Some movies are pretty easy to pitch on a High Concept level. “High school girl pretends to be a boy” is all you really need to know about this movie. I mean, once you know that, you pretty much have the gist of where it’s going.
Now, usually any “person of one gender pretends to be the other” story needs to gloss over WHY the person does it with a good reason. Most of them tend to be a sports thing– for whatever reason, the person can’t play on their gender’s team, so they craft a persona to play on a different team. That’s not what this movie does, but it does a decent enough job with motivating the decision. We start with Terri (Joyce Hyser), a high school senior with a passion for journalism, who writes a article to compete for an internship at the local newspaper. However, her journalism teacher sends the articles of two boys (since the internship should go to someone who is “serious” about journalism), so she’s out of luck. Convinced that his decision is gender-based, Terri decides to invade the neighboring school as “Terrence” and submit the same article there. (For some reason, their deadline for submission is two weeks later).
Now, a little bit about the set-up. Terri, for the purpose of the movie, only lives with her younger brother, Buddy (Billy Jacoby). Their obviously affluent parents have vanished on some long-term vacation that effectively renders them meaningless to the story. This is largely so Terri doesn’t have to answer any awkward questions at home about why she suddenly vanished from high school and is now going to the wrong one. Seriously, where is the school administration on this? And I know she’s a graduating senior, but doesn’t she have to at least show up until the end of the semester? Who knows, but the point is: her parents only exist as one-sided conversations with Buddy, in which he more or less tells them exactly what’s going on (or is just vulgar), and they appear to think he’s kidding. Maybe. For all we know they perished in a plane crash and Buddy is hiding this from Terri, who is far too wrapped up in her own stuff.
I should point out now that Buddy has his own subplot here, in that he’s a fifteen year old kid who is obsessed with getting laid. Which is normal, of course. But his logic is right now he’s living with no parental supervision, so he might as well get on it. Pretty much, that’s his entire character: obsess about sex, and say funny things on the phone.
Anyhow, there’s no actual logistical problems presented in vanishing from her high school and enrolling in the other high school as a boy, and no one questions the logic of a new kid at school who is going to graduate in two weeks. In fact, the only real problem that Terri seems to have in terms of the managing her “real” life during the whole movie is her college boyfriend. She, of course, doesn’t tell him “I’m doing this crazy thing” like she does with her brother and best friend. She never articulates why she does’t just tell him, but it’s clear that she knows he would be unsupportive. Really, the movie bends over backwards to present this guy as a BAD GUY who smacks around Buddy and treats Terri like arm candy who should devote herself to being by his side.
Anyhow: Terri chops her hair, throws on baggy clothes and pretends to be a boy at the new school. Her plan is to just submit her article to the journalism teacher there, but he also thinks it’s weak sauce—and Terri can’t claim it’s gender-based now—but since he’s not deciding anything for two weeks, he tells her to write a new one and get back to him. He does not say, “Why is there a new transfer here at the end of the school year, and why are you trying to horn in on the students I’ve had all year?”
So now she has to Really Attend the new school for a while. As hot girl Terri with college boyfriend, she was at the top of the social ladder. New boy in school Terry is a nobody, put on the same level as the guy who carries around multiple lizards, and the two pseudo-Trek nerds who speak in a sci-fi language to each other. She has to deal with a bit of the standard fish-out-of-water stuff, mostly involving gym class. First she has to deal with being forced to change for gym—which she deals with by pulling the fire drill and changing when everyone else is outside. Then when put skins for shirts-and-skins basketball… she falls over with a “stomach cramp”.
A bit of friendly interaction with the Most Popular Girl Deborah earns the ire of Senior Class Jock Bully Greg Toland. Greg Toland is played by Billy Zabka at the true apex of Zabkasity. He is the Ur-Zabka in this movie. Like, in Karate Kid, you could buy that Johnny was a product of the Cobra Kai brainwashing, that he had some three-dimensionality. Here he is literally nothing but bully, strutting around the school threatening anyone and everyone, including a bizarre practice of lifting lunch tables at random to make several people’s food fall on the ground at once.
The only person Terri initially connects with is loner and proto-hipster Rick. Rick, played by Clayton Rohner, is the quintessential “good guy”. He and Terri strike up an easy friendship, which Terri decides will be the focus of her new article. Her main plan is to play matchmaker to Rick, getting him a date to the prom. I should point out that the movie does go out of its way to establish that Rick is not a loser in the only coding movies from the 80s understand: by making it clear that he is Not A Virgin.
Terri’s plan gets entangled because Sandi—played by a very young Sherilyn Fenn—decides that Terry is just the man for her, and goes full bore to seduce, er, him. Her first plan is to set up a double-date with Terri, Rick and her cousin, who is “so cute”. Finding a prom date for Rick was Terri’s only motivation for going, and since Sandi’s cousin is pre-adolescent, that’s a wash. Sandi wastes zero time when alone with Terri, divebombing into her pants and pulling out the rolled out sock she’s keeping in there. And I have to give Sandi this credit: given that she thinks Terry is compensating for a micropenis with a rolled up sock, she’s still into him.
In fact, Sandi stalks Terri to her house—just when Terri is girled up to go on a date with College Boy. Rather than going for the obvious, “I’m Terry’s twin sister Teresa” when Sandi comes in, she does a panicked boyificaiton, pretends Buddy’s porn-spackled room is her own, and then tries to throw Buddy at Sandi when she starts getting undressed. That doesn’t work out for Buddy that time but: spoiler, they eventually end up together. So that’s their happy ending.
Meanwhile. Terri pumps up Rick’s confidence enough to go for broke, first emasculating Greg with a withering speech about his lunchroom bullying, and then going after Prom Queen Deborah.
Anyway, Rick is into Deborah, and she’s more or less over Greg and seems to be into Rick. So they go to prom together. Terri takes her best friend (whose main character trait is “pathetic love life”, noting that going to prom with Terri is the best option she’s had for a while.) But Terri is kind of miserable because she’s realizing she’s into Rick, but she doesn’t want to get in between him and Deborah, in no small part due Rick thinking she’s a guy.
So it’s off to prom! Everyone has a date, even the Nerd Twins and the Lizard Guy. I have to admit, I’m fascinated by Lizard Guy’s date. She more or less a non-speaking extra, but she’s playing it like she’s only there because she lost a bet. Seriously, there’s no sense that she’s even remotely fond of him. Anyhow, Deborah wins Prom Queen, because of course she does, and Greg wins Prom King, because people in this school are idiots. Seriously, there’s no sense that ANYONE even remotely likes Greg, given the thunderous applause when Rick takes him down in the lunchroom, so how does he win Prom King? Deborah is having none of it, eschewing tradition of King and Queen dance to just dance with Rick instead. This is more than Greg can take, and he starts fighting with Rick—a fistfight that leads INTO THE OCEAN.
Seriously, between this and his Diving Team jerk in Back to School (a movie I will be getting to), I think we, as a culture, missed our window for an 80s-era Aquaman movie starring Billy Zabka, and that’s a damn shame.
Terri tries to join in the fight (as does Buddy, who shows up at the prom with College Guy), quite pathetically, but eventually Rick puts Greg down. Soaking wet, Terri confesses her love to Rick, who is genuinely kind and understanding when he thinks Terri is a gay guy, but flips his shit when Terri flashes her breasts to prove that she’s a girl. He stalks off (with Deborah), Terri breaks off with College Guy, and she eventually stumbles home—first to find Buddy in bed with Sandi – and then sits down to write her Real Serious Article about her two weeks as a boy. This article convinces her original journalism teacher that she’s got the stuff, that she’s serious, and it gets her the internship.
We get an epilogue where Terri has her internship but is kind of miserable, and then Rick shows up and it’s like a happy ending or something for them. Which makes me feel kind of bad for Deborah. I mean, she was into Rick, he was into her, so… what happened there? The movie doesn’t care.
I’m wondering if an earlier draft was more focused on the social pecking order, that Terri was, essentially, the Deborah in her school, and as Terry she found a new appreciation for the misfits she looked over. I mean, I can see the Nerd Twins and Lizard Guy being carry-overs from that version (they get a fair amount of screen focus for characters who are essentially speaking extras), and when she’s back at her school, a dork whom she wouldn’t have given time of day to in the beginning asks her out, and while she turns him down, its with genuine kindness. In the same light, Deborah and Greg work as a parallel to Terri and College Guy; it could have shown that through seeing how Greg treats “Terry”, she gains insight into the kind of person College Guy really is. But the movie isn’t interested in any of that. The movie definitely isn’t all that interested in why being a boy is a different experience for her.
There’s a sense in the beginning here that Terri feels she’s not taken seriously because she’s a girl, but that isn’t followed up at the end. At most you could tilt your head sideways and squint to get the idea that Terri actually wasn’t taken seriously because she was always privileged and coasting. She had never really pushed for anything because everything had always been handed to her for nothing, and no expectations were placed on her. But her belief in herself and that she wasn’t taken seriously is proven wrong when she first becomes Terry: the article just wasn’t that good. So we have to presume the experience itself brought her writing to the next level, but I can’t see how.
I mean, what did she learn, really, that led her to write that winning article? What insights did she have about being male? How did it open her up to a new perspective? I mean, as a point of comparison, I’m not going to say Soul Man was a great movie (I’ll probably cover that here as well sometime soon), but at least it has pretending to be black give C. Thomas Howell’s character a new point of view. He went into it with presumptions of what it would be like, and ended it with those ideas shattered and a new perspective.
Here, we’ve got nothing, other than gym class is a challenge when you’re a secret boy.