Starring Rob Lowe, Jacqueline Bisset, Andrew McCarthy, and Cliff Robertson
My rating: ★★★ stars
Smart coming-of-age film focuses on unlikely friendship.
When Class came out in 1983, critics compared it unfavorably to The Graduate. In both films, a young man has an affair with a troubled older woman. However, this comparison is unfair; the focus of Class is not on the affair. Instead, Class is about a friendship between two very different young men.
Working class Jonathan (Andrew McCarthy), with intelligence and ambition, earns a scholarship to a prestigious Midwestern prep school for his senior year. Geeky, awkward, and guileless, he clashes immediately with his wealthy, slick, charming, handsome roommate, Skip (Rob Lowe). Nevertheless, the boys soon demonstrate an ability to put their differences aside and appreciate their complementary natures.
When gawky Jonathan proves a disaster with the opposite sex, Skip pays for him to have a night out in Chicago and coaches him on how to pick up women. Jonathan proves inept at the task, but a sexy older woman (Jacqueline Bisset) takes him under her wing, so to speak. The film intelligently explores the complexities of the subject of sex at a time when most teen movies made it a source of humor. Even when the boys make light of it in the movie, as boys will do, the film never forgets the emotional impact of the experience.
The affair between Jonathan and this mysterious woman, whose name we eventually learn is Ellen, takes up a good portion of the middle of the film, but it’s his bromance with Skip that rests at the heart of the movie. It’s not an easy friendship. The boys are too different for them to realistically slip into perfect accord. The tension underlying their relationship reflects an understanding of how such a friendship might exist in the real world unlike too many narrative friendships that proceed either with unrealistic ease or with comic disharmony. Despite their differences, we sense the loyalty, respect, and affection that unite the two.
The performances from McCarthy, Lowe, and Bisset are wonderfully complex and touching. Lowe particularly impresses with a role that, at first, is perfectly suited to his arrogant, jocular charm but grows, allowing Lowe to explore unexpected depths of emotion. McCarthy manages to make Jonathan’s awkwardness and naivety endearing, rather than merely a vehicle for humor. Bisset reportedly was disappointed that the final cut eliminated the “subtext” of her character. Indeed, Ellen remains something of a mystery throughout the movie. Nonetheless, Bisset handles the multifaceted character well, imbuing the film with “class.”
The title of the film holds many meanings. On the most basic level, it refers to the idea of a school class. It also represents the socio-economic class differences between Jonathan and Skip. And, finally it denotes the stylish sophistication that the young men, particularly gauche Jonathan, need and secretly desire.
The film’s flaws are mostly structural. It easily divides into three sections: prep school hijinks, the affair, and an investigation into an academic scandal. Yes, the story of the boys’ friendship spans all three arcs, but they are so distinct as to seem almost like different movies.
The first section belongs in a movie with a very different tone, one of the mass of cheap teenage sex comedies that were popular at the time. Although it’s nice to see John Cusack, Alan Ruck, and Virginia Madsen in early roles, the time spent on low-humor shenanigans would be better spent exploring the three main characters. Also, Cliff Robertson has a minor role as Skip’s father but gets so little screen time that he can only hint at being more than a stock figure.
The best parts of the movie are those spent exploring the relationships between the main characters. These relationships form the basis for the boys’ growth; through their interactions, the boys come of age.
When this movie was first released, the poster unfortunately revealed a major spoiler for the film. (Because of this, I’ve chosen to include the DVD cover art in this post instead of the original spoiler.) Watching the film must have been frustrating for audiences who knew the secret, which isn’t revealed until halfway through the film. Luckily, when I saw the film for the first time, I hadn’t seen the spoiler.