This was one of the most influential movies on my developing worldview, as it came out when I was 12 and I saw it ten kajillion times. I haven’t seen it for decades, but it was always on my list, and so I decided to show it to my friend, unsure if it would hold up. It does, but one of its strengths is also, in 2008, one of its main limitations: it is very low-key.
We open with Chris Makepeace as Clifford Peache riding his bike through Chicago, while we have the credits. We see that this is directed by Tony Bill, actor and director who also did Six Weeks and Flyboys, and written by Alan Ormsby, who also co-wrote Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things and the Schrader Cat People. I recalled the theme music by Dave Grusin from the first scene, which I thought was a sign of this film’s lingering impact in my subconscious, but it soon became apparent that this is in part because it repeats unchanged virtually throughout the movie.
Cliff lives at the Ambassador Hotel, where his father, played by Martin Mull, is the manager. Mull’s mother, played by Ruth Gordon, is this vivacious and horny old lady who is always trying to pick up men her age, which causes a great deal of strain for Mull. This whole subplot adds nothing but nice background texture to the film, back when movies had just nice, casual, background texture to their characters.
So the next day is the first day at Clifford’s new school. Chris Makepeace as Clifford has these expressive big blue eyes and massive loaf of split-down-the-middle hair that would only be explicable in the late 70s. He sits next to a young Joan Cusack, and next to this other blond kid whose name I didn’t catch, but has a wonderfully deadpan delivery. Soon Matt Dillon as Moody comes in and dominates the class, being the good-looking arrogant bully that he is. We soon find out that Moody extorts “protection money” from virtually everyone in school. After school that day, Clifford barely escapes. His father calls the principal to complain, Moody ends up getting a week’s detention, and Clifford’s fate is sealed.
Also at school is Adam Baldwin as Linderman, this hulking misfit who is rumored to have killed his brother, killed a cop and broken a teacher’s legs. Clifford approaches him for protection, but Linderman refuses. Their paths keep crossing, and finally Linderman relents. Clifford gets some comeuppance, but finds that Linderman is not down with them being best buddies afterward.
So Clifford keeps pestering him, finally following him to the bad neighborhood where he lives and hangs out, where Linderman finally gives in. He shows Clifford the motorcycle he’s working on, and they bond as they search through junkyards looking for a cylinder. Then follows a nice montage of them riding the bike around the city, their friendship cemented.
Linderman comes back to Clifford’s hotel, and we soon notice that he is soon dressing better, becoming more sociable, and cleaning up.
Now, you might have noticed that we haven’t mentioned Moody in a while, and it’s true that he does drop out of the movie for a long period of time. But he comes roaring back, with a bit of an escalation of tensions, which ends up eliciting a truly wrenching comedown for Linderman, now fully integrated into Clifford’s new group of friends. There are some by-now-expected painful revelations from the past, some emotional healing, and finally a fitting conclusion.
It’s still quite good, but it is very much a young adult movie, and its impact will never be the same as when one was 12 or 14. Certain elements now strike one as a bit too pat, the whole world of the hotel with the wild grandmother is too much of a literary conceit, and the whole situation is just a bit too perfect, but these are very minor quibbles. As a young adult movie, this is about as good and thoughtful as it gets.
What this movie made me think most about, however, was the vast difference between the children’s films of 1980 and how things have changed in the meantime. This film is quiet, pensive and thoughtful, with a great deal of quiet character moments, it seems to regard adolescence—even if one is being beaten up—as a magical time. But the most notable thing about it is that it isn’t trying to SELL you something—even if it’s only a consumerist attitude—for every second of its running time. Contrast this with the High School Musicals of the world—which I had the misfortune to see part of, and any number of other films in which kids can never be without the cell phones and gadgets, which opens opportunities for product placements, and thus pushing of the “newest, coolest” phones. There is also not a single pop hit in this movie—let alone a rock song of any kind. The kids never discuss clothes. Furthermore, there is no CGI and no action or adventure sequences every five minutes—this movie trusts its 8 to 14 year-old audience to be able to PAY ATTENTION and follow CHARACTERS. What does it say now that we think our kids will be bored if something doesn’t explode or some animal doesn’t fart or shit every few minutes? Even the Pixar movies—much as I love them—are quite antic compared to this. This is just a very sweet, intelligent, thoughtful movie that is aimed at young adults.
I should also mention, before we leave, that Adam Baldwin is still out there [and looking GODDAMNED HUNKY], notable for a number of roles, including some on the last few seasons of Angel, and a regular role on Firefly and the movie Serenity.
If you have adolescent kids that aren’t total vapid consumerists, or enjoy a good young adult movie yourself.