I enjoy chugging a nostalgia cocktail of The Breakfast Club or Better off Dead as much as any other eighties brat, but I can’t say I’ve ever yearned to visit Shermer, Illinois, or Greendale, California. So I didn’t expect the location-centric premise of Kevin Smokler’s new book Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ’80s Teen Movies to be a big wow. However, Smokler uses the physical and temporal settings of the films he swiftly analyzes as a means to get into themes and concerns that extend beyond mere zip codes. And when you think about it, the Rockwellian ideal of Kingston Falls that serves as the setting of the gremlins’ rampage in Gremlins or the dead-end dreariness of Milpitas, California, where a teen nihilistically murders his girlfriend in River’s Edge are essential to those film’s unique states of mind. Smokler convincingly suggests that Reagan’s love of Back to the Future had less to do with Marty McFly’s match-making exploits than it had to do with the conservative’s-wet-dream setting of 1950s Hill Valley.
Smokler’s entertaining, non-academic tone makes his travelogue as entertaining as a viewing of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, though the trip is a bit too speedy at times. I could have spent more time in some of these locales even as I realize that the author’s decision to cover as many films as he does necessitates such accelerated velocity. Along with the usual bumper crop of John Hughes movies there are less typical items such as Over the Edge, Hairspray, and Stand by Me, as well as key proto-eighties teen movies such as American Graffiti, The Warriors, and Breaking Away. I didn’t always agree with his assessments (I think he overstates the racism of Gremlins and understates the racism of Sixteen Candles, for example), but I consistently enjoyed the journey, which he makes more fun by picking up bitchin’ hitchhikers such as Savage Steve Holland, Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge, and Daniel Waters for little side trip interviews along the way.