by David Cornelius
“Some Kind of Wonderful” is often dismissed as a slight gender-switch reworking of “Pretty in Pink.” Both films were written by John Hughes at the height of his reign as king of the 80s teen movie, and both were directed by collaborator Howard Deutch. The film merely exists, some say, so Hughes could film the ending of “Pink” the way he intended; by all other measures, it’s the same story, told from a scarcely different angle.Yet “Wonderful” is in fact the better film, a vast improvement on its predecessor. Here is a film that takes all that was right about “Pretty in Pink” and builds on it, all the while adding a refreshing complexity to the characters. In “Pink,” the players felt like types: the arty girl, the goofy friend, the snooty villain. In “Wonderful,” the players feel like genuine people. The story unfolds with a more natural ease, taking its time with the characters and their inner journeys.
"The best of all 80s teen movies."
Those familiar with “Pink” will recognize the set-up: Keith (Eric Stoltz) is an outsider at his high school, working nights at a gas station while the rich kids around him party with their parents’ money. His only interest is painting; his only friend is the local tomboy, Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson). (“These things don't fly too well in the American high school,” we’re reminded.) Like all the boys in town, Keith has a crush on Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson), and when he finally works up the nerve to ask her out, he’s lucky enough to do so on the very day she’s breaking up with her BMOC boyfriend, Hardy (Craig Sheffer).
What follows is not the story of two kids from (literally) separate sides of the tracks falling for each other, however, nor is it just a love triangle in which we root for the best friend. Instead, it is the tale of these kids realizing that their dreams may not be what they ultimately need - which is much more than the “near-remake” label suggests. After all, if “Wonderful” is simply a reaction to “Pink,” then it’s just a waiting game for Keith to wake up, realize Watts loves him, and fall in love right back, just in time for the closing credits, and the rest is filler. Yet this is not the case. In fact, the ending at times feels secondary, as the movie is more concerned with the journey itself.
Consider the Amanda Jones character. In another film, she would be nice enough to get us through the story, but here, she is allowed growth beyond plot-point necessity. Her date with Keith takes up the entire third act, which gives both time to reflect on how they got to this point in their lives. They debate issues of popularity: “I'd rather be with someone for the wrong reasons then alone for the right,” she quietly explains, admiring Keith’s quirky outsider charms. Over the course of the evening, she begins to understand Keith, but ultimately she does not fall in love with him. For her, this evening is about herself - not out of selfishness, but out of self-discovery. She discovers her friends are more shallow than she can tolerate and, ultimately, realizes she’d “rather be alone.”
Keith, meanwhile, is not actually in love with Amanda. He thinks he is, and the story sets us up to believe right along with him. But again, their date offers new understandings. Keith is tired of being on the outside, and he’s in love with the idea of being with the popular girl - a desire he translates as being in love with the girl.
Hughes makes some audacious choices here, most notable among them is how he gives Keith an unlikable side. Like real teenagers, Keith is often selfish, rash, and clueless. He wastes his entire savings creating the ultimate date, which leads to an argument with his father (John Ashton). Here, perhaps, is the truest moment of the entire film, in which the dad reacts with an understandable parent’s horror (why blow all that money on one night, when college awaits?), while the son reacts with an understandable teenager’s rebellion (it’s my money, let me make my own mistakes!). Keith’s dad is often used for comic relief, but in this scene, he is given a humanity often missing from parent characters in teen movies. As he discovers that his son’s life is not as happy as he had believed, the film takes on a new emotional depth.
Completing the triangle is Watts, whose behavior threatens to take the film into the realm of teen fantasy: that she volunteers to coach Keith on the art of kissing or to chauffeur him on his perfect date are indeed questionable stretches, placed into the story for the sake of informing the audience that she loves Keith unconditionally and that Keith is a blind fool. Yet her desperation, signaling to Keith her affection while refusing to announce it, remains grounded in a world of heartbroken stupidity. Her silence is the key to the picture; she isn’t keeping quiet for the sake of the plot, but for the sake of her friendship. Even in one key scene in which she admits her feelings to Keith (while discussing the growing amount of time they’re spending apart), her confession comes across more as an act of saving their current relationship than lamenting the inability to move forward romantically.
None of this would work without exceptional performances, and it’s stunning to see what a young cast could do with such material. The three leads breathe fire into their roles, working well individually and collectively. These are brave performances, exposing raw emotion, refusing to let the story rest as a one-dimensional romance.As such, “Wonderful” remains a powerful portrait of young love and teen angst. This is a drama that actually dares to be about people, the way they react to each other and to themselves. It may be remembered as an also-ran but deserves to stand on its own, a teen movie that uses its heartfelt authenticity to hold up as a genuine classic.
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originally posted: 07/31/08 04:30:16