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Generation X-Planation

My daughter doesn’t like my movies; it bothers me.

Blame it on one of the dozen things that make sense – she’s a teenager therefore defiant by nature, she can’t pull her face out of her iPhone long enough to look up, or better described as “How do you get them to watch Titanic once they’ve seen Tik Tok?”

Doesn’t she realize Gen X will save the world?

I really believe that.

Generation X: born in the seventies, came of age in the eighties, found our cool in the nineties, and never fu**ing lost it since. We rented the same movies we’d seen in the theater, then watched them again once they came on “regular TV.” We discussed those movies in person. We did this a lot.

Coming of age movies from the 1980s are legendary for Gen-X because that was when we were coming of age ourselves. John Hughes, who weaponized our adolescence with films like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, helped define our generation during a pivotal time. Hughes managed to maneuver in the sweet spot between sappy after-school special and teenage sex comedy, creating an industry all its own. Hughes in the ‘80s was to coming of age like Tarantino is to revenge fantasy.

Much has been written, justifiably, about how many of the situations in some of Hughes’ films didn’t exactly age well. But Hughes’ films, along with other coming of age dramas and comedies like Heaven Help Us, Class, No Small Affair, The Karate Kid, Dirty Dancing, St. Elmo’s Fire, and Say Anything, taught us how to fall in love. Any Gen-Xer who tells you their first love was Molly Ringwald, Elizabeth Shue, Andrew McCarthy, Patrick Swayze, Ione Skye, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, or Rob Lowe, certainly fell in love watching them on screen during this period.

But do these films still hold up today with this current generation, or better put, “How do you keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen Euphoria?”

My daughter is in middle school and has ZERO time for me. I tell her, when I was her age a lot of the “questions” I had were answered through many of these films.

Her response is usually “Shut my door.” I realize I have an extremely small window of time to get her to watch a movie with me so I try to choose wisely.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not substituting these films for actual parenting; but I hope that they will spark conversation about similar feelings she won’t easily admit she has.

I narrowed down the selection to three films: Pretty in Pink (1986), Dead Poets Society (1989), and Clueless (1995). I chose these three in particular for different reasons.

Pretty in Pink is vintage John Hughes. It’s a simple story about a girl from across the tracks falling for the boy of her dreams from the posh end of town. It has class wars, high school caste systems, and forever friend zones. Pretty in Pink’s star is Hughes muse and ‘80s icon Molly Ringwald. As the poor girl with style Andie, Ringwald displays the kind of attitude in the face of so many knocks all of us aspire to.  Andie takes care of her depressed father, placates her sometimes melancholy but always hopeful manager, and fights off the ultimately harmless but deadly serious affections of her lovelorn best friend Duckie.

Duckie, in a career-making performance by Jon Cryer, epitomizes the unrequited love of the guy that the girls never really see.

I thought this was a good choice to show my daughter the same way most guys show their sons Rocky (I also showed my daughter Rocky, by the way). Pretty in Pink is a story about an underdog, who even with the all the odds stacked against her refuses to stay down. Other great performances in this film include future stars Andrew McCarthy as Andie’s love interest Blane; James Spader as the quintessential rich prick, Steff; and Kate Vernon as the soulless mean girl Benny Hanson. Be sure to check out Andrew Dice Clay’s cameo as a bouncer and Gina Gershon in a very early role as one of the junior mean girls. Pretty in Pink is a girl power movie and still sends the right message.

It is not lost on me Dead Poets Society isn’t exactly the greatest girl film out there. In fact, if the movie has any flaws at all, it’s that the female characters are mostly seen as unattainable objects of teenage desire. That being said, I wanted to show this particular film to my daughter as a way to show how having a great teacher can be pivotal in shaping the life of a student. The late great Robin Williams sought to play the role of Mr. Keating in part because he wanted to portray the kind of teacher he always wished he had when he was younger. Most of us, if we’re lucky, get a handful of teachers who truly inspire. Sadly, some never have any.

The wonderful thing about Dead Poets Society is we all get Mr. Keating. The stakes of this film are higher than the traditional coming of age story and many of the images are still seared into my brain. One such scene occurs after the devastating suicide of Neil Perry played with tragic grace by Robert Sean Leonard. The school, quick to lay the blame at Keating’s feet, forces the kids to say so in writing. The look on the face of helpless Todd Anderson, played by future star Ethan Hawke, when he sees all of his fellow Dead Poets have signed the document is every bit as painful as Neil’s suicide. It’s like killing him all over again by bearing false witness against the one person who had all their backs. Of course, this makes the final triumphant scene all the more powerful, but the shame of Todd signing the paper never left me.

Dead Poets Society is a hauntingly brilliant coming of age story that still continues to resonate. I chose this film for my daughter to not only see a great example of the right teacher but to strive to do what’s right.

Clueless is a fun movie. Cher, played brilliantly by Alicia Silverstone, has none of the strength of Ringwald’s Andie from Pretty in Pink but all of her style – this is very much on purpose. Based on Jane Austen’s Emma, Amy Heckerling, along with a giant cast of future stars including Donald Faison, Brittany Murphy, and Paul Rudd to name a few, give us a lighthearted look at love while coming of age atop the social heap. Clueless, like both Pretty in Pink and Dead Poets Society, spends quite a lot of time addressing the high school pecking order.

While all three films put a value on wealth and status, Clueless stands out mostly through Cher’s deliberate shallow look at pretty much everything. Cher is so helplessly “clueless” about her elitism she is truly wounded when her stepbrother/love interest Josh (Rudd) calls her out on it. It’s only through the course of the film does Cher see the error of her ways and ends up becoming a better person. I chose this film to show my daughter mostly because I like the friendships in this film. Cher has a crew of fun friends who you can’t help but like. They have each other’s backs.

Heckerling sets up a cool world we enjoy being a part of and I think that’s a fine enough message all on its own. There are also many funny takes on tough coming of age lessons, like falling for a someone who turns out to be gay, fending off an unwanted sexual advance, and how to act around someone you’ve fallen in love with. Fun fact, Brittany Murphy’s iconic burn to Cher “You’re a virgin, who can’t drive” happened to be true; in real life Silverstone was a virgin who couldn’t drive.

Boiling my daughter’s early teen years down into these three coming of age films was a tough choice. I hope to show her more but I know not to push my luck. The good news is I got her to watch the first Godfather and Star Wars so I’m not a complete loss as a father.

 

Fred Shahadi is an award-winning filmmaker and TV writer living in Los Angeles,
he is the author of the JFK sci-fi conspiracy novel
Shoot the Moon.

 

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