American Graffiti (review)

Boys Meet World

I believe I’m right in saying that American Graffiti is still the most profitable movie ever made — that is, when budget is compared to gross. And that’s not a surprise. Made on the cheap, American Graffiti has a timeless power that speaks to everyone who was ever a teenager.

Covering one long summer night in Northern California in 1962, American Graffiti is a subtle coming-of-age story that follows two high-school grads around on their last night of childhood freedom. (Written and directed by George Lucas, this film has a lot in common with his seemingly disparate Star Wars: If Luke had known he was leaving Tatooine, he’d have had a night like this.) Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) and Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) are supposed to be heading off to college back east in the morning. Steve is gung-ho about college; Curt is not sure he even wants to leave town. They cruise the town’s strip, hang out at Mel’s Drive-In, and hash over life, and by dawn, their expectations for themselves will have changed dramatically.
Bookending Steve’s and Curt’s crises are viewpoints from opposite ends of the kid spectrum: Twentysomething hotrodder John Milner (Paul LeMat), who’s been putting off adulthood as long as possible, and 14-year-old Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), somebody’s kid sister, the “grungy little twerp” Milner finds himself saddled with for the night. Milner’s a rather sad character: Though he reminisces morosely about the sorry state of the strip — “The whole strip is shrinking… Five years ago it took you a couple hours, a tankful of gas just to make one circuit.” — and the fact that “rock and roll’s been going downhill since Buddy Holly died,” he gives no impression that he’s about to change his life of cruising and hotrodding. In fact, he looks on course to turn into Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford), the even older hotrodder whose challenge to race Milner turns disastrous. Carol, on the other hand, is getting a taste of the lives of older kids. Too much of a taste, perhaps — she gets scared when her experimental flirtation with Milner seems to have gone too far. With Milner and Carol, Lucas highlights the precariousness of the position Steve and Curt — all teenagers — are in: They have to balance daring with the desire for safety. If they’re too afraid to face the adult world, they risk getting stuck in childhood forever.

Dashing in and out of American Graffiti is a mysterious woman in a white T-Bird (Suzanne Somers) — “a vision, a goddess,” says Curt, captivated by his glimpses of her. His pursuit of her is vital to his change of heart, just as the woman in Steve’s life, girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams), is key to his. As the T-Bird babe brings out an adventurous streak in Curt, Laurie keeps Steve anchored on the ground and in the past: When they sneak back into the high school to crash the freshman hop, they relive memories of being school royalty, the class president and head cheerleader. Curt’s venture back to the school, on the other hand, acts to cut his ties with the past: He’s unable to open his old locker and a miserable, rather pathetic teacher urges him not to pass up a chance to leave their small town.

If there’s a character that’s a stand-in for Lucas, I suspect it’s Terry Fields, aka Toad (Charles Martin Smith), the dork picked on by everybody. Terry’s night hints at the fact that it’s rarely the Most Likely To Succeed who actually does: He gets lucky with Debbie (Candy Clark), the pretty blond girl who “looks like Connie Stevens.”

A labor of love for Lucas, American Graffiti launched the careers of much of its then-unknown cast and sparked off the 70s craze for 60s nostalgia. It remains a slice of teen culture that still resonates today.

AFI 100: #62
unforgettable movie moment:
The predawn drag race outside town between Milner and Falfa, cut short when Falfa’s car flips off the road.

previous AFI 100 film:
61: Sullivan’s Travels
next AFI 100 film:
63: Cabaret

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