Less Than Zero is available to rent or buy now on Amazon Prime.
Not all Christmas movies are happy, and not all festive stories are wrapped in fairy lights and tinsel. Some Christmas movies offer a different picture of the festive holidays as they explore fear, addiction, pain or trauma. Of course, these movies could hardly be described as feel-good Christmas films, but they are essential for viewing when exploring Christmas in all its guises and forms. Less Than Zero is one of these movies.
Long before movie adaptations of The Basketball Diaries, Beautiful Boy and A Million Little Pieces, there was a novel by Brett Easton Ellis named Less Than Zero. First published in 1985, the novel was Easton Ellis’ first at the tender age of 21, marking the start of a writing career that would bring us American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction and Lunar Park. However, despite the success of Less Than Zero in print, the 1987 film adaptation vanished into the mists of time despite Kanievska’s impressive cast, Robert Downey Jr, Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz and James Spader. So why did the film receive such mixed reviews on its release? And why has it all but vanished in the years since?
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Before I delve into the lasting legacy of Less Than Zero, let me take you back to the cinematic landscape of the mid-80s teen drama. By the mid-1980s, a new brat pack had emerged in Hollywood thanks to John Hughes, Frances Ford Coppola, Amy Pickering and Joel Schumacher. This newly formed ensemble of talent found a voice through heartfelt teen dramas and comedies ranging from The Breakfast Club to Pretty in Pink, St Elmo’s Fire and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Here their mainly middle-class characters were a reflection of a decade where fashion and music ruled, money meant power, and beautiful young people owned the big screen. However, while these new brat pack movies explored coming-of-age themes, youth subcultures and adolescent love in abundance, one subject remained primarily hidden, the increasing use of cocaine and heroin.
By 1985 the flawed ‘Just Say No’ drugs campaign spearheaded by Nancy Reagan had gained worldwide attention. Yet, despite TV slots and a famous Grange Hill storyline in the UK, the ‘Just Say No’ campaign remained absent from films. This was for a good reason, as while ‘Just Say No’ embraced a simple message for kids, the reality of drug use was far more complicated for many teens as it reflected a growing wealth divide and a slow-burning disillusionment in an ever-growing culture of image and wealth.
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In choosing to forgo the trappings of the book, Kanievska’s Less than Zero was the first major 80s film to attempt to reflect the decade’s growing drug culture with raw honesty. Here, we meet Clay (Andrew McCarthy), a straight-A student who has recently left his affluent West Coast home and friends for college. However, Clay is soon asked to return to Los Angeles during the Christmas break by his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jamie Gertz), and despite his apprehension, he agrees.
On arrival home, Clay is immediately thrust back into the fake, drug-laden culture of the wealthy L.A. suburbs. However, as he travels from one pretentious party to the next, he quickly discovers the reason for his ex-girlfriend’s request. His once best friend Julian has a coke habit that is completely out of control. Meanwhile, Julian’s father has cut off all financial support, with his dealer, Rip (James Spader), extending his credit in return for favours. But as Clay becomes wrapped in Julian’s drug-fuelled decline, he must decide whether to support and help his childhood friend or once again escape the madness of the L.A. life he chose to leave.
Much of the criticism levelled at Less Than Zero came from the film’s upper-class depiction of addiction. After all, surely rich young people living the 1980s capitalist dream didn’t suffer from the horror of addiction. Yet, the affluence on display makes Less Than Zero so powerful as a dissection of 80s wealth, privilege and addiction and a door to the darker reflections on adolescent life that were to come during the 1990s.
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Here the affluent young people of Beverly Hills are held in a gilded cage of addiction, with Jullian’s drug habit fuelled by the easy money he came to expect, money that runs dry when his family turn their back. It is here where Downey’s performance is nothing short of outstanding, and maybe that’s in part due to his own emerging drug problem at the time.
Less Than Zero may not be your standard Christmas fare, but its place in cinema history deserves far more attention. Less Than Zero challenged perceptions of drug use and gave birth to a whole host of addiction-related dramas in the years after its release. It’s a film that bridges the romantic 80s teen drama and the far darker movies of the 90s while demonstrating that the twinkling lights of Christmas often harbour darker secrets. Kanievska’s film may not be perfect, but it is essential viewing, as it unpicks the American capitalist dream.
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