St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)

Directed by Joel Schumacher

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St. Elmo’s Fire is a strange 80s classic about a group of recent Georgetown graduates trying their best to figure life out.  Armed with a certain amount of wealth and opportunity, a film like this focuses on how they get in their own way.  They are concerned about harbored crushes, cushy jobs with status, locking down what they think should be theirs and making sure no one (else) gets in their way.

There’s a definite nostalgia to this, possibly just because it’s about a familiar time in most young people’s lives or because it reunites so many well-known 80s faces, many just from The Breakfast Club.  Every actor here brings with him or her feelings earned from previous (or subsequent) movies.

Now in terms of the story, that’s where the strange part comes in.  Just about everything here is rather broad, and it all ends neatly enough, but damn the men in this film have a whole host of pompous, aggressive delusions.  There are four of them, played by Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Andrew McCarthy.

Lowe’s character, Billy, is sort of the playboy type, a sax player of all things who can’t let the college glory days go.  He will casually sexually harass and intimidate not one but two women.

Estevez’s character, Kirby, lusts after a doctor with whom he had gone on one date three years earlier.  She shows no signs towards his affection, but he demands to have her in his life and he, like Billy, harasses her, stalking her to a cabin in the forest where she is on vacation with her boyfriend.

Nelson’s character, Alec, moves in with his longtime girlfriend Leslie (Ally Sheedy).  While everything is at first stable, he insists on getting married immediately.  She says she’s not ready, and he begins sleeping around and complaining to his friend that if only she would accept his proposal then he could finally stop.

Then there’s McCarthy’s character, Kevin, who is the one to whom Alec admits his ongoing affairs. Kevin claims not to believe in love, but he has long been infatuated with Leslie.  Once she learns of Alec’s sleeping around, she breaks up with him, comes over, and Kevin confesses his love for her.  After sleeping together he immediately speaks of them moving in together, and she takes that as her cue to pump the brakes.

By the end we’re led to believe that Alec and Kevin have learned their lessons, but Billy and Kirby seem to be following the same patterns as before, and there’s really not too much to suggest Alec and Kevin won’t relapse.

It’s all just so strange and juvenile, an assumption that these are the growing pains young men face and are expected to face.  It’s the women of the film who are more concerned with figuring out who they are and want to be, how they want to carry themselves through the world, all while the men just lust after them.

It’s beyond appalling, if only because it all feels so understated and normalized.

But then, perhaps just as strangely enough, there’s something kind of moving about the end of the film.  The normalization of such aggressive, juvenile behavior in detail is quite off-putting, but the heart of what they’re getting at, I think, is more universal and relatable.

It’s a bunch of young post-grads convinced their lives are falling apart unless they take immediate action to stem the tide.  Everything is so immediate, so urgent, and they have the idea in their heads that life must be constructed carefully and painstakingly, a brick house they don’t realize is being constructed on a fault line soon to start shaking.

And it’s that heart of the movie which resonates.  At a certain age all we can see or all we could see was the things that were not yet in place.  By the end and only with the passage of enough time we can see that maybe they were in place all along, or maybe at least that our imagined finish line was never the real goal.

So the end of St. Elmo’s Fire is kind of touching, with the friends returning to their old hangout spot, finding their table taken over by the next wave of college students, and deciding that maybe it’s time to move on (in this case from late night drinks to next day brunch).

Up Next: Black Mass (2015), Notting Hill (1999), Yesterday (2019)

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