Review: ‘Brats’ (2024), starring Andrew McCarthy, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Timothy Hutton and Jon Cryer

June 8, 2024

by Carla Hay

Emilio Estevez and Andrew McCarthy in “Brats” (Photo courtesy of ABC News Studios/Neon/Hulu)

“Brats” (2024)

Directed by Andrew McCarthy

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Brats” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) from the entertainment industry and the media discussing the so-called Brat Pack group of actors and actresses who were teen idols and breakout successes in the early-to-mid-1980s.

Culture Clash: The Brat Pack struggled with this nickname that was given to them in a 1985 New York magazine article, as members felt this label damaged the perception that they wanted to be taken seriously as actors.

Culture Audience: “Brats” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, 1980s nostalgia and pop culture documentaries.

A 1985 photo of Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy in “Brats” (Photo courtesy of ABC News Studios/Neon/Hulu)

As a documentary, “Brats” offers an appealing blend of 1980s nostalgia, psychotherapy analysis and pop culture commentary in this forthright look at how members of the so-called Brat Pack were affected by this label that they did not want. “Brats” director Andrew McCarthy, who was a reluctant member of the Brat Pack, doesn’t make the movie a “where are they now” pity party of actors and actresses who became famous at a young age in the 1980s. Rather, “Brats” is about coming to terms with one’s past and learning some life lessons from experiences that can be seen with a different perspective with wisdom and age. “Brats” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

As explained in the documentary, the Brat Pack was a description coined by journalist David Blum, who wrote a June 1985 cover story article for New York magazine about young up-and-coming actors and actresses who frequently co-starred in the same movies. The article was originally supposed to be a small feature profile of Emilio Estevez (Martin Sheen’s eldest child), who had co-starred in movies such as 1983’s “The Outsiders” and 1985’s “The Breakfast Club,” which was his breakout hit. Blum hung out with actors Estevez, Rob Lowe and Judd Nelson at various Los Angeles-area restaurants, bars and nightclubs and reported what he saw and heard.

When the article was published, it was a somewhat unflattering exposé about the Brat Pack being spoiled, entitled partiers who were more interested in fame than in the art of acting. Almost all of the stars of the 1985 drama movie “St. Elmo’s Fire” were lumped into the Brat Pack group: Estevez, Lowe, Nelson, McCarthy, Ally Sheedy and Demi Moore. “St. Elmo’s Fire” co-star Mare Winningham, who was never considered part of the Brat Pack, was spared from most of the tabloid coverage that the others received.

“St. Elmo’s Fire” (directed and co-written by Joel Schumacher, who died at age 80 in the year 2020) is considered the ultimate Brat Pack movie because it’s the only movie to star the most members of the Brat Pack, and it was the movie that came out around the same time as the notorious New York magazine article. “Brats” has a very telling clip from an archival “Entertainment Tonight” interview that Moore did (while in her character’s wardrobe) on the set of “St. Elmo’s Fire.” In the archival interview, Moore says that the stars of “St. Elmo’s Fire” played characters with personality traits that were very similar to the cast members’ personality traits in real life.

In “St. Elmo’s Fire,” the headlining cast members all portrayed a close group of friends who have recently graduated from Georgetown University and who like to hang out at a bar called St. Elmo’s. Estevez’s law student character Kirby Keager, a St. Elmo’s waiter, is the earnest overachiever and unofficial leader of the group, just as Estevez was described in the New York magazine article as the unofficial leader of the Brat Pack. Moore’s banker character Julianna “Jules” Van Patten is a “wild child” with a drug habit. In real life (and in the “Brats” documentary), Moore says her cocaine addiction was so well-known when she filmed “St. Elmo’s Fire,” she was ordered to have a “sober companion” on the set with her at all times, to prevent Moore from getting out of control with her drug use.

Lowe’s musician character William “Billy” Hicks (who plays saxophone in a rock band) is a heartthrob hooking up with several women, even though Billy is married. Lowe had the same playboy reputation, except Lowe was a bachelor in real life during his Brat Pack years. Winningham’s wealthy do-gooder character Wendy Beamish is in love with Billy and becomes one of his sexual conquests. Winningham also had a “clean” image in real life.

Nelson’s aspiring politician character Alec Newberry is another “bad boy” cheater, although Alec is much more discreet than Billy about committing infidelity. Nelson, just like Lowe, also had a reputation as a ladies’ man who loved to party in real life. Sheedy’s aspiring architect character Leslie Hunter is nice but insecure. Leslie is engaged to Alec and is reluctant to marry him because she suspects that Alec is cheating on her.

McCarthy’s writer/journalist character Kevin Dolenz is Kirby’s intellectual roommate. Kevin is publicly cynical about love but privately is secretly in love with Leslie. In real life, as seen in “Brats,” McCarthy says he had a crush on Sheedy when they filmed “St. Elmo’s Fire.” When McCarthy confesses this crush to Sheedy during the interview that she did for “Brats,” she has a hard time believing him because he seemed so emotionally aloof when they worked together. McCarthy agrees.

After this New York magazine article was published, the so-called Brat Pack members tried to avoid working with each other as much as possible because they thought the Brat Pack name was a stigma for their careers. Moore and Estevez, who were an on-again/off-again couple in the mid-1980s, were the exceptions to Brat Pack members who avoided working together during the Brat Pack heyday. Estevez and Moore were briefly engaged to each other, but their relationship ended around the same time that their 1986 co-starring movie “Wisdom” (which was written and directed by Estevez) was a huge flop. “Wisdom” and the failed romance of Estevez and Moore are not mentioned at all in “Brats.”

Molly Ringwald—who starred in a string of teen-oriented hit movies written by filmmaker John Hughes, such as 1984’s “Sixteen Candles,” 1985’s “The Breakfast Club” and 1986’s “Pretty in Pink”—was also considered to be part of the Brat Pack, even though she was never really a close friend with the other members, who were all in their 20s in the mid-1980s, while she was still a teenager. Ringwald declined to participate in the “Brats” documentary, according to McCarthy, who co-starred with Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink” and 1988’s “Fresh Horses.” In 2009, Hughes died of a heart attack at the age of 59.

Nelson was elusive and the former Brat Packer who was most difficult to contact for the “Brats” documentary, according to McCarthy, although the ending of “Brats” hints that Nelson eventually made contact with McCarthy by phone. Nelson is not interviewed in the movie, so it can be presumed he also declined to participate. Nelson’s absence from the “Brats” documentary isn’t a surprise. For decades, Nelson has generally shunned his association with the Brat Pack, except for when he does the occasional “Breakfast Club” reunion interview.

McCarthy does voiceover narration and interviewing for this documentary (his feature-film directorial debut), where he somewhat pretentiously wants to make to clear that he’s always been a serious actor from New York City. McCarthy drops quotes from playwrights Tennessee Willams and Eugene O’Neill, as if to prove he is well-versed in the work of theater artists. The Brat Pack actors and actresses interviewed for “Brats” are Estevez, Lowe, Moore and Sheedy, with McCarthy usually doing the interviews at the interviewees’ respective homes.

In “Brats,” McCarthy also debunks any false perceptions that the Brat Packers are close friends all these years later. And as if to prove a point about how much distance McCarthy put between himself and the other members of the Brat Pack, McCarthy mentions multiple times in “Brats” that he had not seen Estevez, Moore and Lowe in person for at least 30 years until he met up with them for this documentary. (Most of the interviews for the documentary were conducted in 2022.)

In the case of Estevez, McCarthy says he hadn’t seen Estevez since the “St. Elmo’s Fire” premiere in Los Angeles. McCarthy also says in the documentary (as he has in his 2021 memoir “Brat: An ’80s Story”) that he and Lowe were very competitive with each other at the height of their Brat Pack fame. In the “Brats” documentary, former rivals Lowe and McCarthy joke about how Lowe constantly meets Brat Pack fans who tell him they prefer McCarthy, while McCarthy constanly meets Brat Pack fans who tell him that they prefer Lowe.

Not surprisingly, Lowe and Moore (the two former Brat Packers with the most successful acting careers who are in this documentary) seem to be most at ease with the Brat Pack label. Estevez is still visibly uncomfortable with the Brat Pack label. Sheedy and McCarthy seem to have mixed feelings but have made as much peace as possible with this Brat Pack label.

Lowe expresses the most appreciation for how the Brat Pack movies changed some people’s lives and influenced the industry. Lowe and McCarthy both agree that it’s beautiful when fans express how much the Brat Pack movies changed their lives. Lowe puts a very positive spin on everything by saying that although the New York magazine article was “mean-spirited” and “an attempt to minimize our talents,” the benefits of Brat Pack fame outweighed any down sides.

Moore uses a lot of therapy lingo in discussing how she processed her Brat Pack fame. She says of the Brat pack label: “It didn’t really represent us.” However, Moore says pushing back against the Brat Pack label was “againstness” that just fed into any negativity and backlash that the Brat Packers got.

Estevez, who says he often turns down invitations to talk about his past at length, tells McCarthy in “Brats” why he agreed to do this documentary interview: “It was time we clear the air on a couple of things.” Estevez agrees with McCarthy’s assessment that the Brat Packers consciously avoided co-starring together in another large ensemble movie like “St. Elmo’s Fire” because of the Brat Pack label. “We would’ve been kryptonite to each other,” Estevez comments.

As for the Brat Pack media frenzy, Estevez states: “Was it something we benefited from? Maybe. But in the long run, we did not.” What’s missing from Estevez’s commentary is any acknowledgement that being the son of a famous actor certainly gave him advantages in the entertainment industry that he benefited from, long before the Brat Pack label existed. It seems a bit tone-deaf for Estevez to blame an unflattering magazine article for perhaps not getting some career opportunities when he already had more advantages and more opportunities than most actors will ever have.

Sheedy, one of the co-stars of “The Breakfast Club” (a comedy/drama about a group of high school students who spend a Saturday in detention), says that “The Breakfast Club” is the “gift that keeps on giving” because it’s the movie that she’s done that seems to have had the biggest impact on people. In “The Breakfast Club,” Sheedy had the role of Allison Reynolds, the “weird” misfit loner of the group. In real life, Sheedy says she related to Allison a lot because Sheedy describes herself as being a quiet misfit when she was in high school.

McCarthy says that he and other people with the Brat Pack label had their careers “branded, without any wiggle room.” McCarthy adds, “It was such a stigma, early on. Nobody wanted to be associated with it.” He later says to Sheedy about being a member of the so-called Brat Pack: “We were members of a club we never asked to join.”

The main “what if” question presented in “Brats” is: “What if the Brat Pack description had never been applied to this group?” On the one hand, McCarthy says that for years, he felt resentment over not getting the types of prestigious movie roles where he would get to work with A-list directors. On the other hand (a point that McCarthy says he has now more appreciation for in hindsight), the Brat Pack fame helped him to continue to work steadily for years as a well-paid actor, which is something that most actors never experience. And, by his own admission, McCarthy says his entree into the movie business was relatively quick and easy, compared to what most other actors experience.

What’s left unsaid but can be discerned from the conversations that McCarthy has with his interviewees is this indisputable truth: Being in a constant state of “career envy” is not a healthy place to be for anyone. Even if the people who were labeled as Brat Packers never had the Brat Pack label thrust upon them, they probably wouldn’t have had the types of careers that they saw some of their actor peers achieving. The reality is that people who call themselves actors rarely get to be a superstar like Tom Cruise or an Oscar winner like Sean Penn. And just like in any profession, many people have highs and lows in their careers and can never go back to the highest of highs that they achieved.

Lauren Shuler Donner, a longtime successful film producer whose credits include “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Pretty and Pink,” is interviewed in “Brats” and has the best attitude of all the “Brats” interviewees about the Brat Pack label. She tells McCarthy what she thought of the Brat Pack label and everyone associated with the Brat Pack: “It distinguished us. I thought it was fabulous. I thought, ‘Aren’t these guys lucky? Aren’t these guys talented?'”

Also interviewed are three “Brat Pack adjacent” actors: Jon Cryer, a co-star of “Pretty in Pink”; Timothy Hutton, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for 1980’s “Ordinary People”; and Lea Thompson, who is best known for her role in 1985’s “Back to the Future.” Hutton, who is interviewed at his farm in New York state, doesn’t have much that’s interesting to say in this documentary. Cryer mostly reminisces with McCarthy about filming “Pretty in Pink,” which famously had its original ending drastically changed after audiences at test screenings expressed extreme dislike for the original ending. Thompson’s comments are mostly about the Brat Pack movies’ influences on young people.

Pop culture journalists (including Blum) and filmmakers also weigh in with their thoughts on the Brat Pack. They include “Pretty in Pink” director Howard Deutch, who is married to Thompson; author Bret Easton Ellis (“Less Than Zero”); film critic Kate Erbland; screenwriter Michael Oates Palmer (“The West Wing”); pop culture critic Ira Madison III; journalist/author Malcolm Gladwell; talent manager Loree Rodkin; casting director Marci Liroff; and journalist Susannah Gora, author of “You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation.”

When McCarthy interviews Blum for this documentary, Blum also seems to have mixed feelings about what the term Brat Pack did to people’s careers, including his own. Blum expresses pride and no regrets over creating this Brat Pack description, which was a riff on the Rat Pack clique consisting of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Dean Martin and Joey Bishop. (In the “Brats” documentary, McCarthy and Lowe tell a quick and amusing story about how they met Liza Minnelli at the original Spago restaurant sometime in 1985, and she took them to Davis’ house to meet Davis, who served them drinks and complimented McCarthy and Lowe. It was a “Rat Pack meets Brat Pack” moment, says McCarthy.) However, Blum admits that he created the label Brat Pack with the hope that his career would advance too. Based on the results, Blum (ironically, just like McCarthy) doesn’t think it helped his career and might have pigeonholed him as his main claim to fame.

The “Brats” documentary has a brief mention of the Brat Pack’s lack of racial diversity being a sign of the times, when on-screen entertainment was much more racially segregated than it is now. However, Madison (who is African American) and Gladwell (who is a biracial British Canadian) both say that people of color are so accustomed to seeing white-oriented entertainment, the Brat Pack movies just represent this reality. (And the reality is that there are many white people who only have white friends, as seen in Brat Pack movies.) Regardless of race, the Brat Pack movies had character personalities that people of any race could relate to on a human level. The main cultural divides in Brat Pack movies had to do with social class and popularity, not race.

The “Brats” documentary tends to overstate how “pioneering” the Brat Pack was in the 1980s. The Brat Packers certainly were never the biggest teen idols of all time. And none of the Brat Pack movies came close to being 1980s blockbusters such as megahits “E.T: The Extraterrestrial,” “Back to the Future” or “Top Gun.” In fact, many of the Brat Pack movies had middling success at the box office or were outright bombs. The documentary doesn’t mention Brat Pack movie flops such as “Wisdom,” “Fresh Horses,” 1984’s “Oxford Blues” and 1986’s “Blue City.”

Lowe has the biggest ego of the former Brat Packers when he claims that entertainment launched in the 21st century—such as the youth-oriented CW network and teen-oriented TV shows like “Glee”—would not have existed without the Brat Pack. (None of the Brat Packers had anything to do with creating the CW or “Glee,” by the way.) Lowe admits that the Brat Pack wasn’t as big as the Beatles, but he speculates that at the height of the Brat Pack craze, it’s possible the Brat Pack could have sold out Shea Stadium in New York, like the Beatles did.

The “Brats” documentary gives proper context to the 1980s boom of movies centered on teenagers and people in their early 20s. But the documentary ignores that there was also a proliferation of youth-oriented movies in the 1950s and early 1960s. “Back to the Future” co-star Thompson correctly points out the main difference between the youth-oriented movies of the 1980s and those in previous decades was that these 1980s movies were the first to benefit from being released on home video within a year of their theatrical releases. The home video releases extended the influences of these movies and made it easier for Generation X (people who were in their teens and 20s in the 1980s and 1990s) and younger generations to discover these films and watch these movies repeatedly in ways that weren’t possible before the invention of home video.

“Brats” has the expected archival footage of film clips and interviews. The documentary includes a somewhat amusing archival clip from the after-party of “Pretty in Pink” movie premiere in Los Angeles. In this archival clip, an uncomfortable-looking McCarthy and “Pretty in Pink” co-star James Spader are being interviewed for MTV by Fee Waybill, the lead singer of the Tubes, whose solo song “Saved My Life” was on the “Pretty in Pink” soundtrack.

It’s obvious from this interview that McCarthy’s discomfort with the Brat Pack label was part of a larger issue that McCarthy had with fame. In the “Brats” documentary, McCarthy says of how he felt at the “Pretty in Pink” premiere: “That night encapsulates my career: thrilled but terrified.” McCarthy adds that he also remembers getting very drunk that night.

“Brats” also mentions the importance of soundtrack music from certain Brat Pack movies. Hughes (who directed “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club”) put a lot of his favorite artists on his movie soundtracks, which is why these soundtracks often had European artists who had their international breakthroughs and biggest hits because of being on these soundtracks. For example: Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from “The Breakfast Club” soundtrack and OMD’s “If You Leave” from the “Pretty in Pink” soundtrack. The “St. Elmo’s Fire” soundtrack (which had North American and British artists) was notable for hits such as John Parr’s title track and David Foster’s instrumental “Love Theme From St. Elmo’s Fire.”

Although some of the former Brat Pack members (including McCarthy) do a little bit of whining about their fame and success, most of the “Brats” documentary is a thoughtful reflection of how self-images and careers were affected by other people’s perceptions of the Brat Pack. The movie purposefully avoids the former Brat Packers telling wild tales of 1980s excesses, although McCarthy does briefly allude to his alcoholism and recovery, which he went public about years ago. (Some former members of the Brat Pack—such as McCarthy, Lowe and Moore—have memoirs where they’ve shared some of their stories about substance abuse and decadence.) What will resonate most with viewers of “Brats” is the acknowledgement that emotional maturity and self-identity can be difficult journeys for many people, regardless if they are famous or not.

Hulu will premiere “Brats” on June 13, 2024.

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