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A new documentary revisits the ‘80s Brat Pack. It’s like reliving my adolescence

Essay by Jeanne Bonner, CNN

(CNN) — When I watch the trailer for Andrew McCarthy’s new documentary, “Brats,” my pulse races as if I’m watching old home movies of myself and my friends.

I’m not a Hollywood star — ahem! — and I don’t know anyone in the film, but I have frantically searched the Internet for more on the movie, which revisits a group of young actors — principally Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, Anthony Michael Hall and McCarthy himself — who came to be known in the 1980s as the “Brat Pack.”

These former stars made movies during one of the most pivotal periods in my life, when I left behind my childhood, entered the fraught universe of my teen years and became aware that boys were interesting. Maybe a little too interesting.

McCarthy’s documentary, which premieres today on Hulu, explores the lives today of actors who starred in such films as “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Pretty in Pink.” The film is not about my life, but judging from the trailer it’s full of my memories and music.

On its surface, “Brats” is about the stars we ‘80s kids lived and died by (and how they didn’t like the “Brat Pack” label). On a deeper level it also appears to be about the passage of time, the vagaries of fate and the way labels can loom large enough to change lives.

When the Brat Pack movies came out, I was a Long Island girl, on the cusp of my teen years. The youngest of four daughters, I woke up each day to my clock radio playing Top 40 or New Wave. I read “Seventeen” magazine religiously and frequented the mall, where I could watch coming attractions of new movies — including previews of R-rated films forbidden by my Catholic mother.

The first movie I saw to star some of the Brat Packers was 1983’s “The Outsiders,” the drama about rival youth gangs in early-‘60s Oklahoma. It’s not strictly considered a Brat Pack movie, but it features Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez, two charter members of the club. My oldest sister, Tricia, loved it, So I did, too.

I was too young to watch it right away but I read the book a dozen times to match the number of times Tricia saw the movie. I still have my dog-eared paperback of the S.E. Hinton classic, and the faded cover is torn just below the image of actor C. Thomas Howell.

The movie was set in a different era far from my Long Island town, and featured terms like “greasers” that meant nothing to me. But it had the same teenage angst I was feeling, and some of the hottest actors I’d ever seen. During a sleepover at a friend’s house, we rewound the videocassette on the VCR countless times trying to catch the unscripted moment when Lowe’s towel almost falls off after he’s taken a shower. Lowe was older and even better-looking — if that’s possible — two years later in “St. Elmo’s Fire,” where he played a recent college grad.

What made these movies so alluring to me was one simple fact: The characters — high school students, college students and even young professionals — showed me a world I hadn’t yet fully entered. It was the world of my older sisters, and as any little girl will tell you, that’s the world that matters the most.

Like many younger siblings, I experience nostalgia not just for my own childhood and adolescence but for the many events I experienced vicariously through my sisters. Whatever films or actors or musicians caught my sisters’ attention inevitably captured mine.

The movie that most captured the attention of my sister, Denise, was “Pretty in Pink.” Just like the Molly Ringwald character, Denise loved to shop for vintage clothing. She and I would take the Long Island Railroad into New York City, visiting shops like Canal Jean Co. and Antique Boutique in Greenwich Village where we’d skim the racks of 1940s men’s suit jackets and vintage jeans. We pored over magazine spreads that showed the looks from these films and tried to emulate them.

When I asked Denise recently about the movie, she recalled seeing it over and over in the theater, not only because she thought Ringwald was “the coolest” but also because back in that pre-Netflix era, teens went out to the movies. That may partly explain why these movies loom so large for me.

“Going to the movies was the big thing to do every Friday and Saturday night,” Denise said.

We listened to her cassette tape of the “Pretty in Pink” soundtrack on repeat in our house and I can remember blaring the movie’s big hit, “If You Leave,” by OMD, at high volume. Its heartache sentiments might strike some people as sappy, but for me it still conjures the feeling of falling hard for someone.

I soaked it all in, and in a scrapbook I made during high school, I pasted pictures from magazines of the bands I liked, including New Order, INXS and the Psychedelic Furs, who recorded “Pretty in Pink’s” title song.

I also was enchanted by Demi Moore’s smart-mouthed character, Jules, in “St. Elmo’s Fire,” who delivered snarky comments with a smoky, world-weary voice. That was the kind of woman I wanted to become (although the scenes of her meltdown after she locked herself in her apartment didn’t reflect my naturally upbeat personality but then again, I wasn’t dealing with my “stepmonster’s funeral.”)

The Brat Packers became unwitting role models for me. This was partly because some of the movies were written and directed by John Hughes, who in the mid-1980s portrayed young adult life in a way that was much more realistic than ABC after-school specials or TV shows like “The Brady Bunch.” Film critic Roger Ebert once called Hughes “the philosopher of adolescence.”

Hughes’ characters spoke our language and got our visual cues. In one scene in “Sixteen Candles,” a poster of the band Culture Club hangs on the wall. It resonated with me because my sister, Liz, was crazy about Boy George. In “The Breakfast Club,” Hughes explored how a popular girl like Claire, played by Ringwald, would be seen as more important than other students and how even someone as outwardly rebellious as Judd Nelson’s character, John Bender, would feel stung by the implicit pecking order.

As the Brat Pack era dawned, I was attending a public school where I didn’t care for the industrious kids in my Honors class but was too bookish for the popular crowd. In my sophomore year, I transferred to a Catholic high school that I loved partly because doing well academically didn’t isolate you socially. The president of the Honor Society was also the cutest guy in the school.

But it was in a far wealthier town than my own, and some of the preppy kids were rich and obnoxious like James Spader’s character in “Pretty in Pink.”

Soon after transferring, I tapped a perfectly thin, perfectly attired blonde on the shoulder in math class to ask her a question. I’d noticed that her uniform skirt fit her perfectly and clung to her sinewy frame while mine was loose, bulky and unflattering. Her family must have paid a seamstress to trim the skirt. She turned around, took one look at my hair-sprayed bangs — I hadn’t yet adopted the preppy bob that was popular at the school — and then turned away without saying a word. I was beneath her.

Today, some 40 years later, I can say some of the Brat Pack films hold up better than others. “The Breakfast Club,” for example, is deservedly in the National Film Registry, which recognizes movies of cultural significance.

But the performances and scenes in “St. Elmo’s Fire” now strike me as trite. (Remember Rob Lowe’s sax-playing character climbing out on the roof?) And of course, “Sixteen Candles,” despite some tender and hilarious moments, was sexist and racist. The one non-White character was an Asian exchange student, Long Duk Dong, a crude stereotype played for laughs. And the character played by Anthony Michael Hall is encouraged to have sex with a girl who is passed-out drunk.

But what does hold up is the films’ music.

The song that closes out “The Breakfast Club” — Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” — remains an iconic embodiment of the raucous feelings of that era of my life. It plays as Judd Nelson’s troubled rebel walks away from the school, fist defiantly raised, a moment after Ringwald’s princess character has placed in his hand one of her diamond earrings.

The mismatched classmates have formed an unlikely bond, and we’re all swooning. I could sleep for a thousand years and would still wake up knowing the words: “As you walk on by, will you call my name?”

Soundtracks from the MTV era help these movies transcend moments that have aged poorly, and my own penchant for nostalgia helps when even the music falters. John Parr’s “Man in Motion” from “St. Elmo’s Fire” is cheesy, but in its over-the-top earnestness I can still feel my breathless excitement over the film and its actors.

As McCarthy wrote in a 2021 memoir that gave rise to his documentary, “It’s not just the work; maybe now more importantly, it is the memory of the work that’s so valuable to people.” The movies came out for all of us ‘80s kids “when the future was a blank slate, when anything was possible.”

Now he has made a documentary that I have no choice but to watch because he’s investigated not only his distant past but a part of mine, too.

I can’t wait to see what he found out about a moment we shared through the silver screen and what it all meant — if it really mattered. Actually, forget that last part. It definitely mattered.

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