The other day, I checked out a mid-80s flick called Secret Admirer. You can tell it’s the 80s because the film stars C. Thomas Howell, Kelly Preston, Courtney Gaines, Dee Wallace and a whole host of people now regularly appearing in Asylum and Sy Fy films.
The basic (very rom com) premise is this:
C. Thomas Howell is friends with Kelly Preston and Lori Loughlin (her most famous role is the girlfriend of John Stamos’ Uncle Jesse on Full House). Lori like C. C. likes Kelly. Kelly dates college guys. One day, C. gets a letter from a secret admirer. He thinks it might be Kelly, so with Lori’s help, C. starts sending Kelly anonymous letters (that he writes using greeting cards). C.’s mom finds the letter C. received and thinks it was written to her husband-so she starts to suspect an affair. C.s father is taking night classes and finds the letter stuff in one of his books and think it is from his instructor. The instructor (who happens to be Kelly’s mother) finds the letter and is tempted to have an affair. Kelly’s dad finds one of the letters and presumes his wife is already having an affair.
I had a tumblr post noting the humorous fact that the character Toni (played by Lori Loughlin) is the smart, fun plain jane…except she is not all that plain. It is a pretty old trope…but there is a wealth of examples of Hollywood Homely.
The film is pretty guilty of following standard rom com expectations. But it was refreshing that while Preston’s character is an airhead, she is not a villain. She is a person who is doing what is expected of her and trying to please people…but she is not a bad person. You don’t really root against her, even though all of our sympathy is basically at the feet of Loughlin’s Toni.
Toni constantly throws herself under the bus for her friends, which is problematic, but she is also the smart witty, fun and cute friend we know C. should have been into all along. The film does take a more honest look at sexuality, specifically in a scene with Howell and Preston where it falls apart because they are both far to inexperienced. It is completely unromanticized and is simply awkward. It also provides the moment of realization that his romantic vision of a relationship with Preston is different than the reality.
In a moment where I am torn between if it is thoughtful or insulting, Howell tells Loughlin that he was not sure what he expected dating Preston would be like…but that when it came down to it, he assumed it would be a lot like his friendship with Loughlin.
I feel like director David Greenwalt (who went on to work with Joss Whedon and helped guide Buffy and Angel) had lofty goals of a comedy that was much more painfully honest about teenaged relationships. He does not manage to avoid the major traps…but still manages some moments of thoughtfulness that hint at his future with the Whedonverse.