George Lucas made a movie that has impacted a completely different genre, one you probably wouldn't associate with his mega-successful sci-fi movies. The genre? The teen comedy. The movie is 1973's American Graffiti and it set out the groundwork for countless teen movies to come from John Hughes 1980s movies to the American Pie series more recently and everything in between.
It's a story Lucas based off of growing up as a teenager in California in the 1950s. Looking at the cast and even the main credits may throw you for a loop, making you think you're watching Happy Days: The Movie. Some of the storylines and characters will almost certainly seem cliched for younger audiences, but there's a funny thing about movie cliches. They've got to start somewhere, right? 'Graffiti' was one of the first as it tells the story of four teenagers and their adventures and misadventures in one late summer night. If a 1973 teen comedy doesn't sound appealing to you, I'd recommend 1998's Can't Hardly Wait which is basically a more modern remake of the same story.
The night before they're supposed to head east for their first semester of college, Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) meet up at the local burger joint early in the night. They've got big plans for their last night in town, but of course nothing goes smoothly. Steve wants to spend the night with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) but gets things started off on the right foot by saying he'd like to date other girls at college. Curt is wavering about a decision if he should even go to college, all the while looking for a mysterious blonde. Two other friends, underclassmen Terry (Charles Martin Smith) goes cruising with Steve's car newly given to him, and John (Paul Le Mat), the town's designated cool kid is looking for challengers for a drag race while driving around a young girl (Mackenzie Phillips) who refuses to go home. No matter what happens, a lot of things could change before morning rolls around.
If you could bottle the late 1950s and early 1960s as a decade and sell it, American Graffiti could corner the market. Lucas -- writing and directing -- creates a feeling and look of the 50s/60s like few others have been able to. The soundtrack is full of classics from 'Rock Around the Clock' to 'Johnny B. Goode' and everything in between. Add in famous disc jockey Wolfman Jack, and you've got a winner. Everything from the souped-up cars to the lingo to the jeans and t-shirt look (cigarettes folded in the sleeve of course) feels authentic like you're there with the characters cruising through town on a warm late summer night.
The story is divided fairly equally among the four main characters, Steve, Curt, Terry and John, but thankfully Lucas decides to spend just a little more time with Terry and John -- by far the more interesting of the four characters. Terry is an underclassmen who meets Debbie (Candy Clark) and ends up feeding her every line in the book to try and convince her how cool he is. Naturally, nothing goes smoothly. John Milner is a couple years older than the others and though he's still the coolest guy around -- think of the Fonz -- he's beginning to wonder if his time has passed. The dynamic Le Mat and Phillips together is perfect and blends humor with drama flawlessly.
None of that is meant to say the other characters aren't interesting. The problem is it's clear from the start Steve and Laurie are going to end up together even with all the bickering they do. Howard and Williams -- a year before they'd work together on Happy Days -- do have some great chemistry, but their story is dull compared to the others. Dreyfuss' story is the weirdest as he starts off questioning what he should do with his life and ends up with the Pharaohs, a local gang of toughs (led by Bo Hopkins). This movie also starts a tradition where late 20-year olds play teenagers 10-15 years younger than they actually are. Also look for a scene-stealing Harrison Ford as Bob Falfa, an out of town drag racer, and Suzanne Somers as a mysterious blonde who puts a hex on Curt.
Now where it seems every teen comedy is a mindless sex romp, it can be refreshing to see a story as good as this one. A coming of age story can be just as interesting and entertaining -- although these characters are always looking for a little action even if it never ends well. Reading through the cast, I found a sequel to this one which seems weird. At the end, four weirdly out of place title cards explain what happened to the four main characters, two of them extremely depressing. Apparently the sequel wanted to explain those explanations. Stick with the original, it's about as good as a teen comedy can get.
American Graffiti <---trailer (1973): ***/****