“I want my life to be like an ’80s movie… But no, John Hughes did not direct my life.”
Emma Stone utters these words in teen comedy Easy A, made in 2010, decades after the heyday of John Hughes had passed. Teen movies since then have remained a pinnacle of film culture, and to be honest, there have been some great ones (the aforementioned Easy A included). And yet, even now, there seems to be a yearning for those ’80s films and that culture; look at the way in which Stranger Things has grabbed the world’s attention. Why is that? What is it about these films that gives them such an enduring quality?
I remember the first time I watched The Breakfast Club. I was 16 years old and it immediately became one of my favourite films, and yet, when I sought to explain it to someone who hadn’t seen the film, I realised that there isn’t much of a premise for that. As is the case for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles and more. These stories are so incredibly simple, sum-them-up-in-a-single-sentence simple, but there is something about them that captures our hearts so innately. Perhaps it is just the contrast from the over-complicated, plot-twisting, mind-bending films that producers are so set on churning out these days. The simplicity of such ordinary narratives is a breath of fresh air, and a relief. More so than that though, I would suggest that it is these films’ focus on characters that makes them so special to us even now.
A key element of the ’80s teen movie is the fact that these stories are human stories about regular, everyday people. We long to see people like us on screen. It is why people make such a fuss about representation – there is something in everyone who loves storytelling that longs to find themselves in the narratives they so love. The people in these films are so normal: they are our families, our friends, our neighbours, our teachers… they are us. Yes, they get themselves into slightly weirder situations, and maybe they’re a bit prettier than average folk, but there’s something about them that reflects real life.
More specifically, it is these characters’ experiences of growing up. It’s Samantha from Sixteen Candles wanting to be seen. It’s Ferris wanting to just enjoy the little things. It’s Brian from The Breakfast Club not being able to deal with the pressure of school. There is not one character that I feel that I relate to more in these films, because every single one seems to capture a different facet of the teen life. ’80s directors, especially John Hughes, have this uncanny ability to fully understand what it’s like to be a teenager. They capture the FOMO, the awkward crushes, the competitiveness with siblings for parents’ affection. These really simple, everyday things, that seem so much smaller when you’re an adult, but when you’re a teenager they seem like the biggest thing in the world. And the beauty of these films is that they don’t belittle that – they treat these problems like they are the biggest thing in the world. They treat these characters as people whose opinions are cared about, as people with things worth saying. Teenagers aren’t always given this courtesy, yet these films never suggest that they shouldn’t. It’s not because these characters are perfect, because many are far from it, but it’s the reminder that growing up is such a big deal, and when we try to just dismiss it, we lose the beauty of it. As Ferris Bueller so famously said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around every once in a while, you could miss it.”
Whether you’re currently going through that awkward stage of teenagedom currently, or whether that is a distant memory, revisiting these films makes these emotions and feelings so real. It’s nostalgic, it’s brilliant, and so so simple. It’s life. That’s what makes these films so enduring: they capture those moments in life that shape us without us realising it.