In our Teen Movie Rewind series, we explore coming of age stories and teen cinema, looking at the impact of the films themselves and the careers that they made.
Marking the directorial debut of Cameron Crowe, Say Anything was not Crowe’s first foray into the world of film, or even the realm of the teen movie. After having made his mark writing for Rolling Stone Magazine as a teenager, experiences he would tap into for his 2000 film Almost Famous, Crowe had already made a considerable mark as a feature film writer with Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Released in 1982, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, like so many teen films of the decade, launched the careers of several prominent stars, most notably Sean Penn, as well as Judge Reinhold and Phoebe Cates. Two years later Crowe would write another teen film, the lesser-known The Wild Life, but it would be five years before Crowe would have another film produced, this time also stepping into the director’s chair, and with it he would launch a directorial career that would subsequently take in Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, and Vanilla Sky.
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Released into cinemas in 1989, Say Anything was critically acclaimed, but was also something of an underperformer at the box office. While never actually gaining a theatrical release in the UK and instead going straight-to-video – never a good sign – in this case it was down more to the film’s lacklustre commercial performance than a critique of its quality. What’s more, the film would cement the stardom of its leading actor, while giving teen cinema one of its most enduring and famous scenes.
It’s at this stage we say hello to John Cusack. Say Anything wasn’t Cusack’s first foray into the realm of the teen movie, in fact we had already seen him as one of the nerdier characters in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles. He was one of the most frequently cast actors in many of the decade’s plethora of stories centred around teenage characters, so much so that it comes as surprise to see that he was only in one of Hughes’ films and not more.
The star-making role for Cusack had been in Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing, one of the most underrated teen films of the decade that on paper looked like a typical male teen-driven sex comedy (guy goes on a road trip to have sex with a girl known as, you guessed it, The Sure Thing), but was instead more of a screwball comedy romance, as if Howard Hawks had directed a film in the 80s. It starred college-aged characters, fuelled by a genuinely witty script and crackling chemistry between Cusack and Daphne Zuniga, as well as early supporting roles for Tim Robbins, Anthony Edwards and Nicolette Sheridan.
From there Cusack would channel his brand of personable charm and soft vocal delivery into the type of sensitive male teen leads that were a thousand miles away from the archetypes that were to be found in Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. Say Anything would mark Cusack’s last foray into the realm of teen cinema (and depending on who you ask, his work during this era isn’t exactly something he’s always prone to talking about), but it also marks the most perfect example of a Cusack teen film; it’s subtle, charming, funny, with moments of nicely played drama, and fuelled by a tone that is genuinely bittersweet. On top of being a pure representation of what Cusack could bring to the screen, it also perfectly sums up what we think of when we think of a Cameron Crowe film.
Crowe’s films are more likely to be kicked around by critics nowadays, and they’re also the type of films that Hollywood isn’t rushing to make anymore, given that the industry is now fuelled more by large interconnected franchises and comic book movies as opposed to the type of mid-budgeted comedy-dramas that were a dime a dozen in the 90s, a type of film that Crowe was very much a major voice in. It also comes as no surprise to also find James L. Brooks producing; a similarly creative force in that type of smaller scale, character-driven comedy-drama film that used to draw in big-name casts, having directed Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News, the latter of which Cusack had a small role in.
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It’s strange to think of Crowe as someone famous for his sweetly dramatic and comedic style of films, given that he made his name with the raucous Fast Times. Of course, it garnered great reviews, made big names of several of its cast, and was slickly directed by Amy Heckerling (who we’ll talk about more when we get to Clueless) but the fact that the film’s most famous moment involved Phoebe Cates in a state of undress says a lot about what audiences were taking from it.
As a director, Crowe would go on to cement his career helming Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, character-driven stories that could lurch from hysterically funny one moment to achingly poignant the next, and nowhere is that seen more brilliantly than here. For a decade that gave us the output of Hughes but also Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds and The Last American Virgin, it’s somewhat gratifying that the decade would come to an end with a film that would put more emphasis on sweetness and a subtle level of drama than the more commercialised high-jinks of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller, and the sexualised antics of Porky’s.
Class differences are very much at the forefront of Say Anything in a manner similar to Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful (in fact, all three would make for a terrific triple-bill), centring itself on the love story of a boy, Lloyd Dobler (Cusack), meeting an accomplished girl, Diane Court (Ione Skye), but whose father (a pre-Frasier John Mahoney) does not approve of the relationship.
It might sound like the type of story we’ve seen a million times before (so many teen films are, but it’s their execution that makes them worth watching), but Crowe’s handling of the direction of his own script ensures that the film feels fresh and different to anything that has come before. The spectre of Hughes does hang over proceedings a little, and one can pinpoint similarities with Some Kind of Wonderful (itself similar to Pretty in Pink) and yet more in line with Hughes’ last teen script, Crowe relies more on a portrayal of sensitivity and genuine romance than cutting back to zany comedy and impromptu dance numbers, while Crowe’s love of music is filtered through so much of the film, right down to its most iconic moment.
The sight of Dobler with a boombox playing Peter Gabriel’s ‘In Your Eyes’ at full volume to win back Diane in the final act is probably one of the most enduring and famous images of the entire teen movie genre. It’s a wonderfully overt declaration of love, with the image of Cusack holding the boombox above his head the most iconic moment of his career.
It’s the most teen movie moment in a film that, while having teenagers, is just as at home in dealing with Diane’s father, Jim (Mahoney) and his own story involving embezzlement; a story that might have been off-putting to younger audiences who were there to see characters their own age, but which is performed magnificently by Mahoney and Skye, the latter forging a career in independent films after this, most prominently Alison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging.
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In many ways, Say Anything was a taster for the type of more subtle and adult-oriented dramas that were to be a dime a dozen in the 90s, the type made famous by Brooks, but that it was being driven here by Crowe in a film populated by teen characters was all the better, somewhat bridging the gap of the 80s with that of the 90s.
As we’d enter the next decade, the teen film itself would go through an interesting period, influenced a lot by Hughes, but which was about to also look towards classic pieces of literature and bring them up to date as means to tell fresh new stories, populated by teen characters, and played by future stars.
It’s somewhat brilliant that the decade would end not with another Hughes film, but one by a director about go through a brilliant period of his own, and that the decade and its influx of many, many teen films would come to an end with the enduring image of Cusack and that boombox.