The era of the Brat Pack officially launched in 1984, but paving the way for them just a few years earlier was Kristy McNichol. She earned both fame and critical praise for her Emmy nominated role on the series Family and went on to appear in films like The End and Little Darlings. By 84, with the likes of Molly Ringwald coming up in the ranks, McNichol was moving out of the teenage roles. But moving from child star to adult actress is rarely easy – so Just The Way You Are went largely unnoticed when it was released in November of 1984.
McNichol plays Susan Berlanger, a talented young flautist who plays as part of the orchestra for a New York ballet company. She’s spunky, cute, and certainly seems to have plenty of men trying to win her over. Not only does she have a stock broker who wants to marry her (Tim Daly), there’s also a guy she met at her favorite restaurant (Robert Carradine) and a guy who works at her answering service who is obsessed with the sound of her voice (Lance Guest). However, Susan wears a leg brace as a result of a childhood disease and this can sometimes make life difficult. Not because of her challenges in getting around, but because she is frustrated with how people treat her differently. For example, she doesn’t want to be seated early at the movie theater, she’s content to stand in line like everyone else – but the usher forces her to be seated before the others. Even her potential fiancée stockbroker seems to only want to take care of her, and she doesn’t want to be taken care of.
With all the pressure to get engaged, she decides to take some time away from it all by accepting an opportunity to do some recitals in Europe. While there she hits upon an idea, though. She convinces a doctor to disguise her brace with a cast. She then cancels a few of her gigs and heads for a ski resort, figuring she will blend in and not be treated differently – looking like someone with poor skiing abilities rather than someone with a perceived handicap. I’m not exactly clear on the logic of that whole idea – but ok.
At the ski resort she does find a very accepting atmosphere. She starts by dancing the night away with a hot member of the ski team (Patrick Cassidy). Susan then catches the eye of a photographer, Peter (Michael Ontkean). The two spend lots of time cavorting with each other in the snow. He even convinces her to enter the “gimp” race for people with injuries. All this attention Peter is giving Susan thoroughly upsets female ski team member Bobbie (future Baywatch babe Alexandra Paul) who thinks he should be taking pictures of her. Of course, Susan is soon faced with the problem of how she tells Peter that she is not just a clumsy skier with a busted leg, but has a disability.
There are a number of elements of Just the Way You Are that don’t completely make sense. The premise itself is somewhat flawed. I mean, if Susan doesn’t like being treated differently because she wears a leg brace, I don’t totally understand how that’s magically made better when it’s changed to a cast. With the exception of Lance Guest’s character, who strangely loses interest in Susan when he learns about her brace, most of the people around Susan treat her quite well. Her biggest problem is that people want to help her, but she doesn’t want to be helped. I guess I can understand the frustration of that to a degree. Still, I don’t see how switching to a cast would change that situation. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of things that didn’t make sense, there is this whole “gimp” race thing. Is this a real thing? I mean, a ski race for people who have already broken a limb skiing. Seems like all that would accomplish would be more broken limbs. Must be sponsored by the local emergency room.
Despite the fact that some of it doesn’t make sense, I actually really enjoyed this film. McNichol gives her performance a nice playful feel – it also doesn’t hurt that she may be one of the cutest things to ever appear on screen. You can’t help but root for her. The supporting cast does a fine job as well. The three men who vie for her attention early in the film, Daly, Guest, and Carradine, are all solid. I was a bit disappointed, in fact, that Carradine’s part didn’t amount to more. Sadly, the ultimate love interest of the story, Michael Ontkean, lacks anything in the way of charisma. What exactly Susan sees in him is a bit of a mystery. Alexandra Paul also deserves some praise. Before she was on Baywatch I always remembered her as the nicey nicey character, the virgin Connie Swail, in Dragnet. Here she’s the mean girl and, though her part is short, she pulls it off quite well.
At times the film does have a bit of a made-for-TV feel to it, but I didn’t really mind it. The general premise does seem a bit like what we might find in a Lifetime movie. The film is also shot in a way that just doesn’t seem as grand as we might expect for a theatrical feature. Only a sequence where Susan and friends fly over the snowy mountains in a hot air balloon seems a bit more cinematic. At times I wondered if I was watching a TV movie, but that thinking was stopped by one brief moment midway through the film. In this PG rated movie, McNichol plays her flute while wearing a newly purchased fur coat, and nothing else. She then flashes her roommate (and the audience) for a microsecond. Many a VHS copy of this film got worn out from pausing and rewinding this moment, I assure you.
Just the Way You Are ended up being a nice little surprise. It’s got a clever little script, not to mention a funny and spunky performance from McNichol. It’s nothing flashy, but it has a lot of spirit.