Ever since John Hughes died, I’ve had “If You Leave”—the swelling Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark ballad that marks the final, climactic scene of Pretty in Pink—stuck in my head. There are few movie endings I remember quite so vividly as that one, when Andie (Molly Ringwald), the smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks, shows up at the senior prom in her tragic homemade dress. She enters the ballroom alone, defiant, and summons an intense stare from Blane, her rich ex-boyfriend—Andrew McCarthy at his twitchy best—who promptly walks over to her and atones: “I love you. Always.” They kiss. The music surges. If you leave/don’t leave now/please don’t take my heart away. The song is melancholy and melodramatic—a lot like high school. Or at least the movie version of high school.
I watched most of the John Hughes oeuvre perched on the edge of my parents’ bed, VCR remote in hand, hoping I wouldn’t be interrupted during a kissing scene or the occasional profanity. I was too young to truly relate to movies about teenagers; I went to high school in the Nineties—Nirvana and Bikini Kill were my soundtrack, not Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. But I was enraptured, watching them with the intensity of a novice in a language immersion course. John Hughes’s movies initiated me into the phenomenon that is high school in America, with all its awkwardness, pain and sporadic thrill. It was a future that, somewhat perversely, I couldn’t wait for. I almost looked forward to the pain—because, ultimately, adolescent suffering is rewarded in a John Hughes movie. Samantha gets the perfect birthday in Sixteen Candles, improbably winning the affections of a dark and beautiful senior boy she’s hardly ever spoken to. The Breakfast Club kids find their true selves after a day of soul-searching in Saturday detention. Andie gets her magical prom.
Every once in a while I meet someone who grew up in the 1980s and has never seen a John Hughes movie. I feel immediately suspicious of these people because, in my mind, not having watched The Breakfast Club is practically akin to not having gone to high school. For me, those movies shaped my image of high school, perhaps even my own memories of it, almost as much as the real thing. Long before my freshman year, I knew what to expect: there would be rich kids and poor kids, nerds and jocks, freaks and overachievers—all of us trapped in the same teenage limbo.
I was quickly disabused of those clichés. Maybe it’s because I went to a private day school in Manhattan, not a district public school in the North Shore suburbs. But I imagine that even suburban kids who grew up watching John Hughes movies were disappointed when confronted with the realities of high school. It all turned out to be much less coherent—the social categories murkier, the path to self-realization vaguer—than Hughes’s movies had prepared me for. Perhaps the most excruciating part was the boredom: the endless math problems and verb conjugations, the pointless assemblies, the same internal debate over where to sit in the lunchroom day after day. I was miserable, to be sure, but it wasn’t the good kind of misery that Hughes’s movies had promised. Still, I strived to make my life conform to the Hughesian model. I lived in New York City and yet I was desperate to drive my own car to school (parking was not an issue in this scenario). I developed an infatuation with an older boy who I never had the courage to speak to, though I hoped that some day he would confess his secret love to me. Did I have genuine feelings for him— or did I like him because John Hughes movies taught me that the improbable crush was a requisite part of the high school experience? I still don’t know.
What Hughes did so expertly was forge satisfying narratives out of the chaos of adolescence. His movies make teenagehood seem worthwhile, even epic. They turn the banal into the monumental, infusing the everyday pains and triumphs of high school with meaning and power. Thus, we have Ferris Bueller’s faked illness setting in motion a string of spectacular events that eventually bring down an authoritarian school dean. Or a day in the library that leads to existential transformation. In a John Hughes movie, surviving high school is a noble pursuit. His protagonists are presented as heroes— their wills tested through a series of trials, ending with the inevitable victory. And like any good mythic tale, John Hughes movies have the aura of the iconic about them. Certain frames seem intended to sear the teenage brain: the glowing birthday cake fading into darkness as the credits roll on Sixteen Candles; the icy diamond stud in Judd Nelson’s earlobe, flashed on screen just before he punches his fist into the twilight at the end of The Breakfast Club.
Hughes helped turn high school into High School, something that is at once a place, an era and a vital rite of passage, rather than simply an educational facility one attends for four years. The vision is deeply American— celebrating youth over age, innocence over wisdom, the individual over the system, whether it be the school administration or the adolescent social hierarchy. American, too, in its focus on the middle— the white, middle-class Midwest. In this, Hughes helped enshrine the Chicago suburbs as the paradigmatic setting for the quintessential American high school experience. The well-kept houses on flat, tree-lined streets, the mazes of locker-lined hallways, the cafeterias fraught with potential social disaster— all of it conveyed stock Midwestern conformity and ordinariness, and yet it was all filmed with affection and nostalgia. Even for many of us who didn’t go to high school in the Midwestern suburbs, this is the vision of high school we carry in our collective memory. I can immediately recognize the image of a senior prom or the inside of a suburban high school not because I have ever been to either, but because I have seen The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink more times than I can count.
Hughes, admittedly, did not invent teenage angst, suburbia or the American educational system. But he elevated those experiences to near-mythic proportions. He indulged teenagers’ self-absorption, singling out adolescence as the most formative moment of one’s life, before we all get corrupted in pursuit of that well-kept house on the tree-lined street. In a John Hughes movie, high school represents a chance to glimpse our purest selves.
Hughes was not the first to use high school as a backdrop for wrestling with questions of identity and individuality in modern society. These are obviously perennial concerns in American fiction, but it is notable that Hughes’s closest precedents are the teen-angst dramas of the 1950s, which, like Hughes’s movies, took teenagers’ emotional struggles seriously— and located high school as a site for personal transformation. Even in Hughes’s comedies, the major themes of stories like Catcher in the Rye and Rebel Without a Cause were all present: the absent or neglectful parents, the classrooms populated by ciphers, the struggle to assert independence against the tide of conformity. And like Holden Caufield or Jim Stark, the kids in his movies were materially well-off—their main problem was how to get through adolescence with their souls intact. Needless to say, Hughes’s films, like many of the teen dramas of the 1950s, were rarely concerned with larger social issues. The only unrest in a John Hughes movie was within the teenage psyche.
It is perhaps fitting that Hughes’s films should echo the teen dramas of thirty years earlier. The 1980s, in many ways, represented an attempt to return to the seeming stability of the 1950s—a decade characterized not only by affluence but by a preoccupation with how material comfort was affecting the American character. From The Lonely Crowd to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, American popular culture was saturated with warnings against rampant conformity and the inauthenticity of life in the suburbs. Social pundits lamented that American children, coddled and comfortable in their prefab ranch homes, were being schooled in groupthink rather than self-reliance. American families were raising their kids to be bureaucrats rather than pioneers.
Hughes’s films had a lighter touch than their 1950s predecessors, but he shared with them a powerful call to individuality in the face of peer pressure and conformity. High school, Hughes’s films tell us, is where we are taught to repress our individuality, but it might also be the last time we will have the opportunity to fully express it—by, say, playing hooky or smoking pot during Saturday detention. And what teenager wouldn’t want to believe that her struggle to carve out an identity should be dramatized on screen?
The truth is that, for most middle-class American teenagers, nothing much really happens in high school; there is no epiphany at the prom, no redemption at the library. There is a whole lot of imagined drama, to be sure, but that’s just it—in the non-Hollywood version of adolescence, most of the drama is in our heads. Maybe that’s why John Hughes movies were so compelling: they were fantasies that helped externalize our inner emotional lives, our own illusions of self-importance. Of course, we carry these illusions well past high school. We just learn to hide them better.
As grown-up viewers, we too can watch a John Hughes movie with nostalgia for a time in our lives when we could get away with such bald self-involvement. Even as adults, we look back on adolescence as a point of origin, where the final marks were imprinted on our personality. But perhaps adolescence is not so much when we become ourselves, as when we begin to narrate the process of becoming, to wrest coherence out of randomness, stories out of experiences. It is as teenagers that we learn to transform disparate moments and flashes of memory into a kind of filmic montage—to imagine our lives unfolding in a meaningful sequence, skillfully edited, with the perfect pop song playing in the background.