I was ten years old when I first saw Some Kind of Wonderful. The angst of being a teenager still ahead of me meant I was old enough to have a crush on Keith (Eric Stoltz), but it was Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) who made the biggest impression. This girl on the screen inhabited everything I wanted to be. Watts was tough, she had singular style, and she fought her enemies with nothing more than attitude and witty remarks. She awakened a desire in me to be different. I immediately started dressing like her. I even made my own red fringe gloves, bought an electronic drum kit, and carried drumsticks around in the belt loop of my jeans. I couldn’t play the drums, hell, they weren’t even real drums, but having them made me feel more like Watts. More like the type of girl who could stand up for herself without giving a damn what anyone thought. Looking back, I realize I was already different, already an outcast and what I was looking for was a way to feel okay about it. If there was ever a filmmaker capable of making outcasts feel okay about who they are it was John Hughes.
In 1986, Hughes and director Howard Deutch joined forces to make Pretty in Pink, which ended with Andie (Molly Ringwald) choosing rich and popular Blane (Andrew McCarthy) over definitive outcast Duckie (Jon Cryer). The story behind the scenes is that Hughes had penned a different ending but changed it after it tested poorly with an audience. Not to worry, though, because the duo teamed up again the following year to bring us the last screenplay by Hughes to focus primarily on teenagers: Some Kind of Wonderful. This time Hughes got the ending he wanted, leaving beautiful and popular Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson) standing alone as the outcasts walked arm in arm into the moonlight. The movie is often criticized as being too similar to Pretty in Pink, minimizing it to little more than a gender-swapped version of the plot. Yet it has a number of qualities that help it stand on its own, including, but not limited to, an ending Hughes still felt a strong need to get right. But the most notable differences are found in the two female leads, Watts and Amanda Jones. The girls steal the show as two very different types, both with little interest in catering to anyone's ideas about who they are or what they should be.
"Ray, this is 1987. Did you know a girl can be whatever she wants to be?"
From the opening drumbeat, Watts knows exactly who she is and what she wants to be. School isn't her thing—she never studies. Family isn't her thing—there's mention of her brothers but her parents are gone. Drumming—now, that's her thing. Even her infatuation with Keith doesn't deter her from this passion. Unlike her male counterpart, the Duckman, Watts handles her unrequited feelings with a level of decorum. After many attempts to steer Keith away from his obsession with Amanda Jones she chooses to distance herself from the situation. She can't handle watching her best friend get hurt by this girl, but she definitely can't handle them ending up together. When she confronts Keith one last time about not going through with his date with Amanda, she goes against the grain of a lovelorn teenage girl by choosing to safeguard her own heart:
"I've been thinking a lot lately about you and me. And I came to a conclusion that I didn't wanna deal with, but now that we talked I can't hide it anymore. I think we'd get along much better if we didn't spend so much time together anymore."
Watts is constantly showing Keith how she feels about him, but he’s too stupid to notice. I mean, volunteering to work on "the kiss that kills" with him in the garage? C’mon, man! I guess it's fair to say that Watts keeps her emotions hidden given that she never wants to appear vulnerable. So, unlike Duckie's transparent devotion to Andie, it's not as obvious to Keith that she's head over heels for him. It’s obvious to the audience, though, and we watch her agonize over him from afar, but even that longing never weakens her character. She's made of stronger stuff than most and she proves it when she's unwilling to subject herself to a boy's ignorant disregard of her feelings, even if that boy happens to be her one and only friend. You never get the impression that Watts lacks the confidence to stand on her own. Even when she's comparing herself to Amanda in the locker room, her insecurity comes as a surprise. Sure, the realization that this is the type of girl Keith likes hurts, but she doesn't waste a lot of time wishing she were more like Amanda. Even when she makes the questionable and somewhat masochistic choice to act as chauffeur on their date, she owns it by using every opportunity to antagonize Amanda. From gunning the car when she's putting on her lipstick to threatening her with violence ("You break his heart I break your face"), Watts has no intention of making her feel like she belongs.
And where does Amanda Jones belong? She's from the wrong side of the tracks too, yet her looks and her boyfriend (Craig Sheffer as Hardy Jenns "with two N's!") have won her a spot among the rich kids. But earning their acceptance means staying with a guy who cheats on her constantly. Unlike Watts, Amanda doesn't have the nerve to stand out from the crowd. She's comfortable hiding behind the charade that she belongs with "the rich and the beautiful." That is until her so-called friends turn on her the second she accepts Keith's invitation, forcing her to accept that she was never really part of their group to begin with. A victim of guilt by association, Amanda isn't the type of girl Watts believes her to be, either. Having spent so much time pleasing everyone else, once she's finally given the opportunity to stand up for herself she has no intention of backing down. When Keith accuses her of using him to get back at Hardy the spark is ignited and she fires right back:
"And you didn't use me? God, you hypocrite! What's hanging in that museum, huh? My soul? No, it's my face. You're using me to pay back every guy with more money and more power than you. Paint it any color you want. It's still you using me."
She goes on to admit how ashamed she is of the choices she's made and ends up showing the most growth of any character in the movie. By the end she's even catching up with the likes of Watts, choosing herself by standing up to Hardy and her friends and finding the courage to stand out from the crowd: "It's gonna feel good to stand on my own."
As an adult watching Some Kind of Wonderful I'm struck by how much more captivating the girls are compared to the boys. Keith's sweet and all and he certainly looks cute in his work uniform, but I don't really care about the issues with his Dad and whether or not he goes to college. And while he tells his Dad he's an outcast at school, we never really see him struggling to fit in. Even Duncan (Elias Koteas) and his gang end up on his side. I mean, aside from Hardy wanting to kick his ass I'm not spending a lot of time crying over how hard life is for Keith. It’s Watts and Amanda who drive the angst and momentum of the story. And they surprise us at every turn by not conforming to any preconceptions we have about them based on gender or appearance. Watts even apologizes to Amanda for misjudging her, providing yet another great example of how she's the world's most progressive teenage girl. I love that they never stoop to being catty and that neither of them fits inside a perfect little box labeled "tomboy" or "dream girl." They stand on their own as individuals with depth and that’s an important message and portrayal for teenage girls from thirty years ago and today.
On February 18th John Hughes would have been 67 years old. Although some may think of his movies as pure nostalgia, they run much deeper than that for me. At ten I wanted to be like Watts. I never did learn to play the drums and I'm not sure where those red fringe gloves ended up. But that little spark she ignited in me burns even brighter inside the woman I am today. She helped me embrace who I was and to face that teenage angst head on with attitude and witty remarks. In Watts, John Hughes created someone I could look up to who was comfortable with who she was and who looked damn cool just being herself. Even thirty years later I still recognize myself in every outcast wandering the hallways in his movies. All of them trying to shatter that image that defines what people think of them. That was what John Hughes did best. He used his characters to shatter every preconception teenagers have about those faces they see in the hall. He made icons out of outcasts to show young people that it's okay to be you and to celebrate our differences.