HomeEntertainment NewsIf You Love 'Euphoria,' Check Out 'Less Than Zero'

If You Love ‘Euphoria,’ Check Out ‘Less Than Zero’

For some reason, we can’t get enough of teens and young adults abandoning their better nature in exchange for drugs, sex, addiction, and general self-destruction. Euphoria is the most recent series to tackle these issues, garnering quite a reputation as one of the most harrowing series of the past decade. However, before Euphoria and even before Catherine Hardwicke‘s now-classic Thirteen, Less Than Zero paved the way for serious, dramatic portrayals of teens and young adults that went beyond the sugary, sanitized feel-good teen dramedies of the ’80s that emphasized escapism and fun over real-life consequences. While undeniably classics in their own right, John Hughes movies never give you the sense that you should fear for the lives or general wellbeing of the kids in them. Generally you know that everything’s going to work out in the end even after having taken significant risks like ditching school or smoking pot during Saturday detention. There is seldom ever a serious threat facing the protagonists in many ’80s coming-of-age movies as they live in a protected, sterile reality, usually in the form of an idyllic suburbia. This isn’t the case in Less Than Zero. In this universe, anyone can bite the dust, and oftentimes there’s no greater lesson to be imparted, just the cold, cruel hands of fate and chance.


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‘Less Than Zero’ Tackles Toxic Friendship and Addiction

Image via 20th Century Studios

Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ 1985 novel of the same name, Less Than Zero follows a trio of wealthy Los Angeles high school friends six months after graduation as they embark on adulthood. They each have their own lofty ambitions: Clay (Andrew McCarthy) is attending college on the East Coast, Blair (Jami Gertz) is an aspiring model, and Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) wants to own and operate his own nightclub. After failing to break into the club scene successfully and loosing his father’s large investment in his venture, Julian turns to cocaine and a hard-partying lifestyle to cope. Blair reaches out to Clay to help, and the three friends attempt to reconnect and help get Julian back on his feet over Christmas break. The film is a highly-dramatized but believable portrayal of three young people who have formed a toxic codependent relationship with each other. Friendship among people in their teens is usually portrayed as almost exclusively positive, but in the case of Clay, Blair, and Julian, their symbiosis is one of enabling and over-reliance. They each have the distinct problem of having too much money, not enough familial support, and too much time on their hands. They spend their nights doing lines and dancing under the neon lights until sunrise.

The film presents a dual version of Los Angeles in the ’80s. On the one hand, the clubs are absolutely magnificent and outrageous, oozing nostalgia and glitz and glamour. On the other hand, as the film progresses it shows us what happens when the lights turn on, the sun rises, and the party’s over. Less Than Zero spends ample time in clubs and parties of various sorts, which could come across as gratuitous, but the decadent party scene in ’80s LA is just as much a character in the film as Clay, Blair, or Julian.

The Brat Pack Goes Dark

Image via 20th Century Studios

The ’80s Brat Pack films rarely delved into the topics that Less Than Zero touches on. The endings of films like The Breakfast Club or Weird Science are almost never tragic in the way that the ending of Less Than Zero is tragic. Even in The Outsiders, there is a general sense of hope in the future and that the tragic events that took place contribute to some greater growth in the characters. However, Less Than Zero is a portrait of youth where drugs and hard partying are not just a phase, but which contribute to the downfall of friendships, families, and the loss of young life. The film also tackles the role that substantial wealth plays in enabling harmful lifestyle choices among teens. The suburban houses in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Sixteen Candles that exude warmth and comfort give way to mansions with minimalistic interior design and large empty rooms in Less Than Zero. Even though the film takes place during Christmastime, the kids’ families are nowhere to be seen. The scene most indicative of the lack of a wholesome family environment happens early on in the film when Blair goes home to give her father his Christmas gift. She knocks on his bedroom door, only to find that he’s too busy having sex with an unnamed woman and refuses to come to the door. Blair is given a detached “Merry Christmas” from behind the door. As a result, Blair returns to her nightly ritual of doing lines and cathartically dancing until all hours of the night with Julian and Clay.

Book vs. Movie

Image via 20th Century Studios

Bret Easton Ellis was initially extremely disappointed in this adaptation of his debut novel. He has since softened on it, growing to appreciate its place as a time capsule which accurately portrayed “a certain youth culture during that decade that no other movie caught”. He also particularly liked Downey’s portrayal of Julian. The film has a mixed reputation to this day. Those who have read the book know that even at it’s bleakest, Less Than Zero is still a fairly tame adaptation of the book, which goes much deeper into the characters’ psyches. The book also has a much more nihilistic tone and even a dry sense of humor, which didn’t really translate to the final film.

The film is undeniably an artifact of mid-’80s angst and excess, but there in lies its charm. The characters are likable and real, yet their circumstances are (thankfully) far enough removed from those of the majority of the audience. The film works if you just want to live vicariously, basking in its neon glow, or if you’re looking for something darker and more real. Less Than Zero is an excellent example of a film which uses its “live fast die young” mentality to both draw you into its glitzy world while also making you glad that you never actually got the chance.



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