Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything (1989) might be rated as unfit for parental viewing. After all, parents are probably paranoid enough as it is. They don’t need to watch movies about one of their most secret fears coming true. It’s the nightmare that begins with the question: “My daughter is dating HIM…!?!” and ends with a resigned something like: “Well, at least he’s not in jail….”. Sort of the teen-aged version of “Hey, mom, dad, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner!” Being a parent is hard enough without watching movies that remind you your children’s lives are ultimately their own.
No one’s ever given this particular genre of movies a name (“They-Grew-Up-and-Terrified-Adults”? “Inconvenient Hormones”? “Nightmares on Adolescent Street”?), but the first of its kind was probably The Wild One (1953). Daughter of respectable small-town store owner falls for a young, leather-jacketed, monosyllabic Marlon Brando-With-An-Attitude. Parents the world over cringed at those famous two lines: “Nice Girl’s Dad: What are you rebelling against? Not-Nice Marlon: Waddaya got?” The best recent example of the genre (a warped travelling companion to Say Anything), was the always-outrageous John Waters’ Cry-Baby—a Fifties spoof with Johnny Depp as the guy you’d rather not see hanging around the soda fountain. Come to think of it, the whole thing was probably Elvis’s fault. Who ever heard of a Western with a hormonally active teenager? (“Sorry, Pa, I cain’t milk them cows tonight….Bart’s pickin’ me up at sundown and we’re takin’ his bronco out on the range….”).
I can’t resist quoting from Roger Ebert’s review of Cry-Baby in his superb Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion—1993 Version [the art of movie reviewing just doesn’t come any better than this man’s work, folks; I’ve said it before, I’m saying it again]:
“The movie tells the story of Cry-Baby…a juvenile delinquent who forever has a tear sliding halfway down his cheek, a reminder of a grief he will live with forever, a teenage tragedy that left its mark on his soul, a lost romance. Into his life comes Allison, the good girl who has a crush on Cry-Baby and feels strange stirrings in her loins from the promise that he is as bad as they say. The movie’s bad guy is the good guy, Baldwin, who loves Allison in the right way, which is to say he loves her so boringly he might as well not love her at all.”
When, in Say Anything, Diane’s father (John Mahoney) asks her what she could possibly see in her new boyfriend Lloyd (John Cusack), she simply replies: “He made me laugh.” Is there ever really a better reason for loving anyone? Diane’s best friends search desperately for convoluted reasons to explain a relationship they understand as little as her father does, until someone finally says: “I know this is a strange thing to say…but maybe she honestly likes Lloyd.”
Lloyd is no juvenile delinquent, but he certainly isn’t a shining star of the free enterprise system. He’s unlikely to make a million selling junk bonds on the stock market. The best word for him is Diane’s: “basic.” Asked to the inevitable family dinner, he responds to the equally inevitable question about his future plans with: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career….I can’t figure it all out tonight, sir. I’m just going to hang with your daughter.” Dad is impressed. NOT. Asked about a summer job, Lloyd’s answer is: “Being a great date.” He sums himself up in his rebuttal to his older sister’s insistence that he Grow Up: “You used to be fun. You used to be warped & twisted & hilarious— and I mean that in the best way.”
With a distant father in the U.S. Army in Germany, Lloyd’s only passion before going out with Diane is kick-boxing at a local gym and kidding around with his sister’s young son. There aren’t a lot of strong traditional family ties here. The sister is a harried single mother, and Diane’s parents are divorced after a messy custody battle.
Diane herself is perfect. Unfortunately. “A Brain trapped in the body of a game-show hostess,” as a schoolmate describes her. Beautiful and smart, she’s sacrificed a social life to maintain a stratospheric level of academics her father sees as the summum bonum. At graduation, even her high school principal refers to her more as an institution than as a human being. Guys steer clear because “brains hang out with brains”… and she’s always working…and she scares them. Lloyd’s just curious. When his incredulous friends (interestingly enough, they’re girls not guys) ask him how he managed to get Diane out on a date, he says: “I called her up.” Basic.
There are a lot of scenes in Say Anything that work: Lloyd’s first appearance on Diane’s father’s doorstep; his reaction after they’ve spent the night together; Diane’s conversation with her father the morning after. I wasn’t so keen on a sub-plot involving the father and the IRS—I’d rather have just seen more of Diane & Lloyd together. Hollywood has a hard time letting go of the idea that Something Always Has to Happen. All in all, though, an auspicious debut for Cameron Crowe as a director.
I’d recommend a double bill with an older, little-known gem called The Competition (1980). Starring a young Richard Dreyfuss in peak form and an equally young Amy Irving, The Competition is a great love story about a brash wonderland pianist (Dreyfuss) who finally meets his match in a serious young lady who outplays him even though she doesn’t act like a temperamental genius à la Mozart.
You know, with all this talk about intelligent young women in movies, someone should write a book. Up till now, the “Bad Girls” have had all the attention. Isn’t it time someone stuck a copy of Smart Girls in the Movies on your local bookstore shelf? Can you think of some choice entries?
By the way, if you’re a parent of a teenage girl, you might not want to answer that doorbell….