Ever since John Hughes blessed ’80s teens with relatable and rollicking coming-of-age stories like “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “Pretty in Pink,” high school movies have had predictable ingredients: an attractive but outcast girl, a guy she wants but can’t have, a mean girl, an impending dance, and graduation dawning over of the horizon. While the formula remains much the same, new high school films are now about both universal teen experiences — bullying, popularity, sexual awakening — and uniquely contemporary issues. Recent teen-centric flicks have tackled cyberbullying, coming out, and in the case of “A Light Beneath Their Feet” (2015), a film screened at the Chicago International Film Festival in October, mental illness.
“A Light” is close to home in the same way John Hughes’ films are: both take place in Chicago’s nearby suburban sprawl. Directed by Valeria Weiss with a screenplay by Moira Leeper, the Chicago Film Festival selection shares more than setting with one particular Hughes film; in many ways, “A Light” is a slipshod retelling of the 1986 classic “Pretty in Pink.” In Hughes’ film, Andie (Molly Ringwald) takes care of her single and depressed father during the last weeks of her senior year. Not only does she force her father out of bed every morning, she also has boy problems to boot: a loyal friend who loves her, a rich dirt bag who hates her because he can’t have her, and another nice but “richie” kid whom she has fallen heads-over-awful ’80s shoes for. Hughes’ film plays like a typical teen movie, but quietly explores the tension between the rich and the poor, depression, and the struggles of single parent households. Deep stuff for a film with a prom dress-making montage.
Billed as an “indie dramedy,” “A Light Beneath Their Feet” chronicles the dysfunctional relationship between high school senior Beth (Madison Davenport) and her bipolar mother, Gloria (Tayrn Manning, of Orange is the New Black fame). In the weeks before prom and graduation, Beth must choose between attending her dream school, UCLA, or going to nearby Northwestern to continue caring for her troubled and self-obsessed mother. Because no high school movie is complete without teenage romance, Beth pines for fellow outcast Jeremy, but is blind to the affections of her gas station coworker. Starting to sound familiar?
The film’s writer was a graduate of Evanston Township High, and while she may have been inspired by other Illinois-to-Hollywood success stories like Hughes, Leeper’s attempt at an emotionally compelling screenplay falls short of films made thirty years ago. Where Hughes uses topical comedy to diffuse wisdom on the difficulties of growing up, Leeper’s writing is clumsily blatant and filled with strained profundity. (The title itself comes not from the film’s pivotal relationship between mother and daughter, but from when Beth and Jeremy are talking on a playground and imagine that there is light from within the earth to warm their feet — a flopped metaphor for who knows what, prompting puzzlement at best and deserved eye-rolling at worst).
The biggest flaw of this film is its depiction of bipolar disorder, a complex mental health issue that seems misunderstood by Leeper and delivered with an utter lack of nuance or sensitivity. Gloria is depicted as a delusional, irresponsible, and paranoid — symptoms more characteristic of schizophrenia than bipolar disorder — always seeming one public meltdown shy of a straight jacket. Viewers familiar with Tayrn Manning from “Orange is the New Black” may even find themselves conflating Gloria with Manning’s proselytizing meth-head Pensatucky — not exactly the right vibe for a suburban single mom struggling with a mood disorder.
Leeper often relies on the mere inclusion of mental illness to create the emotional depth her characters and dialogue cannot conjure. Leeper’s screenplay is filled with simplistic metaphors and dialogue that seems like it is pulled from refrigerator magnet poems. When asked why she wants to attend to UCLA, Beth’s only reason is that the weather in California is predictable. In the Midwest, she says, it’s unpredictable. What an original metaphor for bipolar disorder.
Characters and ideas are often introduced to further the plot, then dropped as soon as they are no longer convenient. Beth’s coworker makes puppy-dog-eyes at her a couple times, then disappears from the movie, like Leeper started to craft her own version of Hughes’ Ducky, then forgot to give him a personality or purpose.
Jeremy is described as a social pariah forced to move to Beth’s high school to escape the gossip surrounding his statutory rape by a former teacher — this troubled backstory is never more than black icing on a sponge cake of faux-wisdom. Fanning the fires of unrequited teenage love and inexplicable plot points, Jeremy is already involved with blue-haired and bitter Dashulla — the daughter of Gloria’s psychiatrist. As the movie crawls towards a climax, Dashulla calls a pharmacy pretending to be from her father’s office and changes Gloria’s prescription with her magical knowledge of pharmaceuticals, sending the struggling mom tailspinning — pretty harsh revenge for Beth going to prom with Dashulla’s former fuck buddy.
When Beth is at the dance, her mother shows up at the school cafeteria, arranging all of the school’s cooking utensils as she threatens to kill herself. This is the moment Beth chooses to tell her mother that she is going to UCLA. In the film’s last scene Beth visits her mother in the hospital. She loosens the padded cuffs on her mother’s wrists, crawls in bed and they say they love each other. Leeper crafts a thoroughly unsatisfying and noncommittal ending.
The poor writing of “A Light” is especially disappointing given the otherwise high quality of the film’s acting and cinematography. Davenport quietly conveys the inner turmoil of being a teenager and being responsible for a parent; somehow, her eyes always look like they are just on the verge of tears, leaking out Beth’s hormones and exhaustion.
Despite its best efforts, “A Light Beneath Their Feet” never achieves anything like the brilliance of other suburban Chicago high school films, leaving movie-goers to long for the bubble-gum brilliance of John Hughes. There is no over-the-cake-kissing, no Ferrari-crashing, no Bender victoriously punching the air to the sounds of “Don’t You Forget About Me” — only a half-baked movie that ends with the unfulfilling tang of a low calorie sweetener.