Every decade supplies its share of lightweight derivative high school movies that are romantic in nature but closer to comedies than any other genre, and with each batch of so called "teen angst" cinema, those that manage to express something relatable with purity, speak to the next generation in their language, or just chance upon a lively cast; those films float to the top of the Cherry Coke and remain bobbing at the bubbly surface, even as time passes and nostalgic value fades. That grade of movie clings to the hearts of the audiences who experienced them in their youth, take root and blossom there, and will continue to be enjoyable and relevant even as styles change. They do so because purity in film does not expire, teenagers may update their phraseology and modes of communication but their critical language stays the same, and of course a good cast that owned the material when captured does so for an eternity. In the 1980’s the quality of this particular brand was at a premium and therefore more than the usual handful prove timeless. It does not just seem that way.
Beginning with 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High all the way until 1989’s Say Anything, the 80’s were a wonderland for adolescent-centric stories told on screen. Unfortunately, not all can be deemed essential. One film must serve as proxy for the endearing Sixteen Candles (1984), the ambitious Adventures in Babysitting (1987), the iconic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), the fantastic Teen Wolf (1985), and the bizarre Better Off Dead (1985). On a list of 25 Essential 80’s Teen Movies, all of the above make the list, but for better or worse, 1987’s Can’t Buy Me Love is going to stand up and perform the African Anteater Ritual for all of them, and here is why:
Michael Swerdlick, who wrote the script but never another, in a stylish yet irreverent manner, boiled the generic teen angst dynamic down to its element. The story of a nerd who literally pays a perky cheerleader to date him so that he will become popular for his senior year in high school is almost pornographic in its uninhibited, primitive display of the confusion and insecurity that roils like a tempest in the developing mind of the American teenager. The premise that links the paradigmatic teen films of the 80's (and their more recent spawn) is the following: There are outsiders and there are fortunate ones, and those relegated to looking in at the grace, beauty, and confidence of those on the privileged inside, harbor a deep ache, an uncatchable itch, while pining for acceptance. Some manifest this ache by lashing out, others by retreating, while another camp simply watch, drool, and hope, but according to the high school movie gospel, e-ver-ry-one wants to know what it is like, to feel what it is like, to be popular. Whether the principle is accurate or not is irrelevant. Audiences love watching the underdog have his or her day and the fantasy of such a scenario resonates with most.
Patrick Dempsey, who stuck around Hollywood just long enough to have one of the biggest second acts of any kid star, plays Ronald Miller, and Amanda Peterson, who made a couple of films in the 80’s (most notably the film which debuted both Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix, Explorers) plays Cindy Mancini. Miller is a skinny, mop-topped dork whose hobbies include mowing neighbors’ lawns, astronomy, and playing poker with his social pariah buds. Though he clearly isn’t poor (John Hughes typically separated his characters by both physical and economic barriers), Miller drives his dad’s grungy company (Tic Tac Tile) station wagon. Cindy is a sun-kissed sweetheart but caught up, more ambivalent to those around her than arrogant, and is dating a local football hero left for college who may or may not have forgotten her. The chances of a Ronald type and Cindy type becoming an item in any high school is remote, but the message of Can’t Buy Me Love, that changing one’s persona and perspective is a powerful thing and can allow ourselves and those around us to reach potentials once thought impossible, isn’t too farfetched. Look at Patrick Dempsey's transition from Ronald McDonald Miller to McDreamy. Talk about going from totally geek to totally chic. Meanwhile, Amanda Peterson, who in 1987 was a bodacious, radiant angel wound up utterly disappearing after an abbreviated acting career. Such examples represent the grander philosophy of the movie. The film’s more base argument, and it presents it with equal effectiveness, is that teenagers are spineless creatures, prone to backstabbing and pettiness, and are as ready to conform to deviant social pressures as to uphold their innate moral and ethical standards. While the two themes described above are common teen movie fare, Swerdlick makes his arguments in a very unpretentious and unorthodox way (with some exceptions where he slips into cliché - namely Cindy's drunken soliloquy at the party and Ronald's climactic address at lunch - and even those are pretty entertaining). How ironic that a script which steals the concept of every teen movie and dares to present it so plainly ends up upstaging them all in terms of originality, simply by virtue of interesting, breezy, effortless, believable writing. The most difficult task and the greatest sin an adult writer can perpetrate while writing for young people is to appear condescending , even unintentionally, and Swerdlick, while having many negative things to say about teenagers, remains respectful throughout.
Besides separating itself by truly trying to keep things real (from the laissez-faire attitude of teens toward drinking and sex to celebrating the absurdities of how teens interact with parents), Can’t Buy Me Love abounds with exceptional supporting players. That may be just blind luck but let's give a shout out to casting director Caro Jones. Dennis Dugan (actor turned regular director of Adam Sandler projects) is tremendous as Ronald’s clueless, well-meaning dad. As pipsqueak, obnoxious younger brother Chuckie Miller, Seth Green’s future as a mainstream talent is not difficult to imagine. 80's relic Gerardo "Rico Suave" Mejia is featured as a jock who wears an apron and no shirt to class (a genius improvisation I presume). And the phenomenal character actor Courtney Gains portrays Ronald’s betrayed best friend and manages to bring depth and weight to a minor role and then raises the bar of the entire movie by infusing an emblematic moment of crisis with incredible passion. Each supporting actor is bestowed a defining moment. No scene is wasted or thrown away. We can talk about Quinton giving praise to the Lord upon meeting a naive freshman cutie (Ami Dolenz in her first movie), we can talk about Patty and her unusual but refreshingly forward manner of seduction. We can talk about Big John's gas problem and the conquest of Iris of who had given more rides than Greyhound. We can even argue about whether Cindy was right to forgive Ronnie after all he had done. But better to just appreciate our good fortune of having lived through (or soon after) the Golden Age of teen movies, head out to the airplane graveyard and enjoy the Arizona night with a book of poetry. Here's a good one. It's called Broken Moon.