I have no recollection of the first film I saw in theatres. When I was two months old, my father passed over reruns of I Love Lucy in the middle of the night, only to lull me to sleep to Platoon. This might explain why heavy metal makes me drowsy now. According to my parents, the first movie they took me to see in theatres was Home Alone. I was two years old, and cried mercilessly every time Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern were on screen. At the age of seven, my older brother, Derek, let me watch Natural Born Killers. He was eleven, and we were borrowing our Snow Bird grandparents’ Pay Per View box. Our mother wasn’t pleased when she finally found out about this earlier this year.
Whether by my own curiosity, naiveté, or fortitude (or any combination thereof), I managed to watch some illicit stuff at a very young age. I didn’t always understand it, but that never stopped me from trying to look at what my parents shooed me away from. At six I would sneak into the living room when Quint was about to bite it in Jaws. At thirteen I stole Derek’s rented copy of American Psycho on VHS and watched it in the middle of the night … mostly because he told me not to. My mom kept me distracted with crafts in the kitchen while Derek got to watch Carrie.
And yet, while gore and violence were shielded from me, things like nudity, drug use, alcohol, and generally raunchy behavior weren’t. I couldn’t tell you when I saw Animal House for the first time, but I was definitely in single digits.
At the age of six, my parents showed me Revenge of the Nerds.
I had no idea at the time that what I was watching was lewd or inappropriate. It wasn’t until this year that I fully realized just how explicit a film Revenge really is. And despite my early exposure to some seriously challenging material, this one had me scratching my head: we sat down to watch this as a family on Friday Movie Night, after all.
I had to know what was going through my parents’ heads when they showed it to me. But on asking both of them, neither remembered what age I was at the time. When I pointed out I couldn’t have been older than six, neither seemed shocked.
“We also showed you Animal House around the same time,” my father proclaimed proudly. “Am I a bad mother because I let you watch sexually suggestive material at an impressionable age?” my mother asked. I assured her, absolutely not. But I had to know why they thought it was suitable material for a child.
“You were always very mature for your age,” my mother explained, “so maybe we thought it would be ok. And we thought the movie was hilarious. [T]hat was the focus.”
“Keep in mind,” she continued, “both your parents are nerds. I just have a better wardrobe than Dad.”
My mother is a Microbiologist turned IT Tech, and my father is a Pediatric Biochemist. We always had petri dishes at home with little muddy handprints inside. Mom would bring them to work to let them cultivate, then bring us in to show us what beautiful things the bacteria did. Dad would take us hiking and talk about the importance of nature for the soul, then explain in detail why we should always wash our hands and never touch our faces!
It’s safe to say I was raised in a household of nerds.
“So was there something you hoped Derek and I would take away from it?” I asked. “Or did you just want to expose us to good humor?”
Mom answered simply: “Probably a combination of the humor and that nerdy people – like us – can be confident and (sort of) cool.”
Dad answered earnestly: “Probably a couple of things; First, always be proud of who you are no matter what; Second, never give up!”
It took me twenty years to realize that Revenge of the Nerds – thanks largely to my parents – defined a huge portion of who I was and who I would become. As a kid, I never fit in. I was laughed at, and made to feel inferior. I felt stepped on, left out, picked on, and put down virtually every single day of my young life. But I never apologized for who I was.
I liked things that other kids didn’t understand or care about. I watched movies they thought were weird, listened to music that wasn’t popular, and wore nothing but hand-me-downs from my older cousin. I didn’t enjoy being mocked for those things. But I never understood the notion of apologizing for them, either, or attempting to be different. In this case, different would translate to more “normal.” Whatever that means.
Thanks to Dudley “Booger” Dawson (played hilariously by Curtis Armstrong), body humor wasn’t just for the boys; from that moment on, I’d desperately try to join in on Derek and his friends’ belching contests. Sadly, I still can’t burp to this day. But it’s not for a lack of trying!
Thanks to Arnold Poindexter (beautifully portrayed by Timothy Busfield with uncanny comedic timing), it was okay to be quiet. That didn’t mean you weren’t smart, fun, kooky, or engaging. When people used to call me weird, I’d think of him. I don’t think I was ever disappointed by that connection.
Thanks to Judy (played with remarkable warmth by Michelle Meyrink), you could be interested in “nerdy” things, and still be loveable. Her romance with Anthony Edwards’ Gilbert Lowell has always been, and will always be, one of the most sweetly romantic relationships I’ve ever seen on film. I giggled when he dropped her accordion, and swooned when they got excited about having the same prescription lenses. They were earnest, fearless, and compassionate, both in equal measure. That taught me, above and beyond all else, that you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not, in love or in life.
There’s a fierce honesty to every character in Revenge. None of them are overly consumed with the notion of pretending to fit in. Even though Lewis Skolnik (Robert Carradine) desperately wants to be in a fraternity, and date the cheerleader, he wants to do it on his terms. It never occurs to any of them to alter themselves in any way for the sake of fitting in. They know full well they’re not the typical parts of the machine. So, instead of changing themselves to fit the cogs, they rebuilt the machine.
Revenge of the Nerds taught me to live honestly, and happily. To never apologize for my interests, my clothes, or my vocabulary. To proudly declare at age twelve that I thought Blackmoore’s Night and Jethro Tull were the best bands on the planet! To admit to loving Back to the Future when all the other kids were obsessing over I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Back when Nerd and Geek were four letter words, before Geek Chic was even a concept, Revenge of the Nerds changed me. So covertly I didn’t even realize it until I was an adult. I am fiercely passionate about film, due in large part to what I watched as a child. It made me feel, and it made me believe. Revenge made me believe not only in its own universe, but also in my own.
Now, Revenge of the Nerds isn’t my favorite film. It isn’t even close to being in my top ten. But it was uniquely inspirational for six-year-old me. And twenty-six-year-old me is forever grateful for that.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published November 29, 2014.