As the time of year in which high school graduations begin to draw near once again, let’s revisit a film that managed to perfectly encapsulate those all too familiar feelings of uncertainty and hopelessness that surround the phase of life immediately following your graduation from high school: George Lucas’ pre-Star Wars teen dramadey American Graffiti. One of the penultimate examples of the coming of age genre in its heyday, this film remains something truly special and its impact on the film industry is still felt to this day.
The plot is as follows, and stop me if you’ve heard this one: American Graffiti is told in a series of intersecting vignettes involving a group of teenagers in the early 1960s on the last day of their summer vacation, just before some of them are about to be sent off to college, others start new jobs, and at least one of them heads towards the direction of the Vietnam War. The film proceeds to chronicle each group’s series of misadventures and interactions all throughout the night, and if the whole “one last night” multiple-storylines scenario sounds incredibly familiar, it’s only because American Graffiti is the film that perfected it, and more than a fair amount of like-minded coming of age dramas in the decades following it lifted the structure wholesale. Films like Dazed & Confused, Superbad, & The Myth of the American Sleepover are only the tip of the iceberg in that regard.
Which isn’t to say that the formula hasn’t been recreated well, because it certainly has, albeit to varying degrees of success. But none of them were truly able to capture the inherent sense of melancholy and simple beauty of American Graffiti, perfectly balanced by a well-earned sense of humor and self-awareness. Hence, it still remains the best version of this scenario yet, having survived countless imitators and influences alike.
Another one of the film’s biggest strengths is the assembled cast of characters, both in terms of each one’s well defined, three-dimensional personalities, and more importantly the way the film is able to treat them all with a level of respect and dignity so rarely seen in films which prominently feature teens as the main cast. These are real people dealing with legitimate issues, and not just the stereotypical band of unlikable, sex-crazed, and alcohol chugging wise-asses so often seen in most major Hollywood films attempting to depict life as a young adult.The ensemble cast is filled with young actors who went on the become big stars after this: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and even a bit part by Harrison Ford, though don’t expect his role to amount to much more than an extended cameo.
One of the main themes and strongest driving forces of American Graffiti is nostalgia, serving both as the feelings its characters are going through, as well as the main feeling it’s attempting to instill within the viewer. This is a film that’s not as much about the idea of nostalgia the way that something like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was, so much as it simply *is* nostalgia being captured and preserved onscreen. With pitch perfect accuracy, it’s able to faithfully depict not only a specific period in time but also a period in a person’s life, in the way we deal with the uncertainly and lack of easy answers regarding the immense possibilities of the future that awaits us all.
Stay home and be comfortable, or head out and explore the world? The types of questions we must ask ourselves sooner or later and other quandaries that transcend time periods or age differences. In a way, the film represents the longing for a period of time (be it past or future) you just cannot grasp, and George Lucas found the perfect image to encapsulate this, in the mysterious blonde woman in the white t-bird who Richard Dreyfuss chases so fruitlessly, and eventually has to learn to let go of. It’s an image, much like the perfect future we imagine for ourselves, that is extremely tantalizing from a distance, but only glimpsed at for a brief moment.
As if its observable influence on the teen/coming of age genre wasn’t evidence enough, American Graffiti is an essential, deeply moving piece of American cinema and manages to still be relatable for young adults of any time period. The fact that it achieved its dramatic goal of depicting life as a teen so wonderfully and without resorting to the usage of any crude humor, excessive profanity, violence, or drug use only elevates its triumph.