As the shamed bearer of an adolescent crush on C. Thomas Howell, I saw most of his movies multiple times—including not only Soul Man but the execrable volleyball roman à clef Side Out (yes, you read that last clause correctly).
Somehow, though, I managed to miss Secret Admirer when it came out. In fact, I have absolutely no contemporaneous memory of the film at all, which is a shame, because it’s relatively good. Of course, “relatively good” in the mid-’80s teen-movie genre often means “not unwatchable,” and Secret Admirer doesn’t quite qualify as fresh or unpredictable.
It’s got byzantine plotting down cold, though. Toni (an enjoyably sarcastic Lori Loughlin) is in love with her best friend, Michael (Howell), and slips an unsigned letter into his locker to testify to that fact. Michael is inspired by the letter to write a mash note to the joy of his desiring, Deborah Ann Fimple (Kelly Preston), whose interests include shopping, dating fratty college boys, and pulling her hair to the side in unflattering styles. Toni, who is disappointed but supportive, intercepts Michael’s letter to Debbie and, when she realizes how pedestrian it is, rewrites it for him without his knowledge.
Debbie is thereby convinced to swoon in Michael’s direction, and boy howdy do complications ensue, not the least of them a near-spouse-swap when Debbie’s mom (Leigh Taylor-Young of Soylent Green) finds the original Toni letter by mistake and thinks Michael’s dad (Cliff De Young) wrote it to her, thus inspiring Debbie’s dad (Fred Ward), a jealous detective, to enlist Michael’s put-upon mom (Dee Wallace-Stone) in a lover’s-lane sting operation. It is at about this point in the plot that the audience sees Kelly Preston’s breasts for the first (but not the last) time.
If you’ve seen a movie before, you can probably guess how everything gets wrapped up. Michael is disillusioned by how shallow Debbie is; Debbie can’t figure out why the poet of the love letters is so average in person. When she confronts him with said letters, Michael sees the handwriting, puts two and two together, and sprints off to reciprocate Toni’s love before her semester-at-sea boat leaves the harbor. Meanwhile, the parents figure out that it’s all a big mix-up and fall in love all over again, blah blah blah happy endings all around.
On paper, the plot sounds contrived and painful (if you can even follow it), but even if you’ve seen a movie before, you haven’t seen this movie as written and directed by David Greenwalt, late of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Teen romances of this era seldom date very well—as it were—and Secret Admirer has its share of leaden ’80s signifiers: the score by Jan Hammer; the “homo” cracks; the precocious and therefore thoroughly unfunny younger sibling (portrayed here by the late “Cory” Haim); the extraneous yelling of “par-taaaaayyyy” by tertiary characters.
But it also has a handful of gratifying moments and nuances you don’t expect from the genre, starting with girls who eat and curse like boys. Even dream girl Debbie is not above chowing a huge plate of spaghetti, then dropping a longshoreman-like string of F-bombs when a meatball bounces off her new white pants. The de-rigueur group of raffish, belchy friends (among them Casey Siemaszko, doing the only poor man’s Belushi in history that isn’t nails on a chalkboard) actually seems to have met before filming began; their interactions feel like organic friendship, and don’t rely on the customary forced exposition to drive the relationship home. An after-school snacking-and-Playboy hang-out is shot partially in fridge-cam as the boys empty the shelves, and when an off-screen friend observes that bologna makes him fart, the others groan, “We know”—in realistically ragged not-quite unison. Like I said, it’s little things.
Secret Admirer gives more than one dimension to its “villains,” too. Steve Powers (Scott McGinnis), the Alfa-driving bruiser Debbie dumps for Michael, is about to sleep with Toni—but then changes his mind, giving a little monologue about how he still loves Debbie and can’t go through with it. (While leaning against a poster of a naked lady, but hey: baby steps. It’s also worth noting that, during his touching speech, Toni is climbing out the bathroom window and rolling her eyes.) Even Debbie’s space-cadetry isn’t one-note; the viewer is meant to understand how wrong she is for Michael compared with Toni, of course, but also sees glimpses of Debbie as neurotic in an interesting way: she’s status-obsessed and high-strung, but not stupid or mean. The script hints that there’s more to her, and while it’s not followed up—and probably couldn’t be—it’s enough, somehow, to know that those hints were dropped.
The parental B plot works, too, in defiance of everything you might assume. To spend that much screen time on the parents is a huge risk for a teen movie to take; ordinarily, their sole function is to die, have two jobs that keep them busy and worn out, or go out of town on vacation in order to catalyze the main plot (see: Janet Carroll, who plays Toni’s mother as well as Joel’s mother in Risky Business, and whose combined screen time in both movies is perhaps 12 minutes). Two things bail the parents’ stories out here: capable casting, and an out-and-out brawl at the parents’ bridge night that flattens every stick of furniture in the place and coats even the non-speaking-part actors with food. Ward is a Christmas ham with a holster, but that choice works, and the face-off between De Young and a grandfather clock is a scene the whole family can enjoy. (The clock wins.)
It’s not great cinema by any means. Preston’s wardrobe alone is difficult to watch; it’s possible that the movie is satirizing her as a fashion victim—but it’s equally possible that the neon lace anklets and white pumps just seemed like an unironically good idea in 1985. Frumpy bits aside, though, it’s a mostly likable movie about mostly likable people, and it doesn’t try to do anything bigger than pairing those people off (even Debbie and Steve Powers get back together in the end), or take its subject(s) too seriously. John Hughes did a lot of things well, but leavening the Scandinavian levels of teen tragi-prom self-absorption is not one of them, and sometimes you just want to watch a guy named Ricardo (the always amusing Jeffrey Stone) sitting in a molester van with a skull painted on the side, drinking a martini and spying on a frat party with his friends, and not feel like the emotional future of the country is at stake.
Or you want to watch C. Thomas Howell take his shirt off, and I don’t judge you.
Sarah D. Bunting feels like she keeps writing about Howell for The House. You can point and laugh at her other teen crushes at Tomato Nation’s Crushed Film Festival.