The 80s High School movie genre is often boiled down to just two words: John Hughes. While he undoubtedly wrote and/or directed the most famous examples in his flawed but infinitely enjoyable films The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it would be lazy to attribute the whole High School genre to this one proponent (it is also worth mentioning that Hughes should not be thought of as only working within the teen genre. He was also involved in writing and/or directing many family/adult films that were every bit as enjoyable as his High School movies, such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Uncle Buck and the National Lampoon’s Vacation series.
The 80s film work of Cameron Crowe offers an excellent alternative to Hughes’ wish fulfillment movies-cum-music-videos. Crowe is unfortunately best known for Jerry Maguire, a confused, draggy romantic comedy that throws itself emphatically into the mawkish sentimentality that Crowe’s best work so skillfully avoids. He also wrote and directed one of my favourite films of the 00s, the semi-autobiographical Almost Famous. But before all this, Crowe began his life in the film industry with a handful of teen pics. He began by writing the script for Amy Heckerling’s great Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a raunchier precursor to the John Hughes ouevre which launched the careers of many future stars including Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Forest Whitaker. He followed this up by scripting Art Linson’s little seen The Wild Life but it was only a matter of time before Crowe got the chance to direct a film himself and, when this chance arrived, he pulled out all the stops to write as good a script as possible.
Say Anything… stands head-and-shoulders above most films in the High School genre as a realistic, sophisticated comedy-drama about the belated romance between a directionless but charismatic academic-underachiever and a studious, Oxford-bound but socially-inexperienced valedictorian. It differs significantly from the average High School film in several important ways. To begin with, Say Anything… opens at the end of High School. The film is set during the summer following graduation which immediately eliminates staples of the genre such as the High School Prom or goofing off by the lockers. This is a High School movie in which we never get inside the High School. There is a sense of melancholy throughout Say Anything…, the feeling of a bygone era the details of which we were never privy to.
The most important and effective characteristic that sets Say Anything… apart as a more mature film is its inclusion of a fully-rounded, pivotal adult character. One of the most famous lines in The Breakfast Club is ‘When you grow up, your heart dies’ and few 80s teen films seemed interested in exploring adult viewpoints in any more depth than that. Adult characters in John Hughes films were usually either bufoonish villains like Dean Vernon in The Breakfast Club and Dean Rooney in Ferris Bueller… or oblivious parents who could never hope to understand the importance of their offspring’s dreams, like Cliff Nelson in Some Kind of Wonderful. Say Anything… focuses more closely on the father-daughter relationship between Jim Court (John Mahoney) and the apple-of-his-eye daughter Diane (Ione Skye), whom he spoils rotten and would do anything to please. Only in Pretty in Pink did Hughes come close to such an interesting adult-teen relationship, in the touching scenes between Molly Ringwald and her father Harry Dean Stanton. But even those were only a captivating aside whereas Say Anything… makes Mahoney every bit as important and fully-rounded as the younger characters.
The basic plot of Say Anything… goes thus: following graduation, Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) decides to seize his last chance to ask out the seemingly untouchable Diane Court (Ione Skye). When he rings her up to invite her to a graduation party, Diane has to look up Lloyd’s picture in the yearbook to remember who he is but she is won over by his persistent charm and a curiosity about her fellow graduates and the social experience she missed out on through excessive studying. Though her adoring father Jim, with whom she has such a close relationship that they feel they can literally say anything to each other, is skeptical, Diane attends the party and feels she has lived more in one night than her whole time at school. Keen to experience more, she agrees to see Lloyd again and, over the summer period, the two fall in love, much to the consternation of Jim, who feels she should be focusing on her imminent Oxford scholarship and not lowering herself to spending all her time with an unambitious underachiever like Lloyd.
That’s the set-up but Say Anything… takes the audience in many unexpected directions. For instance, one might expect the father character to be overbearing and hotheaded, leading to several shouty, dramatic confrontations between himself and the boy who’s trying to take his daughter from him. Not so. Crowe’s subtle writing creates a much more realistic and involving relationship between Jim and Lloyd, observing the fact that social politeness usually keeps melodrama at bay in real life. Far from hating Lloyd, Jim seems mildly charmed by him and a grudging respect develops, even though he will never consider him anywhere near worthy of his pedestal-planted daughter. Diane, meanwhile, spends the film undergoing a transition into adulthood, ironically by moving away from the adult influence that has kept her arrested in a state of constant teendom. Crowe examines this complex triangle of various kinds of love with a deft, delicate touch, wringing out all the drama you’d hope for without resorting to screaming matches and slapped faces. He also brings in a very unusual plot element midway through the film which takes one character’s storyline in a very unexpected and narratively effective direction.
Say Anything… is famous for one image which constitutes a matter of seconds of the film: John Cusack holding a boombox above his head, blasting out Peter Gabriel’s In your Eyes in an attempt to win Ione Skye. Its an iconic, much-parodied moment which has perhaps become a bit of an albatross for the film because it sets up the wrong expectations when taken as a stand alone image. When it appears in the film it feels entirely consistent with character and plot and is a nicely executed moment but taken out of context it appears to be thoroughy sappy and over-the-top. The boombox scene has lead many (presumably those who haven’t seen the film) to dismiss Say Anything… as a cutesie teen romance rather than the intelligent, dense character piece it is.
For all I’ve said about the melancholy edge and character depth displayed by Say Anything…, I should also point out that it is as much fun as any other High School film too. Many of the comforting touchstones of the genre are still on display. There is still the obligatory party scene, the nostalgic soundtrack and the gallery of guitar weilding, beer-swilling supporting players. The standout among these is Lili Taylor as Lloyd’s unconventional best friend Corey. Ever present as a confidante, Corey also sets the precedent for the film’s meditations on heartache and the importance of growing-up, in a short scene early in the film in which she rejects the advances of the former boyfriend who drove her to a suicide attempt. Taylor is both funny and sad in a broad character sketch which juxtaposes nicely with the deeper examination of the leads.
Of the three leads, Ione Skye fairs the worst. Her performance is a tad one-note, lacking the increasing vibrancy her social transformation demands. To be fair, the role may be a little underwritten in comparison with the male leads (not an uncommon factor in High School movies written by men) and the range of mood changes it requires is a tough order but Skye emerges as just adequate, although she is never distractingly bad. John Mahoney’s performance as Jim is an impressive display of diverse emotions. Jim goes from proud and content to worried, desperate, petulant and angry but Mahoney never oversells it and his emotional responses are nowhere near as abruptly portrayed as my inadequate little list suggests. Crucially, Mahoney manages to make an audience of people who will always think of him as Martin Crane forget about Frasier altogether for the duration of Say Anything… (despite the fact that Bebe Neuwirth (aka Lilith) also turns up at one point as a school counsellor).
But few would argue against the fact that the defining performance of Say Anything… is John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler. In Lloyd, Crowe has created one of the most likable characters in film history and the casting of the part was crucial. It required someone with an unconventional but disarming charm and Cusack fit the bill perfectly. Although he undeniably possessed leading man looks and charisma, Cusack has always been a bit left of centre in both his acting style and choice of projects. Cusack was no stranger to the teen film, with early supporting roles in Class and John Hughes’s dreadful, tasteless and shapeless debut Sixteen Candles giving way to leading performances in Rob Reiner’s winning The Sure Thing and Savage Steve Holland’s genuine oddity Better Off Dead. But in Lloyd Dobler he got a chance to really show off his potential as a leading man. Cusack, in his long trenchcoat and with his endearingly eloquent case of verbal diarrhoea, is the perfect realisation of the unconventional but well-loved Lloyd. His eleventh-hour, go-for-broke romance with Diane is thoroughly convincing and never cops out by evoking destiny or love-at-first-sight. Lloyd’s romantic success is entirely down to Lloyd’s actions, decisions and determination and, cosmic forces be damned, that’s romantic enough for me.
High School movies often end with tacked-on climaxes designed to fulfull commercial expectations that rather let the rest of the film down. When Say Anything… ends, there’s a rare sense of satisfaction as plotpoints are tied-up in a satisfactory manner which doesn’t feel too pat and leaves room for speculation about future events. It’s a fitting end to a beautifully realised script, directed with straightforward skill by Crowe. Those who come to Say Anything… via the boombox image will probably be extremely surprised by the film they get. I remember as a teenage fan of John Hughes, seeing the film for the first time and not knowing what to make of it. I now know why. The complex period of transition between school and college which it examines is best understood by those who have already gone through that phase. While it can be enjoyed by any age-group, Say Anything… is ultimately a teen film for adults.