'Brats' Can't Let Go of the Past

Directed by Andrew McCarthy

Starring Andrew McCarthy, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, Timothy Hutton, Lea Thompson, Jon Cryer

Photo: Courtesy of ABC News

BY Rachel HoPublished Jun 26, 2024


In 1985, New York Magazine journalist David Blum wrote an article about a group of young emerging actors in Hollywood. At the time, Blum was 29 years old — just slightly older than this group, who were all under the age of 25 — and observed them in their natural habitat: the Hard Rock Cafe in Los Angeles. Blum declared this crew Hollywood's "Brat Pack," drawing parallels to the recurring professional collaboration and good times had by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr., the Rat Pack of the 1960s.

Growing up I was aware of the Brat Pack and their films, but admittedly didn't have any real negative connotations toward the group. Quite simply, they were a group of actors who came up together and starred in many classics of the 1980s, which revolutionized film and Hollywood.

But reading Blum's article nearly 40 years later, it's clear that the term was not meant to be a compliment, nor was it meant to be a harmless, cute moniker. Blum dismissed these actors as lacking in pedigree and attributed their success to something other than actual skill: "What distinguishes these young actors from generations past is that most of them have skipped the one step toward success that was required of the generation of Marlon Brando and James Dean, and even that of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino: years of acting study."

Given the way many of their careers panned out, though, it's clear Blum's assessment was wrong. Not only have the Brat Pack's movies endured and defined a generation, the vast majority of its "members" became consistent players in Hollywood for decades to come. Perhaps, then, Blum's article and assertions can be considered a wayward journalistic moment that stands as a divertingly amusing piece about a part of Hollywood history. No harm, no foul, right?

Not according to Andrew McCarthy.

For those unaware of who McCarthy is, his most recent success has been found as the director of a number of episodes of Orange is the New Black, but he's best known for his supporting roles in St. Elmo's Fire and Pretty in Pink, two quintessential Brat Pack films. He's mentioned in Blum's article once, as someone on the outside of the Brat Pack: "And of Andrew McCarthy, one of the New York–based actors in St. Elmo's Fire, a co-star says, 'He plays all his roles with too much of the same intensity. I don't think he'll make it.' The Brat Packers save their praise for themselves."

For the record, Blum, as he saw it in 1985, considered the following to be a part of the Brat Pack along with their yearbook superlatives: Emilio Estevez, unofficial president and treasurer; Tom Cruise, hottest (seemingly Blum means this in the context of professional success); Rob Lowe, most beautiful; Judd Nelson, most overrated; Timothy Hutton, the one with the Oscar; Matt Dillon, "Least Likely to Replace Marlon Brando" (coincidentally, Dillon will be playing Brando in the upcoming Maria); Sean Penn, most gifted; and my personal favourite, Nicolas Cage, "The Ethnic Chair."

Over time, the term Brat Pack would be extended to include other members of this period's young Hollywood, including, Molly Ringwald, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Jon Cryer and Anthony Michael Hall, as well as McCarthy.

Despite Blum's article excusing McCarthy as someone who merely worked on a Brat Pack movie (Pretty in Pink would come out a year after the article was published), McCarthy has had this "Brat Pack" bee in his bonnet all these years, to the point of wanting to make a documentary, aptly-titled Brats, about how terrible this name was and how it negatively impacted him and his career.

In pursuit of this narrative, McCarthy attempts to track down his bratty colleagues to dog pile onto his claim. Notable Brat Packers are missing from the film (Ringwald, Nelson and Hall), but McCarthy does manage to track down and convince many of his old friends and foes to sit down and rehash the past, including Estevez, Moore, Sheedy and Lowe, among others.

The idea of revisiting the Brat Pack is entirely compelling, especially given the penchant for '80s and '90s nostalgia these days. However, after a few interviews, McCarthy's less than subtle desire to steer the conversation towards bashing the phrase becomes cringe-inducing.

Each of the interviewees admits to hating the term when they were young. Collectively there's an agreement that Blum's article clearly intended to be derisive towards them as people and as actors. However, with the exception of McCarthy, each of them has seemingly put those feelings in the rearview. And given the brief glimpses we get into the grand homes of some of these actors, it's no wonder why they probably don't give the term much thought unless prompted.

Lowe, in particular, waxes lyrical about what an impact those movies had on young audiences and the industry at large — and he's absolutely correct. Each of these actors can proudly say they contributed to a shift in Hollywood to aim its lens at teenagehood and the complexities surrounding it, creating a demand for coming-of-age stories that still persists today.

Toward the end of the film, McCarthy almost gains some semblance of self-awareness when speaking candidly about his experience in making this film and reconnecting with people he hasn't spoken to in over 30 years. "The great surprise for me is how much affection we seem to have for each other now in a way we didn't then. That's been really nice. There's a lightness that comes with it now that did not exist back then," he expresses, before going on to explain how the competitive pressures of their careers impacted their relationships back then.

"Now it's all just like, who cares?" he laughs, before trailing off. "And if you do still care, it's..."

McCarthy never investigates this thought as it relates to him, his career and his life, which is a shame. Beneath all the insightful interviews, banging score, movie clips and old interview footage, exists the story of a filmmaker whose career didn't quite pan out how he expected given his early success. McCarthy's not the first actor to experience this disappointment, and he certainly won't be the last, and his association with the Brat Pack period puts him in a unique position to tell that story.

The poignancy of Brats lays in our realization that, while McCarthy has spent decades stewing over a seven-page article written in a bygone era, the names that were mentioned in the piece established themselves in the annals of Hollywood, proving Blum that he was completely wrong about them. This might not have been McCarthy's desired intention for his film, but, as viewers, we can read between the lines and see the relatable mortality and vulnerability. It's natural to point a finger at something outside our control to explain our shortcomings and to harbour those feelings of resentment. However, it's surely not healthy or advisable, and McCarthy's Brats shows us exactly why.

After all, didn't those movies teach us that it's not about the destination, but the friends we made along the way? Cue air arm punch. Chicka-chick-ahh.


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