Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) probably shouldn’t have worked. Arriving at the end of John Hughes’s successful run of teen movies in the 1980s, on paper it looks like nothing more than a gender-swapped re-do of Hughes’s Pretty in Pink (1986). The behind-the-scenes production history is full of chaos, with original director Martha Coolidge being unceremoniously fired by Hughes right before filming commenced. They also canned two of the leads at the same time (Kim Delaney and Kyle MacLachlan). Even now, three decades later, it’s not mentioned with the same frequency as Hughes’s other big teen films, nor does it have a meticulously curated Criterion Collection edition like The Breakfast Club (1985). It should be mentioned, though. It’s a wonderful (sorry) movie, and seems less tied to that era than the other Hughes movies. It feels timeless.
Keith Nelson (Eric Stoltz) is a handsome, mopey, unpopular kid who just wants to make art and fall in love with popular girl Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson). His best friend, Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) famously tells Keith “the only things I care about in this goddamn life are me and my drums and you.” She’s the Duckie (John Cryer) to Keith’s Andie (Molly Ringwald) in this re-do of Pretty in Pink, hopelessly in love with her best friend who seems too oblivious to notice. Hughes didn’t like the altered ending of Pretty in Pink, where Andie chooses popular boy Blaine (Andrew McCarthy) over best bud Duckie. So he wrote Some Kind of Wonderful in order to, in his mind, set it right: Keith thinks he loves Amanda but by the final scene realizes his heart belongs to Watts. Why it takes him an entire movie to figure this out is a valid question, but the answer is equally valid: “Because he’s a teenager.”
Howard Deutch directed both films, providing another reason why they’re are often discussed together. I adore both, but Some Kind of Wonderful shouldn’t be seen as just a retread of Pretty in Pink; it stands entirely on its own as a heartfelt, thoughtful look at the inadequacies we feel as teenagers. When I was a teen, I found Keith highly relatable. I was a “creatively inclined” artist with well-meaning parents who wanted to steer me towards a more traditional career, just like Keith’s well-meaning but oblivious dad (John Ashton). There’s a lot of obliviousness going on in the film, actually, whether it’s Keith’s dad not realizing his son is definitely not business-minded – until it’s too late and Keith’s blown his college fund on pricey jewelry for Amanda – or Keith not recognizing his true feelings for Watts, the characters in the film are often stuck inside their own thoughts until they finally begin to see each other for who they truly are.
Keith and Amanda are each using someone. Not with malicious intent, but in more of a subconscious way to make themselves feel more valued. Keith uses Watts for emotional support, without giving as much to her as she gives to him. He uses Amanda to get back at all the guys in school who have more power and money than him. Amanda is part of the popular girl club (the “Heathers” of this suburban Los Angeles high school), but unlike the others she is not rich, and lives on the wrong side of town, not far from Keith and Watts. So she is using her friends and her popular, wealthy, and utterly loathsome boyfriend Hardy (Craig Sheffer) to escape her lower income roots. When she discovers Keith’s affections for her, she uses him to get back at the unfaithful Hardy, but mostly just to feel desired by someone again. Of the three main characters, only Watts is truly operating out of selfless love, for the most part, for the majority of the film. She isn’t concerned with being popular, and while she certainly envies Keith’s stable home life, she also just loves him for who he is: a painter, a shy kid, and her best friend. Yet even she falls into making easy assumptions, like incorrectly pegging Amanda for being nothing but shallow.
Watching these three work through their emotions to make sense of their feelings for one another and themselves is the most rewarding aspect of the film. For all his faults (like the reprehensible racism and misogyny in Sixteen Candles), Hughes’s strength was being able to perfectly express certain, near-universal teenage feelings through believable dialogue, and he rarely did it better than with this script. Keith and Amanda’s date is a prime example, first at dinner when they begin to be honest about how each is using the other for reasons they hadn’t even admitted to themselves, and then as they sit on the edge of the stage at the empty Hollywood Bowl, talking honestly about their feelings. This moment is the most heartbreaking in the film for me, when Amanda confesses to Keith, her voice wavering,
“I hate feeling ashamed. I hate where I’m from. I hate watching my friends get everything their hearts desire. I gave into that hatred and I turned on what I believed in. I didn’t have to. You didn’t.”
Lea Thompson gives an absolutely beautiful performance, and this is her crowning moment. Credit to the script for revealing layers of depth beneath Amanda’s popular girl sheen, but all props to Thompson for making them shine through. Eric Stoltz’s look of empathy and understanding, as Amanda talks, is equally beautiful. The entire cast shines. Stoltz, Masterson, and Thompson are brilliant. Elias Koteas, in what was supposed to be a small part, leaves a lasting impression as the tough-looking but amiable Duncan, who befriends Keith after school in detention, forming a sweet friendship. Apparently Koteas’ improvisations went over so well they kept expanding his role. When he playfully leans his head on Thompson’s neck during the party scene late in the film, her smiling reaction is genuine because she didn’t know he was going to do that. John Ashton’s scenes are mostly with Stoltz, and together they create what I’ve always felt is one of the most thoughtful father-son relationship in teen movie history.
I’ve been unable to do much lately, struggling with my concentration on writing, work, parenting or anything, really, all while my country burns. So when I recently revisited Some Kind of Wonderful twice in three days, it was most definitely as comfort viewing, to soothe a troubled soul. It’s a privilege to be able to put on a movie that helps you feel centered, and I don’t take that privilege lightly. While watching this movie that very much helped define how I saw myself as a teenager, I was struck by just how much I still relate to it. Some Kind of Wonderful might not have much to do with our current moment in history, but its prescience about youth, and sex and gender roles, will likely always feel fresh. It’s enough just to know it’s there, waiting for us to revisit it, or for future generations to discover for the first time, and maybe see a bit of themselves onscreen. That’s why, out of all the Hughes teen films, it’s always seemed the most warm and sincere to me. It wears its heart on its sleeve, and I can’t help but love that.