The Sure Thing

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A college boy hitches a lift across America on a quest for ‘The Sure Thing’ – a girl who won’t spurn his sexual advances. But on route he hooks up with a girl from his class who begins to make him view his female ideal slightly differently.


So just what was it with the ‘80s and teen pics? Not since love found Andy Hardy in the late 1930s or AIP churned out the likes of I Was A Teenage Werewolf and How To Make A Monster during the 1950s did Hollywood get so enthusiastic about young people – and young middle-class white people at that. Maybe it was all the hairspray in the air.

In fact, there are similarities between the ‘50s and the ‘80s. The ‘50s had been a time of post-war boom with newly minted teens not only demanding something to spend their new ‘allowances’ on, but also hungry to see themselves represented on screen for the first time. Thus Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello got to hold endless beach parties while the newly built drive-ins flourished. The ‘80s not only saw a similar level of dosh swilling around, but also had that generation which had populated the ‘50s drive-ins becoming filmmakers themselves and eagerly revisit their youths, indulging their communal narcissism in the new mall-located ‘multiplexes’. Then there was the fact that almost everyone wanted an excape from the dourly challenging youth movies of the late ‘60s and ‘70s; surely being a teenager or ‘young adult’ was more fun than Easy Rider or The Graduate made out. (The same phenomenon occurred with the late ‘90s teen-revival when the generation who had revelled in John Hughes’ oeuvre, Friday The 13th I through XVII and the Porky’s cycle synthesised them into the likes of Scream and American Pie. On this timetable expect another wave of teen flicks sometime around 2025…)

During the ‘80s, of course, Hughes was the Godfather of adolescent celluloid, pulling off the almost impossible task of making a bunch of introspective stereotypes sympathetic in The Breakfast Club and delivering unto the world the echt cool pubescent Ferris Bueller (another triumph of dramatic sleight of hand: there he manages to make a likeable hero out of a kid whose one life tragedy is that he got a computer for his birthday instead of a car). Hughes had an almost mystical ability to channel the fragile emotional states of teenagers as without patronising them or engaging in prurience or preachiness. But there were other directors working around the edges of the genre at least as interesting as Hughes. Allan Mel delivered the truly subversive Pump Up The Volume (one of the very few teen-movies to end with an image of undefeated rebellion, Christian Slater punching the air as he’s arrested for running a pirate radio station) while Michael Lehmann introduced the world to Slater’s medium-rent Jack Nicholson impersonation in Heathers.

Often neglected among the adolescent flotsam, though, is this somewhat overlooked classic from Rob Reiner, who the previous year had left his impressive directorial calling card with This Is Spinal Tap. But while Tap was a sharply written and effortlessly knowing spoof, The Sure Thing was a less tightly wrought confection: at heart it’s an irresistibly sweet natured rom-com. Essentially a remake of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (not the first time Reiner would indulge in a little unacknowledged pilfering - his 1989 hit When Harry Met Sally is a direct descendent of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) it has John Cusack (you’ve heard of him) in the Clark Gable role and Daphnie Zuniga essaying Claudette Colbert duties (she wound up in Melrose Place).

      The pitch is neat enough. A mildly neurotic, very horny college freshman at an East Coast Ivy League University named Gib is promised by his best friend in California, Lance that there is the almost mythical Sure Thing waiting for him there: this being a girl “in her experimental phase” who is all but guaranteed to sleep with him. Unable to afford the air fare he hitches his way to Nirvana first with a very young Tim Robbins and his girlfriend - both enthusiastic devotees of showtunes - but then finds himself unexpectedly alone on his priapic odyssey with Alison, an uptight straight-A student on her way to meet her nerdy financé and distinctly unimpressed with her travelling companion’s penchant for fried pork-rinds and the expert chugging of lager.

There is of course a delightfully satisfying predictability to the set-up: the moment they wind up on the road together you know that the Sure Thing is anything but and the nerdy boyfriend may as well pack his bags. Thus the film’s interest relies on the two leads rather than any plot bombshells. The most obvious draw was Cusack himself who, having shown some obvious promise in two previous teen outings, Class and John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles, nailed down forever the likeably excitable, verbose schtick he would build his subsequent career upon. Like a teenage Woody Allen he’s the master of the nervy quip – but unlike Allen he was in some ineffably way intensely cool and he gave hope to the dweebs, geeks and nerds of the world that a quick wit would make up for a distinct absence of many obviously discernible physical attributes. He, however, looks back on these films with anything other than affection; “I was a teen star – that’s bad enough,” he’s reported to have said when asked about his early years. And despite her lacklustre subsequent career Zuniga, who has the less showy role, also shines as the ice-maiden slowly thawed by Gib’s unconventional charm.

Possibly the oddest thing about The Sure Thing is that for a movie nominally about sex there’s virtually none of it on the screen. The two characters behave for the most part like the slightly cocksure but nervous adolescents that they are. Like the teen-slasher movie in which naughty behaviour by curious kiddiewwinks is somewhat disproportionately punished by hockey mask-wearing maniacs, the typical teen flick is actually more conservative than your average Supreme Court nominee. The message is that sex should be accompanied by love and respect; the surprise being not, of course, that the studios would produce such morally and emotionally engaged stuff, but that young hormonal audiences would lap it up. When Gib and Alison finally arrive at their destination, both geographically and emotionally, the movie resolves itself with the kind of chaste, romantic kiss that would have had Louis B. Meyer – Andy Hardy’s real Pater Familias – nodding in warm approval...

Smart, sassy and sweet. This showed John Cusack's promise as a romantic lead, and some.