Back to School - Some Kind of Wonderful

Some kind of wonderful

As the children of the world start to drip back into their education after the longest summer break in history, we at /G-f delve into our school related film favourites. For Back to School weekend, Barnaby Eaton-Jones thinks it's all Some Kind of Wonderful...

“You break his heart, I break your face!”

American High School, eh? Where all the students look like mature ones and everybody is divided into easy-to-identify cliques. I didn't live in America but, after gorging on '80s films growing up as a teenager (that all depicted the American educational system as one where actual work didn't seem to happen, detention was rife and life revolved round partying in houses when parents were holidaying in Europe), I know I wished I did live there.

Do you remember the beginning of Some Kind Of Wonderful? A montage of shots that introduce the main characters rather cleverly and show exactly who they are, what they mean to each other and the cliques they represent. The epic song Dr Mabuse, by perpetually '80s band Propoganda, sets the tone as we see Mary Stuart Masterson, as Watts, drumming wildly on an acoustic drumkit which sounds electric. Eric Stoltz, as Keith, showcasing his loner credentials by wandering enigmatically towards a speeding freight train and getting his hands dirty as a car mechanic. Then, there's High School hotties, Kim Delaney as Amanda Jones and Kyle MacLachlan as Hardy Denns 'making out' on a bed, whilst the credit comes up as a Martha Coolidge Film.

No, wait, that's not right.

Well, it might have been.

John Hughes wrote the film with Eric Stoltz in mind, so that must have been the easiest audition for him ever...

MARTHA COOLIDGE: Can you be an Eric Stoltz-a-like for this role?

ERIC STOLTZ: I am Eric Stoltz!

MARTHA COOLIDGE: Perfect, you're hired!

Then, after working with her as the original Marty McFly in Back To The Future (and there is a sense about Stoltz that he could be a stretched and mature Michael J Fox, if a little more intense as an actor), he suggests Lea Thompson as Amanda Jones because, you know, redheads need to stick together and look out for each other. She turns the role down because, in her own words, she didn't feel she was beautiful enough to justify her casting in a role that requires her to be just that at the beginning for the audience; heading off to play the co-lead and get far too fruity with an animatronic abomination in mega-flop Howard The Duck instead. So, director Martha Coolidge casts Kim Delaney as Amanda Jones and, as her upwordly mobile, rich, revolting boyfriend Hardy Denns, she then casts the Twin Peakery of Agent Kyle MacLachlan.

However, for reasons undisclosed, Martha Coolidge then leaves the film and John Hughes reluctantly turns to the director of his last film Pretty In Pink, Howard Deutch. They'd had a falling out after he had changed the ending of that film when test audiences hadn't liked the character Duckie getting the girl at the end. However, the success of it made John Hughes write a gender-swapped version of the Pretty In Pink story with the original ending intact where the 'brooding best friend in unrequited love' actually gets their love requited instead, which Some Kind Of Wonderful is. Had Molly Ringwold accepted the original offer of lead Amanda Jones, this movie may have been called Pretty In Pink II: The Pinker The Better.

Lea Thompson

So, in comes Howard Deutch – given the 'gift' of this film as a reconcilition present from John Hughes - and out go Kim Delaney and Kyle MachLachlan. Lea Thompson, looking to bring out the inner beauty of her character, rather than be all surface attractiveness (and needing a hit role after her aquatic acrobatics with Howard The Duck), returns as Amanda Jones and, subsequently, married the director Howard Deutch – so he must still be directing her in real life. Eric Stoltz, so it is said, didn't get on with director Howard Deutch as well as original director Martha Coolidge, but perhaps he fancied Lea Thompson and, unlike the film, didn't get to date her in real life – losing out to the man behind the camera.

John Hughes, as a writer, had a peculiar knack of making cliché and cheese acceptable. His plotlines were simple, his characters were stock stereotypes, and he would often side with the beautiful and rich kids that he tried to make out were the worst. However, for whatever alchemy of reasons, there's a warmth, charm and humour in his writings that seeps off the screen and melts your hardened heart (even as an adult re-watching them). He seemed to write teenage life as teenagers wanted it to be. I know I desperately wanted to have a best friend who was a girl that would instruct me in the art of kissing because she was secretly madly in love with me. I would often imagine a leftfield 1980s song playing in the soundtrack of my life as I had an unexpected fumble on the stairs at a house party, with the host's little brother watching me from above. Which did happen. Although I wasn't quite as cool as my American counterparts when the over-excitement got to me way too quickly and I ended up looking like a drink had been poured down the front of my jeans.

Oddly, Some Kind Of Wonderful can be classed as overlooked in the run of early hits that created the John Hughes genre. If you were a teenager in the 1980s, you'll have seen them. You'll still love them. But, there's a huge chunk of teenagers who just sort of missed Some Kind Of Wonderful entirely and that's a real shame as I personally think it's one of his best, nudging in at Number Two behind The Breakfast Club. The plotline concerns itself with nerdy outsider, Keith, who is mooning and swooning over popular (but not rich) girl Amanda Jones, who's dating obnoxious, two-timing badboy Hardy Denns (who is rich). Keith's best friend since childhood, beautiful tomboy Watts, suddenly realises she may lose him to Amanda when she accepts his offer of a date to annoy Hardy as she's breaking up with him. But, as any good best friend would do, she tells him he's being treated as a joke but then backs him up when he goes through with the 'perfect date' to make a point to Amanda. In the process, Amanda falls for Keith, Hardy gets his comeuppance via outsider friends that Keith has met in school detention, and...

SPOILER ALERT

...Watts gets her man. And a pair of diamond earrings. Which goes against her character's non-materialistic morals. But, hey, she's a girl so she must like earrings, eh?

Mary Stuart Masterson, as Susan Watts, is perfectly believable and tough but vulnerable. If you ignore the terrible lingering reaction shots with swelling soundtrack that try to tell you what to feel as you're watching it, she's easily the most likeable and realistic of the three leads. Eric Stoltz's Keith Nelson ranges from soft-talking stalker (his constant watching – and drawing/painting – of Amanda made for strangely unsettling viewing on my re-watch) to soft-talking anger. His emotional range seems to consist of him widening his eyes as he talks softer when he's angry. The subplot of his Dad wanting him to choose a sensible college degree over artistic freedom is there so that he can show how much he's a rebel when he blows all the hard-earned cash for college on a pair of diamond earrings for the 'perfect' date with Amanda. It's her saving grace as a character that she returns them at the end, rather than keep them.

Craig Sheffer

Out of the supporting characters, which are much more well-written than the leads, there are three stand-outs. Firstly, Craig Sheffer as Hardy Jenns oozes smarm, charm and richboy harm. He's like a mini Don Johnson from Miami Vice era but with the added character trait of you wanting to punch him in the face via the television screen every time he enters the frame. There's nothing likeable about him at all and his barely-contained panic at the end of the film when he's losing face and fears he's about to have his house (and possibly himself) trashed by the gatecrashers is satisfyingly real. Secondly, there's Maddie Corman as Keith's little sister Laura Nelson. She's a perfectly brattish and deliciously selfish creation, who gets a lot of the best lines (“Any fool can get into college. Only a select few can say the same about Amanda Jones.”) and comes good in the end when her pumped-up, egotistical show-off nature means she overhears the plot to beat Keith up when he takes Amanda to Hardy's house party. The peeling away of annoyance to concern is very sweet and you can see that, underneath all the fighting, she does look up to and look out for her big brother. However, the absolute standout of the supporting characters, who steals every scene he's in (and walks away with the film), is heart-of-gold skinhead Duncan; played with effortless naturalism and quirky charm by Elias Koteas – who John Hughes had recommended after he auditioned for She's Having A Baby. He's that loveable, dim but not stupid, school bully who just seems to let his mouth run off without engaging his brain first. A loyal friend who's the epitome of the 'don't judge a book by its cover' character. Apparently, Elias ad-libbed a lot of his lines as Duncan – which you can tell if you watch some of the reaction of the actors around him – and his facial expressions are a joy to behold. Pay attention for his last scene where he puts his head on Amanda Jones's shoulder, causing Lea Thompson to naturally giggle. I would have paid money to see my imagined spin-off sequel starring his character - Skinhead Full Of Wonderful.

If you've not seen the film, I hope I may have encouraged you to seek it out. Yes, it's cliched. Yes, it's cheesy. Yes, it's obvious what's going to happen. Yes, it even has the gratuitous and lingering staple 1980s stock-shot of the main female lead (in this case Lea Thompson as Amanda) posing provocatively in the school locker room, dressed in nothing but her skimpy underwear. But, the journey it takes you on makes the not-so-surprising ending still something that will tug at your heartstrings and – if you're a big softie like me – cause a little watering of the eyeballs. The forumla for John Hughes is to paint school as a fairytale and, for most students, it's a fairytale they wished they had lived.

Oh, and The Rolling Stones song 'Miss Amanda Jones' is played twice during the film (once by them and once as a cover version), which is suitably apt seeing as there's a character named after it, as well as an artistic rebel called Keith and a drummer called Watts.

Some Kind Of Wonderful is exactly what it says it is. Some kind of wonderful.

Images - IMDb