'Say Anything' at 30: The Only ‘80s Teen Romance That Holds Up in a #Metoo World

Evolving standards of decency have forced Generation X to reassess many of the cultural touchstones of our youth. None other than Molly Ringwald, the Audrey Hepburn of ‘80s teen drama, said that she now finds elements of The Breakfast Club, problematic in the post-Harvey Weinstein era.

Filmmakers no longer mine nonconsensual sex for laughs, but it’s hard to find even recent films that pass the Bechdel test. Sure, James Cameron’s scrappy action heroines were battling aliens and evil future robots as far back as the ‘80s and ‘90s, but movie damsels continued to be distressed and in need of knights in shining armor well into the Obama administration. The road to wokeness in American film has been a meandering one.

Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut, Say Anything, released 30 years ago this month, sits at the end of a long, straight detour off that road. It bypasses many later Hollywood movies to end up in a place far more in synch with contemporary sensibilities. Say Anything is a film middle-aged parents can watch (or, for many, re-watch) largely without fear of reproach from their #MeToo-generation teens.

(Spoilers, of course, ahead.)

In terms of basic plot, the movie hardly seems groundbreaking: John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler is an affable but rudderless high school student who decides to ask the far more driven class valedictorian, Diane Court (Ione Skye), out on a date. Diane is headed to England in a few months on a prestigious scholarship, while Lloyd has no plans in particular. The romance blossoms over the summer following their graduation until Diane abruptly dumps Lloyd, who then woos her back.

That spare recap suggests a story prone to the narrow, latently sexist worldview of many teen dramatic comedies. Crowe, however, largely avoids that rut by centering Lloyd in a fully realized world of his own and doing the same for Diane. Diane’s no mere hot chick waiting to be won to someone with lots of stuff going on in her life other than boys (or this boy in particular). Diane gets to be as complicated as Lloyd.

Although conventionally pretty, for instance, Diane isn’t a flawless teenage goddess. She’s a kid every bit as bewildered, in her own way, as Lloyd. She has her own particular shortcomings, such as an utter lack of friends her own age. Their romance comes across as two young people who help each other navigate the rocky transition to adulthood and self-definition, not merely a quest in which we are rooting for lovable schlub Lloyd to win his valuable prize. Lloyd isn’t meant as a stand-in for all the ordinary white guys in the audience fantasizing about landing a dream girl. Diane isn’t a dream girl. She’s a real one.

Say Anything defies expectations in other ways. Lloyd’s closest friends are also girls. Not girls he’s secretly crushing on—or who are crushing on him—but genuine pals. There’s even a bit where Lloyd, taking a halfhearted stab at conventionality, tries and humorously fails to befriend some beer-swilling bros lurking at the local convenience store.

Diane’s relationship with her dad James (played by the late, great John Mahoney) is likewise more complex than is standard for the genre. Unlike many onscreen fathers, James is not creepily possessive of his daughter’s sexuality, never resorting to lame, semi-menacing jokes about buying a shotgun to protect his “little girl.” Instead, we get a portrait of a single parent striking a balance between prudent concern for his daughter and his support for her as she discovers her own sexual agency.

We see Diane make that discovery in a scene where she and Lloyd lose their virginity to each other during a sweetly awkward, plausibly brief interlude. It looks more like two people learning to play Twister in the darkened back seat of a car and ends with Lloyd, overcome with emotion, trembling in Diane’s arms. And that too scans as refreshingly true. It’s often the boy who needs the reassuring embrace, not the girl, our performative displays of masculinity notwithstanding.

Say Anything isn’t quite perfect; the movie’s best-known scene, in which Lloyd holds a boombox over his head as it blares Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” may have once seemed innocently bold and romantic. These days, it looks like a desperate bid by a spurned lover who can’t take no for an answer.

Still, the movie’s virtues vastly outweigh its flaws. In the end, we see Lloyd and Diane reunited, with Lloyd following her to England, a decision made offscreen and hardly remarked upon—of course it would be Lloyd who drops everything to share in Diane’s tremendous opportunity, inverting the standard arrangement in which the boy’s ambitions are foregrounded and the girlfriend cheers him on. And that’s of a piece with the tone of most of the rest of the movie.

Ultimately, though, Say Anything remains fresh because Crowe strained to create a believable teen relationship. We can easily imagine a Diane and Lloyd today in their late 40s bumping into each other long after their more-or-less amicable breakup, their hardening age lines melting into broad smiles.

You can see them chatting for a bit, vaguely agreeing to friend one another on Facebook, then locking in a gentle embrace that lasts a beat longer than necessary before they part ways once again, this time for good.

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