Growing Pains Pretty in Pink

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"Oh, why can't we start old and get younger?" keens Iona (Annie Potts), a perky eccentric in her 30s who has never discarded the totems of a happily trashy youth: prom dress, beehive hairdo and the Association crooning Cherish. But there is enough sweet irony in her voice to suggest that she has looked into the face of her teenage pal Andie (Molly Ringwald) and seen just why the Fountain of Youth is laced with citric acid. Teenhood is the pits. Faces are constantly aflush with anger, ardor, embarrassment. Anguish over dates and grades streaks the first application of mascara. Clique rivalries make the Iran-Iraq war seem congenial by comparison. Emotions newly discovered are unique and convulsive. She loves me! Life hates me! How anyone endures this seven-year manic-depressive itch is a mystery even to those who have survived it.

Here's where John Hughes comes in. Alone in the plague of tits-and-zits teen pix, which treat adolescence as one endless gonadal giggle, his movies (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club) are pretty acutely attuned to the exposed nerve ends of ordinary kids. Nice kids like Andie, a middle-class high school senior who plays nurse to her sad-sack dad (Harry Dean Stanton), puts up with the suffocating devotion of a funny dork named Duckie (Jon Cryer) and moons over Blane, a wealthy classmate (Andrew McCarthy) who maybe loves her back.

That's right, folks: Pretty in Pink really is about whether the rich boy will invite the poor girl to the senior prom. Though it is at pains to present high school as a class society in which the rich (in their preppy Miami Vice linens) already know how to use the tyranny of style to ostracize poor Andie and Duckie (in their junk-punk-funk handmades), at base the picture is Love Finds Andie Walsh. And when Stanton must play a Judge Hardy on the skids, the psychodrama can get awfully wet. But within this familiar format, Hughes creates edge, surprise and romance. Blane and Andie's first chat, conducted on their school computer terminals, is a lovely '80s twist on meeting cute. Blane's snooty friend Steff (James Spader) could be a tired stereotype, but with his all-year tan, his hip-blase voice and his view of high school as a "career," Steff becomes a recognizable character of any age: upscale slime in embryo.

First-Timer Howard Deutch is a nice surprise too. His precise, unexploitative direction is sympathetic to the awkward pauses in teen talk, to the mopery of first love, to the suicidal bravado of words spoken in heat. Like Hughes, he is eager to let his fine young actors strut their stuff: McCarthy, his tight, knowing smile intoxicating every female in sight (and doesn't he know it); Cryer, prancing, caroming, jiving nonstop, exploding into a sublime lip synch of Otis Redding's Try a Little Tenderness; Ringwald, the henna-haired emotional anchor. With their help, any attentive moviegoer can walk into Pretty in Pink feeling as old as failure, and--snap--get younger.