Second Union

Second Union

VINTAGE SUMMER: Private School (1983)

“That’s the finest example of bareback riding I’ve ever seen.”

Private School, 1983 (Phoebe Cates) MCA/Universal

This hints of desperation. A trio of boys (led by Matthew Modine) have to get their jollies sneaking into the Cherryvale Girls Academy, forming a human ladder so that the chubbiest of them, “Bubba” (Michael Zorek) can sneak some polaroids of Betsy Russell showering. This is a far cry from a closed-circuit video system set up by some nerds to catch the girls at Pi Delta Pi. On top of that, Modine is dating Phoebe Cates. Why does he need to engage in these antics? If there is something fresh about Private School, it would have to be that we’re getting more interplay from the girls.

It’s also refreshing to see the girls give as well as they get. They’re just as stupid and horny as the boys, however the camera lingers on their bodies in a way it never would with the guys. Let’s look at the teen sex comedy as if it were a war movie, but instead of allies and axis, we have boys versus girls. There are warning shots and parting shots, raids and skirmishes, surprise attacks and suicide missions. This is Freemount Academy and Cherryvale in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse! Like Private Resort, the director is more concerned with mise en scène than any actual plot progression.

There seems to be a cold war between Phoebe’s gang (which includes herself and Kathleen Wilhoite) and snobby tart Betsy Russell. Russell goes to great lengths, including riding a horse topless, to get Modine’s attention. While planning a weekend getaway with Phoebe at a posh hotel, Modine tries to buy condoms from druggist Martin Mull but he comes back with dental supplies. It’s Phoebe’s turn. She marches right in and asks for condoms, so Mull goes into a whole salesman spiel about the best condoms for her purposes, of course embarrassing her in front of the headmistress (Fran Ryan) who happens to be there for a facial.

There are some back-and-forth pranks instigated mainly by Wilhoite that get all the girls in trouble (this is standard high school fascism). The boys then decide (or is it choose) to dress in drag to gain access to Cherryvale. They’re not pulling it off. I know this is a movie and everything, but my suspension of disbelief is out the window at this point. I always thought Peter Scolari, Eric Idle, and David Foley made for better-looking women than men, but that’s just me. Private School is padded with this kind of intercourse (pardon the wordplay), and it’s not particularly clever either.

Russell plays games with Modine in drag, knowing full well who he is, and I think this is supposed to lead into some sort of jealous lust-triangle. Phoebe catches them together, even though this is a wacky misunderstanding, and is crestfallen. I feel for those kids, I really do. While Modine is menaced by the evil Betsy, “Bubba” makes time with Wilhoite. I just refuse to believe you have to dress in drag to see your girl. I feel like the movie is trying to hijack the better moments of a superior movie, such as National Lampoon’s Animal House. At any rate, they kiss and make up and have a wonderful weekend together, culminating in graduation day with “Bubba” in drag attending to see his girlfriend. Huh?

It’s a quality production with popular songs from the time period, including the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town” and Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy,” but movies like this are made to be fast-forwarded on video to the “good” parts, and those parts frequently involve nudity. I remember a version of Private School that played on regular television where Harry Nilsson’s hilarious “You’re Breaking My Heart” was replaced with some polite violin chamber music during the opening credits. Cates made a big splash in the previous year’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. She even sings the end credits song! Modine would appear in Birdy, and then in his breakout role: 1985’s Vision Quest. Paula Abdul supervised the cheerleader choreography.

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