License to Drive

License to Drive. Davis Entertainment 1988.
License to Drive. Davis Entertainment 1988.

Before watching the movie:

I am aware of the Two Coreys heartthrob duo of the 80s only through discussion of them, as they were just before my time (I was dimly aware that Jonathan Taylor Thomas was a big deal a decade later).

This is looking suspiciously like “Ferris Bueller, but with the Coreys instead of Matthew Broderick”, though I’m still interested. The car wasn’t a very big part of Ferris Bueller, whereas this could potentially be a road trip kind of joyride.

After watching the movie:

Les Anderson’s 16 years of captivity are about to be over, just as soon as he passes his driving test and gets his license. At a party, Mercedes Lane, the girl of his dreams who barely knew he existed, invents a Saturday night date with him to blow off her boyfriend in an argument. To impress her the next day, hopefully making the fictitious date a reality, Les convinces his father to let him drive the pristine Cadillac his father has borrowed from Les’s grandfather for the week down the block a bit with Mercedes ahead of Les’s test, but “down the block” turns into “give her a ride home”, and Les’s dad is furious. When Les fails his driving exam and lies about it for a few hours, he’s absolutely grounded, and that date is out of the question. However, after 11, Mercedes calls him to see if he still wants to go out, and since his parents are asleep, Les decides to sneak the Cadillac out of the garage and go on an all-night unlicensed adventure, just as long as he can get the car back unharmed by morning and not get caught without a license.

While I get Cadillacs as a prestige vehicle, they never came across to me as a young person’s car. I would’ve thought that, besides the “four wheels and it goes” element, a Cadillac would be an unwelcome embarrassment to a high schooler, but Les and his friends seem to consider it a dreamboat and the only embarrassing thing about Les’s grandfather’s car is the music collection. I’m not sure this movie is very well-connected to the particulars of being a teen in the 80s though, since the forbidden hangout Les and his friends want to go to is… an all-night burgers and shakes joint only accessible by car. It’s a very, very 50s atmosphere that it seems like 80s kids might have rejected as from their parents’ generation.

It’s always strange to see an actual teenager playing one. Corey Haim is just about the exact age he’s playing here, and most of the principal kids seem just as young (though Corey Feldman seems a little older despite being the same age as Haim). Being played by an actual 16 year old helps Les seem overwhelmed by the crazy circumstances he’s gotten himself into. He’s just a kid, he never signed up for all this. From a writing standpoint, I really like how his teenaged perspective heightens the reality, though there’s exactly one scene where he breaks the fourth wall, which seems like it belongs in a different movie (Ferris Bueller, say).

Mercedes doesn’t seem nearly as unattainable as she’s talked up to be. It’s treated as if her even noticing he’s in the room is a colossal victory, but as a character, she seems like she’d have the time of day for anyone who treated her with respect, not just the rich and popular crowd. If Les had had the nerve to talk to her any time before she roped him into her ruse, she seems like she’d have been receptive. I guess that’s true of some other dream girls in 80s and 90s coming of age movies I can think of, and I don’t think it’s all that intentional. It makes her more likeable, but also undermines the idea that she’s so out of reach.

It’s impressive that Mercedes introduced by telling off her boyfriend with a feminist rant that she’s supposed to be mostly in the right about. However, it’s also disappointing that on the date she drinks an entire bottle of champagne to get over her ex and quickly passes out, to spend the rest of the movie getting carried and stowed in trunks and photographed compromisingly by Les’s friend, who gets told off, but not as much as I think he should be.

This is a pretty cute one-bad-night adventure. I wouldn’t quite call it unreliable narrator, but the moments of unreality illustrating what things feel like from Les’s point of view are a trope I always appreciate. I never felt so liberated as a newly-minted driver, but at least the perception of a license granting freedom is still deeply a part of the teenaged experience, and this is a good picture of the dream, if not the reality.


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