I can’t afford to have you hate me, Keith. The only things I care about in this goddamn life are me and my drums and you.
—Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson)
Dad (John Aston): Oh, you’re only 18 years old, for Christ’s sake!
Keith (Eric Stoltz): Then I’m 19, then I’m 20! When does my life belong to me?
Eric Stoltz says that women who talk to him about Some Kind of Wonderful “almost always say, ‘You know, I was 12 when I saw that and it meant so much to me.’” For the record, I was a precocious 11 when I first viewed Stoltz as Keith, the gentle artist torn between two girls. Nearly 20 years on, I mainly remembered a few great lines (“Break his heart, I break your face”) and that one fantastic, AFI-100-Best-caliber kiss. You know the one: jealous and nervous about Keith’s upcoming date with sexy Amanda (Lea Thompson), best friend Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) convinces him he needs a lesson so he can “deliver a kiss that kills.” For all her bravado, Watts has never kissed anyone before. And their interplay is hilarious, embarrassing, poignant, but mostly, it’s hot. Even at 11, I could tell.
Though it seems hard to remember now in this post-WB world, once upon a time, preteens had to head to the Cineplex to get their fix of adolescent drama, and their go-to storyteller was John Hughes. In just three years, he unleashed Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Weird Science (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987).
Wonderful (like Pink) was directed by Howard Deutch. Still, as Masterson recalls in “The Making of Some Kind of Wonderful”, “People talk about John Hughes movies no matter who directed them, because it really was the very particular school that he created.” Stoltz and Deutch are equally rhapsodic. Stoltz recalls, “All of the characters were pretty richly developed. They were all wonderfully thoughtful and smart, which is very rare for a teen film. And we reveled in that.” The movies endure, Deutch says on the DVD commentary track, because the characters were personal. “They are not characters he wrote for business, to make a script and make money. He did it because he needs to write them. They live for him. When he writes them—I watched him—he would laugh and cry as he wrote.”
While Paramount didn’t lure Hughes back to reminisce about the film, the DVD does provide a mullet-tastic interview conducted by his She’s Having a Baby lead, Kevin Bacon, in 1987. Asked then about his ability to write from a “teen” perspective, Hughes said letters from fans helped, but he also recalled the contradictions of his own adolescence:
What it’s like to feel completely grown up, completely capable of being responsible for yourself, and having someone say in the midst of all your problems, “What time are you gonna be home for dinner?” I remember that stuff.
Hughes teens have bigger concerns than meatloaf. For Keith, it’s higher learning that produces conflict at home. Dad (John Ashton) keeps a steady eye on his son’s savings, watching the interest grow, anxious for the day Keith will be the first in the family to go to college. He dismisses Keith’s plans for art school as unrealistic daydreams, setting up that “classic conflict between what parents want and what you want and what’s right,” Deutch says. “Driving the movie are themes and values like, ‘When is my life my own?’, trust, things that are universal.”
Of course, Keith’s paintings are more crucial than his father realizes. Recalling his high school ambitions in art, Hughes says having such a consuming passion was key to withstanding loneliness and building self-reliance. “I didn’t really much care what people thought ‘cause I could go look at my work and say, ‘I like that,’ and ‘I did that,’ and it was, you know, self-recognition.”
Similarly, Watts channels her angst into drumming. (For proof the skins matter, consider that she’s billed as “Drummer Girl” throughout the script.) Only Amanda is unmoored by any proactive measure of self-worth. Though she lives, like Keith and Watts, in the poor “sector,” Amanda has crossed over to the wealthy crowd and sleeps with rich, arrogant Hardy (Craig Sheffer, deliciously awful) despite glaring evidence that he cheats on her.
A besotted Keith wants to do better by Amanda—a development that horrifies Watts. “Don’t go mistaking paradise for a pair of long legs,” she warns him. With two best friends split over one’s infatuation with a metaphorically uptown love, the setup sounds like Pretty in Pink with the gender roles reversed. Wonderful changes the dynamic, however, by making Amanda another outsider. Increasingly disenchanted with Hardy’s two-timing, she’s rethinking the merits of her social leap. In this way, she calls to mind a different Hughes character, the discontented Jake of Sixteen Candles (“I want a serious girlfriend. Somebody I can love, that’s gonna love me back. Is that psycho?”).
Wonderful echoes Candles in other ways, too. Both films float along on coincidence (Keith just happens to ask Amanda out seconds after she’s told Hardy they’re through) and build to one wild night out. Here the big climax is Keith’s heavily orchestrated date with Amanda, with Watts torturing herself by chauffeuring them from a fancy restaurant to an art museum to the Hollywood Bowl to, finally, the film’s “high noon” moment, when the pair attend Hardy’s party knowing full well he plans to “pound” Keith for stealing his girl.
Deutch amusingly describes the reveal of Watts as chauffeur as the moment his nervous breakdown started (“Is this gonna work?”). His commentary is littered with talk of plot points that made him crazy or caused him “a personal meltdown.” He remembers, “I used to say to John, ‘Why and what—how?’ And John would say, ‘Would you relax? It’s gonna work. It’s fine. You notice the earrings.’”
Other features (“Meet the Cast,” “The Music”) reveal more behind-the-scenes angst. Stoltz and Deutch both cop to a testy working relationship, exacerbated by Stoltz’s desire to be called by his character name (which got confusing for Thompson, she laughs, since she’d worked with him twice before). “It was a struggle,” Stoltz says. “Howie shot a lot of takes, sometimes 38, 39, 40 takes. It might’ve been the way he worked, it might’ve been to get the performances that he wanted, it might’ve been to get me to a place where I was malleable.” Still, Deutch offers that their conflict likely helped the film by playing out in Keith’s tension with his father.
That plotline builds to a fitting, if stagey climax (“Will you listen to me for once?”), but the script’s heavy emphasis on independence and self-reliance and who’s using whom does begin to drag. Wonderful is light on laugh-out-loud moments, though scene stealers Maddie Corman (as Keith’s sister Laura) and Elias Koteas (the skinhead) provide some important ones. Stoltz recalls that Koteas was so good at improvising (“He almost never said a word the way it was written”) that Hughes started writing him into more scenes and tacitly gave him “a free pass” to come up with stuff.
If Koteas makes us laugh, Watts has our hearts. Ever watching, waiting, and wisecracking, she’s the irresistible underdog, cursed with loving a boy too “stupid” to see the truth. Though Stoltz has far more screen time, he correctly argues that Masterson really “rules the film.” Watts is “clearly the most vital,” he says, “and, uh, she kicked ass.”
I remembered that, too.