Of the tons of movies that John Hughes has written, he’s best known for his run of ’80s teen films. It’s tempting to look at those efforts as little more than frothy vehicles and steady employment for Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, and the rest of the Brat Pack, but that would ignore the way they resonated with young audiences. Hughes’s ear for teen slang, the films’ cutting edge soundtracks and fashion, and their attention to teen anxieties set them apart from other films marketed to young moviegoers. Most importantly, though, they at least acknowledged the caste systems and class differences that make up teens’ daily lives. Anyone who’s ever gone to a school that blended rich and poor kids, or lived in a town with a rich school and a poor school, can tell you that the two sides don’t always comfortably coexist.
The Breakfast Club, Hughes’s most iconic movie, acted as something of a social experiment — what happens if you throw disparate people into a fishbowl with each other for a day? In that case, socioeconomic differences were only a small part of the numerous conflicts between the kids. Sixteen Candles toyed with differences in coolness and class for comedic effect. Even Some Kind of Wonderful, with its straightforward tale of romance complicating a friendship, touched on the perils of pissing off the rich kids, but it wasn’t the movie’s focus. Pretty in Pink, however, may be Hughes’ most complicated portrayal in the way that money — who has it, who doesn’t, and what they think of each other — takes center stage.
The plot is simple enough. Andie (Molly Ringwald), a misfit from the poor side of town, makes her own clothes and acts as the parent for her unemployed father. Her best friend, Duckie (Jon Cryer), holds a secret crush for Andie and becomes threatened when the rich and popular Blane (Andrew McCarthy) becomes interested in Andie. Andie and Blane’s attempts at a relationship are tentative and uneasy from the start, hindered by their own preconceptions and by friends who see the very idea of such a romance as a betrayal of their communities. Leading the charge is Blane’s friend Steff (James Spader), who takes a devil-on-the-shoulder approach to wrecking the whole thing.
It’s a time-tested story, given new life here by the cast’s performances and by the nuances of Hughes’ script. Ringwald is every bit the oddball in her pieced-together outfits and vintage tastes, her performance ranging from put-upon teenage angst and wry humor to vocal rage as her life refuses to untangle itself. McCarthy is skittery and flighty, obviously too beholden to the opinions of others. James Spader, for his part, probably never did a better job of oozing sleepy-eyed amorality and wounded predator’s pride.
At its heart, Pretty in Pink takes a fairly simplistic view towards relationships between rich and poor. Apart from Andie and Blane’s relationship, there’s absolutely no blurring of the lines between the two camps. Andie encounters as much hostility at a rich party as Blane encounters at one of Andie’s favorite clubs. Even the film’s color schemes — rich kids in light textures and colors, the poor kids’ clothing dark and oftent bulky — paints a picture of a world with no natural overlaps. But it excels at showing the storm of opinions and advice that can surround such a situation, and how it can sway a person’s resolve.
It would seem a foregone conclusion that Pretty in Pink must end a certain way, but a completely different ending was initially planned (unfortunately, that alternate ending — or even any discussion of it — is not included in this I Love the ’80s version, which counts a four-track CD of ’80s songs as its only extra). Honestly, it’s hard to conceive of any ending not seeming like a little bit of a cop-out. The film paints itself into a little bit of a corner, so that an ending in which Andie ends up with Duckie seems like a harsh lesson that kids shouldn’t try to leave their cliques, while an ending that puts Andie and Blane together seems like a naive — if romantic — wish for all of their troubles to magically go away. As the film winds towards its conclusion, it’s not unrealistic to expect an ending full of ambiguity — John Hughes’s version of the fading smiles at the end of The Graduate. Pretty in Pink, however, doesn’t play that way, despite its bleak portrayal of the dividing lines that govern its characters’ lives.