre, and for similar reasons: The outsider’s story remains universal, but now it can be more specific than ever.
“Love, Simon” is currently in theaters.