"Pretty in Pink" brings my family together

Though my life's been nothing like "Pretty in Pink," I hope it helps my kid understand me anyway

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 28, 2013 5:30PM (EDT)

"I don't get it," Lucy says. "Isn't Duckie gay?"

My 13-year-old and I are watching "Pretty in Pink" together. We are curled up in a suite at Sloan-Kettering, plowing through the teen movies of my youth while an IV drips in the drugs I hope will grant me an old age. She had wanted to come with me today, to this place that's been my second home for the past three years, to see this part of my world. But I wanted to show her another side of my life too.

To tell the truth, my teen years in Jersey City looked nothing like a John Hughes movie. I was never even much of a fan. My preferred coming of age movies of that era were always "Times Square" and "Repo Man." But I knew a Hughes marathon would be a good window into a time that my child's mother lived through long ago, one in which she spent a lot of time having strangers survey her flame-red hair and heavy eyeliner and ask, "Do you know who you look like?"

We know our parents only as our parents. It's difficult to imagine that they were once awkward and angsty and roaming around school hallways, loathing much of it but terrified of what on earth would happen when they got out. They sermonize to us, "I was once your age, you know," but we don't, not really. I could tell that to my daughter -- my sweet, sometimes sullen firstborn -- a million times and have her never quite believe it. Instead, lately, I've been wanting to show her.

My family and I love watching movies together. A few months ago, it was "Pitch Perfect," and ever since, my daughters have been wearing out the Tupperware trying to perfect their version of "Cups." It's a charming, funny movie in its own right, but it also heavily references another one – "The Breakfast Club." So that's where we would begin on our day of John Hughes.

For 90 minutes, we watch a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal squabble and share their feelings and destroy a lot of school property and occasionally bust out some very Reagan era dance moves. As a 21st century kid, Lucy doesn't understand the joke of Claire's sushi lunch -- her classmates bring bento boxes to school all the time. On the other hand, she finds the notion of Claire giving her diamond earring to the switchblade-wielding tough guy -- who then romantically jams it in his lobe -- hilarious. I, meanwhile, find myself in two states at once – easily summoning up exactly what I felt like as a weird, dandruffy teenager, but also aching as only a parent can ache watching kids sit around talking about how miserable their parents are. And when Vernon grouses, "You think about this: when you get old, these kids -- when I get old -- they're going to be running the country; this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night," I realize, oh crap, I guess we are.

Next, we watch "Pretty in Pink" together, Lucy and I commenting and asking each other questions while we nibble chocolate. She instantly sees in Duckie something she recognizes now in her openly gay classmates – a subtext I didn't even consider until a good decade after I'd first seen the movie. "Yeah," I tell her, "but lots of guys dressed like that in the '80s. It was a very challenging time for a straight girl." I rattle off the names of the bands on the record shop walls – Scritti Politti! The Smiths! Dweezil Zappa! He's also in the club scene! – while she boggles at Stef's preppy wardrobe.

When I was her age, I did the same thing. I remember watching the Gidget and Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon beach movies my mother had adored as a teenager. My mom was no California surfer girl, but in those movies I saw a glimpse of the world she'd once inhabited, and the life she'd briefly experienced as a party-loving girl who lived to go down the Shore, the life she had before she became simply Mom. And now when we watch "Some Kind of Wonderful" or "Say Anything" or "Footloose" or even "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" together, I hope Lucy gets some sense of who I once was too – who I in many ways still am, under the laugh lines and the nagging about homework. (Or at least why I sometimes find it entertaining to solemnly intone that all we are is dust in the wind.) That I was and always will be the person who believes you should dance your ass off.

The little girl who not so long ago I looked at and saw as a Miyazaki character is now rapidly blossoming into the kind of curious, wild-haired Merchant-Ivory heroine I once saw in a movie and thought, "Someday I will name my daughter after her." I wonder now what movies Lucy might one day share with her own kids. My daughters and I have blown through several eras of great, girl-oriented teen movies – we worship at the altar of "Clueless" and "Mean Girls" and "Bring It On" and "Ten Things I Hate About You." But more recently the cinematic pickings have been depressingly slim. My daughter loves "The Hunger Games" and can't wait for "Divergent," but I really hope she doesn't ever relate to them. Her two favorite recent films featuring kids roughly her age – "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" – take place in other eras. And I could be wrong, but I just don't see her and her sister one day looking back on "Monte Carlo" or "The Bling Ring" as their generation's classics. Thank God for "The Way, Way Back" or I'd have written this summer off entirely.

Lucy's current favorite teen heroine won't even appear on-screen till next year. It's "The Fault in Our Stars'" Hazel Grace Lancaster -- and that kid has cancer. I think she loves her primarily because she's the star of a brilliant, funny, moving book. But it probably doesn't hurt that like Hazel, Lucy intimately knows the world of cancer support groups and drips and death. I think about that as we watch movies together from our little room at Sloan-Kettering, and wonder what stories the movies of her teen years will ultimately tell. And even if they'll never exactly document her adventures any more than the films of my youth did, I still can't help but hope that most of her stories take place somewhere other than here. And that they have very happy endings.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Cancer John Hughes Teenagers The Fault In Our Stars The Way Way Back