You Remind Me of a Very Young Jayne Cobb
When I was in high school, we used to talk about how our school stacked up to the schools in the movies. Until today, I'd never seen this, which came out fifteen years before I graduated, but it was not enormously similar to what we experienced every day. By high school, the importance of bullies was somewhat lessened compared to the very real issue of gang fights. There were still bullies, but you had to be careful who you picked on, even if they looked weak, because you never knew who they were going to be connected to in a way which could get you seriously hurt if someone decided to take notice. Bullies were much more of an elementary school problem for me, and by junior high, I was part of a large social group which precluded bullying, because you would have had to have isolated someone. Not easy, all things considered. So by sixth grade, the bigger problem for me was emotional abuse instead of the classic "beat them up and steal their lunch money."
Clifford Peache (Chris Makepeace) is not so lucky. He and his family have just moved to Chicago, where his father (Martin Mull) is the manager of the Ambassador East Hotel. Although he's picked up and dropped off by a hotel limo, Clifford is sent to public school. A particularly grim one at that. When he's there, Clifford falls afoul of Moody (Matt Dillon), school bully. Moody has a racket where he gets all the kids to pay him protection money, as much as a dollar a day (in 1980!). Moody claims that this money pays for him and his band of thugs to protect the kids from the mysterious and ominous Ricky Linderman (Adam Baldwin in his first film role). Clifford refuses to pay, and eventually, he gets the idea that perhaps he should be paying Linderman protection money instead. Which is a kind of logic. Only Linderman isn't really going for it, and Clifford must talk him into becoming part of their group to keep them safe from Moody.
The character of Linderman is from a long line of "scary high school outsider," another notable example of which is Heath Ledger's character in [i]10 Things I Hate About You[/i]. Rumours abound at this school about exactly what Linderman has done--I was a little taken aback by the suggested possibility that he had raped a teacher and frankly stunned that the kids thought he could have shot a cop and not, you know, ended up in prison. Patrick Verona's allegedly having eaten a duck pales in comparison. Adam Baldwin was eighteen when he made this movie and looks it. He looks a little older than his costars (in two years, Makepeace would go on to look younger than his costars in [i]Mazes & Monsters), even though he and Joan Cusack, at least, are the same age. This is one of the only things I've seen him in where he wasn't playing a sociopath, just a big guy who developed a reputation and has a terrible secret. He's willing to intimidate, but he does not want to fight.
I didn't think we really needed the family subplot. Oh, I love Ruth Gordon, but she was fading by 1980. I'd rather remember her as Maude, not as a boozy, flirtatious grandmother. I suppose Martin Mull is important because he ends up having to learn to stand up for himself as well, but so what? Exploring the relationship among the kids was more worthwhile. I especially liked that Linderman was so clearly interested in Shelley (Cusack) but afraid to tell her. That was more interesting than Clifford's grandmother hitting on some married man from Cincinnati in front of his wife. More interesting than her hitting it off with John Houseman. I suppose the lesson is that bullies are always with us, in one way or another, and learning to stand up for yourself is A Valuable Lesson, even for adults. Well, okay; I get that. But I think it only served to weigh down the movie, which was better served by just being about how much it can suck to be a kid.
Related to that is the fact that the teachers in this movie are all but invisible except when they're busy making things more difficult for the kids. Clifford starts his stint at this particular school in the homeroom of Ms Jump (Kathryn Grody), who sees what's going on because it happens in her classroom. But she doesn't do anything about it. It even seems that there is no one teaching gym, and that it's more a free-for-all in which no one cares that Moody has slammed into Clifford for making a particularly smooth move during basketball which shows Moody up. The movie shows the Code of the School that you can never, never get adults involved. But why don't the adults involve themselves? After all, while they may not know that Moody is extorting bus fare and lunch money from easily half the student body (surely he should be better dressed!), they can't help noticing when someone breaks into a kid's locker and dumps garbage into it, can they? I suspect, if it were covered by the film, the adults would say that learning to stand up to bullies builds character. Or, you know, breaks spirits.