At high school, the pupils line up for their polio jabs, all reacting in different ways to the pain. The Squares put on a brave face, but the Drapes don't need to act tough - they already are tough. One Square is Allison (Amy Locane), who is waiting with her boyfriend Baldwin (Stephen Mailer) but when it's her time to step up for the needle, she happens to sit down at the same instant as the lead Drape, a handsome bad boy known as Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp). He is secretly attracted to Allison, and when she gazes into his eyes as she receives her injection, she begins to feel the same way...
But can love across the tracks ever work out? That is the question that writer and director John Waters quickly lost interest in with this, his follow-up to surprise success Hairspray, which he similarly set in the nineteen-fifties and littered with pop culture ephemera of the time, the accoutrements of his youth. This was even more reliant on the music, for it featured actual musical numbers which the cast mimed and danced to, making it perhaps yet more traditional in its concerns than it might have wanted to admit. Of course, many of those concerns were for Waters to celebrate the life in Baltimore he hailed from, and in that there was a definite sense of joy here.
This was exuberance all the way, perhaps arriving a little too late for the eighties preoccupation with fifties pop culture, but Waters was always more of a trendsetter than a trend follower. Unless those trends were those perceived as not the done thing by his parents and their contemporaries, in which case that shock value in taking down polite society with his own trashy sense of humour were exactly what this doctor of the brash and garish ordered. Cry-Baby's gang are a case in point, especially the girls: they all wear leather jackets and too much makeup, have no qualms about pairing off with boys, and his sister Pepper (Ricki Lake) is a teenage unwed mother of two, with another on the way.
Also in that gang were Kim McGuire as the cheerfully grotesque Hatchet Face and a juvenile delinquent of a more modern stripe as Traci Lords took the role of Wanda, whose attempts at shocking her clueless parents are highly amusing. But then, what about this film is not? It was fashionable at the time to make the squares the heroes and the jocks the villains, but the Drapes in this don't fit into either category, being a more brazen type of misfit altogether. The plot starts out as your basic Romeo and Juliet affair, but as if Waters realised how hackneyed that was, it was soon devolving into a series of sketches sending up the teen movies of the fifties with giddy enthusiasm.
As often with Waters, it was the details that supplied most of the laughs, from Cry-Baby's grandmother (Susan Tyrrell) always having lipstick on her teeth to Allison's grandmother (Polly Bergen) lamenting the youth of the era ("Girls in tight slacks! Hysterectomy pants, I call them!"). Then there's the electric chair Depp's character has tattooed on his chest to commemorate his executed parents, or the laughing rat who sends him the wrong way in his prison break: this was one of the first movies the actor made which emphasised that he was not going to play by the rules, but he became a megastar anyway. The music is a not bad selection of covers and soundalike originals, not quite up to Hairspray standards but perfectly fine for the movie, and besides you'll be looking forward to the next gag or next famous face, of which there were a fair few here. Some believe that Waters never really improved after his scuzzy seventies work, but in their way these later works had their gems as well. Music by Patrick Williams.
Witty American writer/director, the chief proponent of deliberate bad taste in American films. His early efforts are little more than glorified home movies, including Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, but with the notorious Pink Flamingos Waters found his cult audience.