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‘Brats’ assesses the meanings of the Brat Pack. They are legion.

1 month ago 19

As a country, we love categorizing people so that the complicated is made to seem simple and distinct, and unruly individuals are sanded down so that they fit more neatly into designated boxes. This is what actor Andrew McCarthy believes happened to him when a 1985 New York magazine article lumped him together with a handful of other young performers under the cover line “Hollywood’s Brat Pack.” The moniker rolled easily off the tongue and quickly became an efficient way to identify a group of actors, all then under 25, who worked together in ensemble films such as “The Breakfast Club” and “St. Elmo’s Fire,” some of whom also spent time socializing and carousing together around Los Angeles.

The story by David Blum was not especially flattering. But it wasn’t annihilating, either. It presented these actors as a force, a movement, a roving party — and I wanted to be invited. I was captivated by the Brat Pack. By each and every member.

The designation, a play on the Rat Pack of the ’50s, added fuel to McCarthy’s fame, which was already skyrocketing. But for him, it was also destabilizing. Something had been wrested from his control. So he has made “Brats,” a documentary about that time in his life, about what the label meant to him and his cohort and, most effectively, what that group of actors meant to those who were peering into their world from the outside.

The Brat Pack included an array of actors who reflected — not all, but a great many — of the anxieties, emotions and relationship conundrums of the generation dubbed “X,” one that has spent much of its existence in the shadows, without the numerical clout of baby boomers or millennials to excite pollsters or politicians … or anybody. For a brief period in the 1980s, Generation X — the latchkey kids who rode their bicycles without helmets and never got a trophy just for participating — mattered to marketers.

McCarthy never worked through his resentments, so his documentary is a bit like listening in on therapy sessions that include Blum, fellow Brat Packers Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy and Rob Lowe, the Brat Pack-adjacent Lea Thompson and Jon Cryer, and the man who was the original subject of the magazine story that spawned the name, Emilio Estevez. Missing from the documentary’s cast is Molly Ringwald, who wanted to leave the past in the past. Fair enough. And Judd Nelson, who was elusive and evasive, which is just what one might expect if fact were fiction, specifically the fiction of “The Breakfast Club.” Nelson, after all, was the bad boy of the group.

The height of their fame coincided with an era when Hollywood began churning out films aimed at young people teetering on the cusp of adulthood, or those who had just dipped a toe into those roiling waters. It was a time in their lives when they were sorting out where they belonged, and here was a group of characters that included the Renegade, the Smartass, the Heartthrob, the Nerd, the Princess, the Jock, the Rich Kid, the Poor Kid, etc. Sometimes those reflections seemed unnervingly real, as when the class geek lamented his desire to just have fun and when the hotshot athlete yearned to be considered thoughtful and sensitive. At other times, they were merely funhouse reflections of young adult self-obsessions run amok. Whatever issue the films raised, however, it was treated with respect and consideration, and a bit of tough realism.

The ’80s were the halcyon days of John Hughes movies, in which they starred. They were the go-to actors for a decade of ensemble films depicting high-schoolers and recent college graduates who created a family with their friends and together muddled their way toward maturity. The audiences for those films were doing the same thing in their own lives. And if they were lucky, that self-created family held together into middle age, and the people who knew them from the beginning still love and support them in ways that are deep and true.

McCarthy was a young man who took himself quite seriously and felt trapped by the Brat Pack label because it seemed to enter the room and define him before he could utter a word; he believed it set the tone for the rest of his career. But the label also made him more than just another talented young actor. There had been plenty of those in earlier generations, and there would be many more to come. The packers were different; together, each member helped to form a cultural touchstone. McCarthy was a participant, albeit an unwilling one, in a Hollywood fable about friendship, individuality and acceptance — one that existed beyond a single film, that existed beyond film itself.

When those who were part of the Brat Pack describe the experience, their musings focus on feeling typecast or diminished. But as a fan, it was their collective impact that truly mattered. The Brat Pack preceded social media, which at its best connects like-minded individuals across geography and time zones, and at its worst sends insecure teens into a doom-scrolling spirals. The group, for a time, dominated the pop culture conversation. They shifted the spotlight from Tom Wolfe’s masters of the universe and the baby boomers of “The Big Chill.” It was quite nice to feel that you were the center of the culture’s attention, that your obsessions meant something outside your neighborhood or high school or town. The Brat Pack — a phrase that at various times included at least a dozen actors — stands out because it existed as a self-contained society.

Individually, the actors never resonated the way they did collectively. Moore went on to movie stardom with provocative films such as “Disclosure” and “G.I. Jane,” as well as her boundary-pushing nude-while-pregnant Vanity Fair cover. Her romances and marriages have been documented and considered. But it’s doubtful that many people saw themselves in her, no matter how intrigued they might have been by her life. Lowe’s work on “The West Wing,” may, may lead his obituary some day. Each actor demonstrated varying degrees of talent and went on to grab their share of success. But together they represented a generational shift that was both entertaining and thoughtful.

Their films explored group dynamics, especially those related to class. What was it like to be the blue-collar kid mooning over someone from the McMansion side of town? Race didn’t exist in the Brat Pack landscape, not as an expression of culture, or a matter of social tension or simply as a point of diversity. There were no Black brats in the suburbs of Chicago, where so many of Hughes’s films were set and which seemed like home base for the pack. Such a notion is absurd and abhorrent; the city was nearly whitewashed, in the same way that the New York City of “Friends” and “Seinfeld” was.

Still, it was possible to find a connection to the films’ stories in ways that were meaningful. Insecurities, ambition and friendship are universal. But I lament how much more compelling those movies, those characters — the pack — would have been if they had also been more diverse.

There’s a lot going on in this world, and “Brats” is little more than a trifle. But that doesn’t mean it’s without any value. For those of a certain age, it’s a bit of nostalgia for a time when a wide open future was both invigorating and unnerving, when you moved through life with a hand-selected pack. And validation of those feelings and choices were, for the first time, up there on a multiplex screen. The Brat Pack remains a real-time argument for the enduring lessons we learn from our peers and the power of simple gestures. Pop culture can do important work when a once-overlooked audience is finally seen with curiosity and delight.

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