That lesson holds true for both the characters and the movie itself. Every character has its own redeeming qualities – sometimes surprisingly so. Even Kelly Preston, who plays the airheaded object of the entire school’s affections, is shown to be neither stupid nor mean – as such a character would usually be portrayed in the period’s movies.
As for the movie, it does seem at first like something we’ve seen countless times before, with the male protagonist falling for the wrong girl when the love of his life was right in front of his eyes the entire time.
If you think about the matter a little more closely, however, you discover a film about insecurities. C. Thomas Howell’s Michael pines for Preston’s Debbie, but is too insecure to directly engage her in conversation, so opts for sending letters instead. Debbie, meanwhile, could be said to be hiding her insecurities behind her awful choices – in both men and fashion.
Lastly, the two sets of parents – both Michael and Debbie’s – get caught up in a conflict that eventually escalates into one epic food fight during a bridge game because each and every one of them is insecure about something different.
Seen in that light, Secret Admirer becomes a sort of study on how we process our insecurities. Some, like Michael, end up attempting to tackle them head-on, and are all the better for it. Others, like his mother, eventually succumb to them and fall apart as a result.
You could still absolutely enjoy the movie even if you don’t want to delve too deeply into its underlying meaning. Fresh off of The Outsiders and Red Dawn, Howell was in peak form. Preston was as well, even though she remained something of an unfulfilled promise, never quite shaking off that “valley girl” brand of her earlier roles. The movie even features one child actor in their second ever feature film appearance, who would go on to define the trajectory taken by others of his generation.
Either way you choose to consume it, Secret Admirer is ultimately a coming-of-age story, wherein the story’s hero removes himself from the mindset of a child when he finds out his heart’s desire wasn’t all he thought it would be. The way he comes to grips with it – and finally sets his priorities straight – could teach us all a thing or two.