That Was Then…This Is Now

January 13, 2012

The teen crises that form the story of That Was Then…This Is Now will be familiar to anyone who has read the books of S.E. Hinton, or seen the other films adapted from her books (such as Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish).

The characters here are typically maladjusted, restless youths, suffering from teen angst or the general malaise or just plain crankiness. As with the other Hinton adaptations, explosive violence is very much a part of life; physical brutality is an outlet for all the psychic turmoil of the characters.

The books have been very popular, although the movies have been less successful—possibly because of Coppola’s quirkily esoteric approach. I’m not sure That Was Then will change that track record. It’s a somber thing, without much pandering to the gross-out sensibility that marks a lot of teen comedies.

In plot terms, it’s dully schematic. There are two close friends: one good (Craig Sheffer), one bad (Emilio Estevez). The good one is going through a rites-of-passage phase, from which he will emerge a man, the bad one is regressing and ends up in trouble with the law.

Estevez’s panic when he sees the friendship dissolving forms the core of the movie. He’s an orphan who’s been brought up in Sheffer’s family, and he can’t seem to slow down his frantic attempts to define himself—which include small-time larceny, such as “borrowing” cars and hustling in pool rooms. His idea of fun is getting a fellow student drunk and cutting her hair while she’s passed out.

Sheffer drifts away from the friendship after one of their escapades accidentally gets a friend killed—and when he falls for a classmate (Kim Delaney) who represents some kind of normalcy. He even gets a job as a check-out bagger at a grocery store, which really sets Estevez’s teeth on edge.

The actors are all good, even in the smaller roles. You can see why Estevez, a charter member of Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” as embodied in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, initiated the project (he wrote the screenplay): it’s a showy part for him.

Director Christopher Cain and photographer Juan Ruiz Anchia, who collaborated previously on The Stone Boy, have mounted a handsome production (filmed in Minneapolis). A couple of shots are knockouts, such as the skyline at night illuminated by a crack of lightning, while the characters sit in a car parked under a bridge.

But Cain uses some clichéd effects, too. The rain on the window reflected on Estevez’s face while he talks about his parents is an obvious gimmick that’s been used before. And Cain is fond of lighting actors from below, so that their faces get a weird, ghostly look to them.

More damagingly, Cain has a fundamental coolness that seems to work against the story. He did the same thing in The Stone Boy, but that was a tale of an emotional freeze-up, and the distanced style was appropriate. That Was Then requires more heat, but Cain stubbornly keeps his distance.

First published in the Herald, November 12, 1985

Dully schematic. That’s about the best I can do. The movie made the Coppola efforts look very, very sharp by comparison. Morgan Freeman was in this, too.