1985. The 80s are well underway and 80s Americans have defined themselves well. It was the era of feeling good, not worrying and teenagers being cooler than cool. MTV helped give a young generation a collective style and voice that kids never had previously. And so cinema had joined in with an explosion of teenager movies, about teens and for teens and sometimes starring teens. But some of these films were more than just filler entertainment for sleepovers and 1st dates. Some of them had real charm, emotional weight and enough of a message to be taken seriously decades later as more than just artifacts. Here is the immortal Just One Of The Guys.
Here's a movie about a teenage girl who assumes the role of a teenage boy to find inspiration for the article to launch her college career in journalism. Along the way she juggles a boyfriend, a crush and her horny little brother while struggling to keep her double identity a secret. Cute premise. Its a very simple yet intriguing situation and there's lots of fun painted in these broad strokes.
This movie may not be as hip, funny, lavish or relatable as Fast Times At Ridgemont High or the work of John Hughes, but it still works just as well as those big time films. Being built around a lot of cliches that shouldn't entertain 31 years later, you marvel that you smile from start to finish and I laughed out loud multiple times. It looks rather dull visually and its super dated, which helps it zero in on its No. 1 strength - its got so much heart that you really don't focus on anything else. More heart than films that win Oscars most years.
The star is Joyce Hyser as Terri, our cross-dressing heroine. Its wasn't unusual then to see an actress lead the cast of a comedy, but typically as the straight woman to all of the jokes. Hyser supplies a lot of the laughs and has to really act while doing so. She's insanely cute, sexy and gorgeous in an understated way, totally hip and probably the best actor in the film. Its her magnetism and intelligence that ties together every scene of JOTG. No matter what situations or actors she's given to play with, she brings life and joy to them. Its really rare and odd. I mean she really has chemistry with this role and with all of the people in the film. Its such a delicate role to play and she does it with a smirk and put-upon strength. Maybe she's a little embarrassed in some parts and relieved in others, but she's always on. I imagine it was hard to find a role that really captured her versatility and unique sex appeal after this. Thats ok because that just makes this film even more special.
Now revolving around Hyser is a cast of young, awesome 80s character actors. Billy Zabka, that evil blond bully from "Karate Kid", is as professional at being unlikable as a human can be. "Billy Jacoby" Jayne plays the ultimate funny kid brother here. He really almost steals the show with the air he breathes into every silly sexual joke and sister teasing. Clayton Rohner is reeeally classy and lovable as the dorky dreamboat that Hyser ends up falling for. And Leigh McCloskey is always great playing these handsome, erudite yuppies.
Hyser's main conflict is with the young men, but she has some great women to play off of and support her too. Toni Hudson is adorable as the lonely best friend. Deborah Goodrich is very good in a pivotal role as the rival. And a young Sherilynn Fenn oozes potential and grace as the female love interest who doesn't know Hyser is a girl. There's a question of lesbianism there but its never addressed as something dangerous or bad. The whole thing is fun, innocent and respected.
The film is written by Dennis Feldman and Jeff Franklin. How crazy is this? The former went on to write "Species" and the latter made "Full House". So JOTG is a hybrid of whatever's going on in those two radically different premises. The script really nails the insecurity of being a teenager. The sexual confusion, the living up to expected gender roles, the pressure to fit in and find romance, the desperate dream to become someone when you grow up. Its all there and pinned to every joke. The jokes themselves are very soft and dated, but nothing is unfunny or offensive... incredible for an 80s film, the genre known for going over-the-top. There's a great respect given to the Terri character. They respect her ambition, intelligence and femininity throughout her journey and never have anything seem far-fetched, even when no one can recognize an attractive, small girl under the macho portrayal. Its cool that two men wrote this. There's so much subtext about males needing to understand women better and women getting their due putting up with all of the rampant sexism in the world. Even in the most innocent and communal of places, high school. How all of the action and relationships climax in the end is very well-done and shows that a low budget film for teens doesn't have to be short on brains or mature emotion or originality.
Besides the lovely Joyce Hyser though, the star of the film is the direction from Lisa Gottlieb. I don't think anything in this film would've worked if it didn't have this woman at the helm. She keeps it believable but never serious or heavy handed. It never leans one way or the other as a chick flick or another film pandering to horny teens. Gottlieb makes sure everyone is having fun and that the intelligence of the humor is understood by the very young cast and the potential viewers. She doesn't make Just One Of The Guys some pretentious exercise in cool fashion trends, lingo and good-looking MTV lighting, saving it from ever aging poorly. But it never looks too stale or static either. Lisa Gottlieb didn't direct much after, mostly working in TV before becoming a film professor. I understand why. She's very economical and has the mind for directing, but probably preferred quality to quantity and enjoys the humble fame from making this movie.
This is as classy, light and harmless a movie as a cult classic can be. Its perfect for any viewer at any age in any time or place. Films that are so timeless and universal are rare, especially given the rather odd and transgressive subject of suburban female teen transvestism. I think the secret to its success is that it never treats anything in this film as dirty or naughty. Everything is properly motivated and never dumbed down or exploitative. The fact that its the opposite of a trainwreck makes "Just One Of The Guys" an essential film forever and ever and everyone involved deserves credit for making it such a legendary little movie.
EDIT: I meditated on the subtext a bit and found more radicalism in the themes than I realized. The moral of the story is equality for all, represented best by the Terri's likable androgynous image. Attitudes towards sexual equality in relationships and gender equality in the workplace is all heavily formed in high school and this dichotomy effects all of the social prejudices and class/clique distinctions in their waiting adult lives.
After a traumatic experience of sexism from her own male teacher (the only father figure in the story), Terri becomes a temporary male to understand the social structure better and hopefully expose its ills. More than that she remedies the symptoms and comes to understand the victims of sexism. Becoming a boy, she is attracted to and grows to understand the man she has always secretly wanted and rejects the man she believed loved her. Overcoming her immature idealism, she falls out of love with the image of Aryan-looking, materialistic, shallow macho bullies. By accepting the darker, modest looking, intellectual, individualist nerdy boy, she accepts her own Jewishness and finds pride in her beauty. Terri's own Jewishness is expressed explicitly in the casting of Joyce Hyser and in references to "Yentyl" and "Tootsie", two gender-bending movies starring Jewish performers (maybe the spiritual parents that are left missing physically in the film's narrative).
Along with finding her ethnicity, Terri learns to better use her non-gender based qualities by rejecting gender. Between male and female, she is only sure of her integrity. The male alter ego of "Terry" only builds walls in her relationships and further complicates her life. Becoming male does not make her life easier or expose a sexist slant in the grading of her writing assignment. Its her own wit and personality that is her gift. In the end, she forgives her former mentor for his perceived sexism because, as a man, she realized her own sexist attitudes towards men created not by them but by the world's miscommunication (miscommunication is a running theme in the screwball gags of the story). She was initiated into the world of men and their sexism in an early scene by accident. As a young woman, she knew her own gender's faults well but not the mistakes, struggles and temptations both genders have; How alike they are. Accepting men, she graduates from a girl into a woman and finds a peaceful, equally satisfying adult relationship with her equal male partner.
The film could've simply been a feminist tool to villainize men and victimize women, but it doesn't. Even more easily, the film could've been sexist to women, the ultimate sin. Its fair to both sexes and makes both more attractive. Terri is "Just One Of The Guys" because she can think, act, talk like them because she's just as good in ever way. The only difference is how she and we view them, until she is given the rare opportunity to see the grass isn't any greener. This is a very important film for both sexes and its in that democracy that the film sets itself apart from most.