Directors of Photography:
Running time: 112 minutes
What a difference a night makes. The entertainment value of George Lucas’ second feature film, American Graffiti, does not depend on special effects or easy laughs from pratfalls or whatever childish behaviour we have come to behave from film teenagers. The action takes place over the course of a single night, from sunset to sunrise, when everyone’s lives will inevitably change forever as some of the individuals go off to college while others stay behind to either stagnate or begin their lives as adults.
It doesn’t matter that this film was made many decades ago, at the beginning of the 1970s, and took as its central characters a group of friends in 1962, the seriousness of their decisions is timeless and still relevant to viewers in the present day.
Set in California in the last year of innocence in the United States, before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the soundtrack to the lives of the handful of friends we follow is a compilation of music from the 1950s and the early 1960s so lively that the only viewers who don’t feel like dancing along are those who don’t have a pulse. The music is not just extra-diegetic but also produced in the world of the film itself, be it on the radio or by a band at the high-school dance.
At the brightly illuminated Mels (sic) drive-in, where cars pull up to order meals that are delivered to their open windows by waitresses on roller-skates, four friends barely out of high school gather to spend their night together. Steve (Ron Howard) is waiting for his longtime girlfriend, Laurie, whom he will be separated from for months at a time once he is away at college. She is expecting him to ask her to marry him, but when he suggests, instead, that they see other people to test the strength of their relationship, she is understandably rattled and after giving him the cold shoulder, she gives him a proper tongue lashing (and not the kind he was expecting) at a dance. More on that dance later.
Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is conflicted over his imminent departure to the north-east for college. He has received a scholarship from a local diner, but he doesn’t know whether he is the kind of person who is “competitive” to survive the college environment. At the beginning of the film, a blond “goddess” drives past him and seems to mouth “I love you” in his direction, but he will spend the whole film looking for her, further rooting himself to the town and his hopes there. He also becomes involved in the activities of the local gang, the Pharaohs, and seems to have a hidden talent for criminality.
Terry “The Toad” (Charles Martin Smith) is an awkward boy with glasses whose life is made when Steve bequeaths his 1958 Chevy Impala to him for the night. This car gives him the self-confidence he never had, and he ends up with a platinum blonde girl named Debbie with whom he has adventures no one could have imagined when evening fell, or just how right he was when he predicted at the beginning of the film that “Tonight, things are gonna be different.”
And then there is John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the boy who never grew up, who drives his pimped-up car up (with license plate THX 138, the title of Lucas’ very different previous film) and down the streets to race anyone who dares challenge his superiority on the road. John, who is also looking forward to spending the night with a girl, ends up babysitting his potential prey’s teenage sister, and what this does to his character development and our empathy for him is truly stunning.
The writing as a whole is equally “boss,” and while the songs on the soundtrack — ranging from “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and “The Great Pretender” to “Johnny B Goode,” “A Thousand Miles Away” and “Get a Job” — are as appropriate and relevant as they are full of rhythm, they never overwhelm nor amateurishly overemphasize the scenes they accompany.
One of the highlights of the film sneaks up on us totally unexpectedly. A rare crane shot swoops down on a parked car, where Steve and Laurie are discussing their relationship while Five Satins’ “To the Aisle” softly plays on the soundtrack. Their short conversation is followed by Steve’s pathetic attempt at seduction that borders on assault, before he is thrown from the car. Laurie, far from being hysterical or made a victim, is in the driver’s seat.
This follows an earlier altercation between the couple, once again perfectly captured by Lucas, who uses an unbroken take of some 92 seconds that comprises a backward tracking shot and a nearly 360-degree pan as the camera focuses in close-up on Steve and Laurie dancing while she makes it clear she knows his secrets and has made her peace with them.
In terms of the strength of the screenplay, one need look no farther than the opening sequence, in which the dashing of Laurie’s expectations to get married is followed by Steve giving Terry the keys to his car, and Terry promising to “love and protect this car till death do us part.” But it is the combination of the dialogue, the soundtrack and the acting that make the film so compelling and ensure all the stories continue to grab us, even as four different trajectories are woven through the night. Perhaps it is because the camera doesn’t look down on its characters: Even when they sit on the curb or slide underneath a car, the camera goes where they go.
Whether it is credible for the whole town to seemingly keep driving up and down and around throughout the night is a little beside the point, as the experience is so thoroughly immersive we follow the characters wherever they choose to go, even if they wander without much of a goal except to have fun.
This is what a coming-of-age film is supposed to look and feel like. Never treating the children like infants, never abusing the expected anguish over the transitional nature of things but highlighting the beauty of experiences when we (and they) know these may never be repeated again. American Graffiti remains the most enjoyable, heartfelt film George Lucas ever directed and one of the best films about the bittersweet end of childhood.