Nobody susses out a fraud more quickly than a kid.
Any parent who has tried to share a child's taste in popular music can attest to that. Please, mom, don't try to rap.
But John Hughes, who died Thursday at 59, was the rare adult who got it right. He tapped into the teen zeitgeist with authority in the mid-1980s, writing such films as "The Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Pretty in Pink." (He also directed "Bueller" and "Breakfast Club.")
Hughes used a quote from David Bowie's "Changes" at the beginning of "The Breakfast Club": "And these children that you spit on. / As they try to change their worlds. / Are immune to your consultations. / They're quite aware of what they're going through."
Hughes seemed to be aware of what they were going through, too. He didn't write from a distance, with an air of superiority. Instead, he managed an empathetic viewpoint, never condescending. It's difficult to be a teenager; it often means trying on different personas, seeking the best fit. "The Breakfast Club" is the ultimate example of that.
It's a fine movie, but it's not his best work. For that, turn to "Sixteen Candles," which he wrote and directed; "Some Kind of Wonderful," which he wrote; and the original story on which "Vacation" is based.
"Sixteen Candles" is the story of Samantha (Molly Ringwald, part of Hughes' repertory company for a few films), whose sister is getting married. In the chaos, her parents forget her birthday. Meanwhile, she's got a crush on the high-school hunk (Michael Schoeffling), who, in her words, doesn't know she exists. And she's fending off the advances of resident geek Ted (Anthony Michael Hall).
Admittedly, it's not as ambitious as "Breakfast Club," and there's plenty of silly comedy - Long Duk Dong comes quickly to mind - but there's also some real insight. The little talk Samantha's father (Paul Dooley) gives her before she falls asleep one night is wonderful, exactly what she needed to hear and believable besides.
And the little touches, such as the boy whose parents literally have to shove him through the door at the high school dance as he begs them not to ("I wanna be with you guys!") ring more true than most of us would like to admit.
In "Some Kind of Wonderful," tomboy drummer Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) helps her best friend Keith (Eric Stoltz) navigate a date with resident hottie Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson). Naturally, Watts loves him, and Amanda doesn't. And yes, Keith eventually sees the error of his ways. But along the way we get a true feeling of just what a teenager will do to impress a girl, of how urgent the need to make a good impression seems at the time. It helps that Masterson and Stoltz are great, but Hughes gave them just the right words to say.
How do we know Hughes succeeded? Because you can watch these films with your kids and neither of you will be embarrassed by them. In fact, you'll both enjoy them. Hughes tapped into universal feelings of youth and acceptance, which is why the movies still play well today.
Hughes would go on to write the "Home Alone" movies, write and direct "Curly Sue" and "Beethoven." These had much softer centers. For a look at a harder edge, seek out "Vacation '58," the short story in "National Lampoon" that he based the "Vacation" script on.
Nothing soft about that. It's much darker - and funnier. He would mine the best bits for the script - the dead grandmother, the unfortunate dog tied to the bumper, etc. - and while they worked just fine in the film, in the story they have real bite. It's reassuring to read this and be reminded that Hughes wasn't just a technician who cobbled together scripts from spare parts. He was, at heart, a storyteller.
Hughes ended the '80s with "Planes, Trains & Automobiles," "She's Having a Baby" and "Uncle Buck." The next two decades weren't as kind to him. He wrote a lot of schlock - "Baby's Day Out," a remake of "Flubber," "Maid in Manhattan" and would direct only one more film - "Curly Sue," in 1991. His last credit is for the story for "Drillbit Taylor," hardly the groundbreaking work he once created.
No matter. People have their moments, the lucky ones, at least. When's the last time you hummed a song the Rolling Stones wrote in the last 20 years? That doesn't make "Satisfaction" any less great.
So it is with Hughes. Better than anyone else, he chronicled what it was like to be a teenager in the 1980s. And in his best work, what it's like to be a teenager, period.