Unlike another 1985 film set in the 1950’s, “Mischief” involves no time travel, existing entirely in 1956. Even so, director Mel Damski and writer Noel Black bring 1980’s America with them, scoring an R rating with nudity and no holds barred language. When the film’s requisite Bad Boy is asked why he was kicked out of school, he replies: “Because I fucked two girls.” Well then. It’s almost as if Damski yearned to trample the pristine suburban lawns of Eisenhower’s 50’s to show that no, the two decades weren’t all that different. Almost, I said, because that kind of social commentary ultimately eludes “Mischief.” There’s a sequence in which the department store owned by the town’s overlords has its many mannequins re-arranged one otherwise quaint morning into positions of extremely lewd acts. It could have been like Reese Witherspoon in “Pleasantville” truly Causing a Commotion. Instead it’s just a sight gag, one meant to elicit laughs from an audience raised on “Porky’s”. Alas.
For all its modern flourishes, however, it’s still very much the era in which its set, going so far as to hammer home every expected hallmark, drive-ins and soda fountains, upturned milkshakes and pop tunes aplenty. And it never views any of this with ironic dissonance. It’s as sincere as its main character, Jonathan (Doug McKeon), looking a little like Anthony Michael Hall might’ve looked at the hop. He’s not a geek so much as just purely uncool, a target of the school bully, all of which is at odds with his eyes for Marilyn (Kelly Preston), the most beautiful girl in school. How will he woo her? Enter: the bad boy, Gene (Chris Nash), a greaser who rides into the movie by riding a motorcycle right off the moving truck and over lawns and around shrubbery while everyone looks on in abject horror. Who is this terror of the streets?
He’s tough, sure, but not uncouth, played delightfully by Nash with a real gleam in his eye. When he takes Jonathan under his wing, it’s not to settle a bet or any other machination of the plot; no, he just feels sorry for the twerp. He wants to help. He does, even as he gets into hot water with the school bully by courting his gal and continually running afoul of his old man, played by Terry O’Quinn with a palpable bitterness that seems born of whose life didn’t turned out quite the way he hoped.
In many ways, “Mischief” is as much a bromance as anything else, focusing most of its attention on Jonathan and Gene as unlikely allies, each one helping to prop up the other. The female characters, as you might expect, suffer as a consequence. Gene’s love interest, Bunny (Catherine Mary Stewart), intended as something of a class warrior, torn between dating the town richy rich and the guy from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, comes across like nothing much more than a rag doll of the plot, an unfortunate waste of Mary Stewart’s genuine feistiness. There’s a curious moment near the end when her character and Gene have a row, but it’s seen from the faraway perspective of Jonathan, so we never hear what’s being said even though it looks like they’re really hashing it out. She never gets to truly speak for herself.
But Gene and Bunny remain the mere secondary couple to Jonathan and Marilyn. Refreshingly, he’s actually able to woo her simply by being himself, albeit striking a slightly more confident tone, rather than resorting to any sort of gamesmanship. Their love seems true and Preston here has a discernible liveliness that makes it seem as if her character is truly acting on evolving emotions. You can see this actress growing into someone who could breathe fire like Avery Bishop. The script eventually betrays her, however. She takes her clothes off, the only character in the movie that does, and once she does, she’s transformed into a haughty semi-slut, dumping Jonathan in advance of prom for last year’s school’s quarterback. In other words, she’s a good girl until she strips and then she’s awful and women are stupid and etc.
This story stupidity is underscored in the character of Rosalie, the requisite geek with bad glasses and terrible hair and awful fashion sense. She likes Jonathan, of course, but Jonathan, who is supposed to be our hero, hardly notices Rosalie because he’s too busy making time with Marilyn. Until Marilyn leaves him, of course, supposedly allowing him to determine what it means to be a good person. Except that his affection for Rosalie coincides with her taking off her bad glasses and re-doing her terrible hair and altering her fashion to reveal that she looks exactly like young Jamie Gertz. A guy who thinks he’s taking a stand against shallow values unwittingly reveals his own superficiality. Once Gene finds out there’ll be a reckoning.