Andrew McCarthy Reclaims the Narrative in Brats

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Andrew McCarthy Reclaims the Narrative in Brats

“They treat us like we are not real.” That’s Andrew McCarthy during his new Hulu documentary Brats. Inspired by McCarthy’s 2021 book Brat: An ’80s Story, the movie reflects on the 1980s, when movies about young people dominated the cineplexes and McCarthy and his contemporaries were infamously labeled “The Brat Pack.” 

McCarthy, who directs Brats, is not wrong. It’s easy to forget that celebrities are real people. Look no further than Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. Are they real people going through possible marital strife? Or just pop-culture characters we can be gossipy about? In the 1980s there was, perhaps, no bigger group of celebrities than the Brat Pack. They starred in the movies of Gen X’s collective youth: The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty in Pink, just to name a few. Their cultural impact reverberates nearly four decades later.

But our documentation of it began on June 10, 1985, when David Blum published an article for New York magazine. It started off as a feature on Emilio Estevez, but it morphed into a piece about Estevez and his compatriots—specifically Rob Lowe and Judd Nelson. “This is the Hollywood Brat Pack. It is to the 1980s what the Rat Pack was to the 1960s,” Blum wrote. And that term, that clever turn of phrase, stuck. The article was timed to the release of St. Elmo’s Fire, which became the epitome of what Blum was writing about.

The article is full of snark. It dubs Nelson “the overrated one,” who is better off when typecast. It notes that Estevez “appears to revel in the attention heaped upon him almost everywhere he goes.” And it declares that McCarthy’s peers “don’t think he’ll make it.” Reading the article now with the hindsight of almost 40 years, Blum comes off as petty—perhaps even jealous. But, like the celebrities he was profiling, he too was in his 20s. Who among us wants to be remembered by only our behavior in our 20s?

McCarthy, who broke Molly Ringwald’s heart in Pretty in Pink and pined for Ally Sheedy in St. Elmo’s Fire, is barely mentioned in the article. But once the article came out, he was a Brat Packer by association. “I remember seeing that cover and thinking ‘oh fuck,’” McCarthy says. “I just thought that was terrible instantly. And it turns out I was right…that changed my life and that changed everyone who was involved’s life.”

Brats wrestles with the question who exactly was in the Brat Pack. Not Tom Cruise—although he is name-checked in the article, his career transcended that definition. And not Timothy Hutton either, although he’s mentioned in the article as well. The article focused on men, with nary a mention of Demi Moore or Molly Ringwald, the two actresses who come to mind when the term Brat Pack is tossed around.

It’s fascinating to watch McCarthy reflect on what this period of his life, what it meant then and what it means now. What’s most stunning is how the article fractured relationships. McCarthy hadn’t seen Sheedy in 30 years. He hadn’t seen Estevez since the night of the St. Elmo’s Fire premiere. Estevez, the first person McCarthy interviews, is dubbed the “unofficial president of the Brat Pack.” The two actors never worked together again. They both reference a movie they were supposed to do together that fell apart because of the article.

McCarthy’s humility and curiosity are Brats‘ undercurrent. He comes to the project with an open heart, trying to unpack the stigma that has followed him and his co-stars for decades. “The whole point of talking about it is so we don’t get triggered anymore by it,” he says. The strength of the movie lies in the variety of voices McCarthy brings in. He interviews several actors who, by their own definition, are Brat Pack-adjacent: Jon Cryer (forever Duckie in Pretty in Pink), Lea Thompson (Back to the Future) and Timothy Hutton (who had won an Oscar for Ordinary People in 1981). He also interviews those who circled the Brat Pack: director Howard Deutch (Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful), casting director Marci Liroff and talent manager Loree Rodkin. Some even offer a positive spin on the term Brat Pack. “If we had perceived it that way, all our careers and lives would have been different,” McCarthy says.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of books including The Tipping Point, adds cultural context as someone of that generation. “Phrases endure when they have a kind of cleverness and they have some truth to them,” he says. Gladwell, who says he was “Team Duckie,” reflects on how less fractured pop culture was in the ’80s. He and Bret Easton Ellis, who wrote Less Than Zero (which became a movie starring McCarthy), explore why these movies had such a lasting impact. Part of it is that you couldn’t just turn on Netflix and navigate to the movie you wanted to see. You couldn’t even buy a ticket online. You had to get to the theater early and wait in line. And part of it was that it was the first time so many movies explored the time of adolescence and one’s early 20s. “It’s just so powerful to see my own feelings about what it means to be young and a teenager and seeing it reflected on the screen,” Ellis says. Interspersed are TV clips and interviews from that time, and a soundtrack with songs including “Forever Young,” “If You Leave” and, of course, “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” This all serves to evocatively immerse the viewer in the time period.

Most impressively, McCarthy interviews Blum himself. “I was just trying to be funny,” Blum confesses. “It honestly didn’t cross my mind that it was all that big a deal.” It’s worth noting the stark contrast between the majority of interviews, which are conducted in the swanky homes of the celebrities involved, and that with Blum in his modest New York apartment. These actors may have been negatively impacted by his article, but they are still doing okay for themselves. Blum, who does not necessarily share the same humility as McCarthy, concedes that there are a couple of things in the article that are just “plain old not nice.” 

Notably absent from the documentary are Judd Nelson, who eludes McCarthy despite multiple plans to meet up, and Molly Ringwald, who declines to participate. McCarthy is a shrewd interviewer, staying out of his subjects’ way and allowing their personalities to come through. Lowe is the most optimistic and the most fun. There’s no way not to smile hearing Lowe and McCarthy reminisce about their night spent with Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr. Lowe concedes that the article was “an attempt to minimalize [sic] our talents,” but also cites that things like Glee, the CW network and Friends exist because of them. “All of the things we take for granted didn’t happen without the Brat Pack,” he says. “It’s nothing but goodwill now.” 

It’s a rare treat to be able to so publicly look back on a moment in time that impacted not only the actors but all who came of age during that time. Brats is an ’80s-infused trip down memory lane mixed with savvy insight, revealing interviews and deft directing. Blaine came through for us all. 

Director: Andrew McCarthy
Writer: Andrew McCarthy
Release Date: June 13, 2024 (Hulu) 

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).

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