George Lucas’ American Graffiti is set in what feels like a groundhog day in California 1962. A group of friends have one last night of doing “kid stuff” before the summer holidays end. Each characters has a problem: some have doubts about leaving home for university whilst others struggle to get dates with girls they like. All the events of this film take place against the landscapes of classics 60s icons like burger drive-ins, a high school dance, cruising strips and other places that have that honest aura in relation to the time it is set. At sunrise the next morning, everybody has sorted themselves out and they feel a bit more content about their futures, academic or otherwise.
The stigma of the Star Wars prequels aside, American Graffiti (and THX 1138) shows that George Lucas wasn’t always a bad director. Set in 1962 but released in 1973, this film was even nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, up against The Sting and The Exorcist in the 1974 ceremony to name a couple. The whole film is built around this jukebox soundtrack, eclectic in its design much alike Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future. George Lucas’ coming of age drama has interesting characters and well-observed social moments that today’s generation will find common ground in, as rites of passage events revolving around going to university haven’t really changed that much.
The film has substance and despite being set in the early 60s it speaks about many of the things that all teenagers will go through. Much akin to West Side Story, Dazed and Confused and The Breakfast Club, it has elements that feel dated, including turns of phrase which are a testament to the time. I guess that’s to be expected in a period high school drama set.It froths too, and big, and I’m not just talking about the milkshakes in a Mel’s Drive-In. And as a result of George Lucas setting much of the film in a Mel’s Drive-In, the chain of restaurants became relevant again. The chain lives to this day, even if they’re just nostalgia shops where you can get food and free WiFi.
And like all dramas of this type, the stereotypes and clichés are all in place. We have the loving couple that argues (Ronny (Ron) Howard & Cindy Williams); the rebel (Paul Le Mal) stuck with a girl who is younger than what’s socially comfortable (Mackenzie Phillips); the nerd with massive glasses (Charles Martin Smith) trying to hook up with a girl who he knows is out of league but tries and succeeds (Candy Clarke). There’s also the good boy (a young Richard Dreyfuss) being shown a good night out by Joe (Bo Hopkins) and his hoodlums. A pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford and Suzanne Somers are in small parts as the reckless Bo Falfa and his “hot date” for the night.
Why does this film work so well? I watched it for the first time the other week, but I’ve since watched it another three times. Why is this a film you can go back to? Coming of age dramas like this work so well because the tropes transcend time; they’re timeless. It has very good performances from the cast. It has an good early performance from Ron Howard, now known for films like A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man and Rush. There’s also an early performance by Richard Dreyfuss who went on to star in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws, but also Oliver Stone’s W. (Bush Jr. biopic) and Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
Despite the early on performances from Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford, the film is beautifully shot. I very much enjoyed looking at the night time scenes. Seeing Mel’s Drive-In lit up at night is easy on eyes. But as a whole the film’s cinematography is great and the soundtrack wows too. The Mis-en-Scene says “this the 1960s” with boys in plain white t-shirts or a collared shirt with a pattern that would now be on a modern-day shower curtain, or that ever so tacky cringeworthy 1970s wallpaper. But at its core, this is a nostalgic story by someone who loves the material) and I think this was personal to Lucas. When you truly love something, it really shows.
From the acting to the photography to that nostalgic coming of age-aspect, this is a film that anyone who has had that secondary school / high school experience would relate to. The time it’s set doesn’t tarnish that. And I implore anyone and everyone to see this film by any means necessary.