American Graffiti: An American Classic

Teenagers think their parents were never teenagers. Parents forget what it was like to be in that weird place called high school when everything and yet nothing seemed possible.

George Lucas’s American Graffiti more than any other film, has what it’s like to be a teenager down cold. I went to high school 30 years after this movie takes place and I see myself (as well as people I knew) in the film. This is a true classic.

The plot of the film is simple enough. During one long summer night (literally till dawn) in 1962 in small town California we follow four guys a round in their quest for growing up.

Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) are supposed to be heading off to college on the east coast in the morning. Steve is like George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s ready leave the small town for the big city and adventure. Curt on the other hand is hedging, and apparently has been the whole summer. John Milner (Paul LeMat) is an early 20’s something hot-rodder who complains that the strip isn’t as big as it used to be, but is stuck reliving his high school days year after year (in fact I’d argue the strip was probably the same size just a few years before, he’s just gotten older and it doesn’t seem as big). We also follow around Terry aka Toad (Charles Martin Smith) a nerd who has his own voyage of discovery during the night.

Curt sees a mysterious woman in a white T-Bird (Suzanne Somers) and tries tracking her down throughout the film – but she remains eternally just out of his reach. He also gets sucked into spending part of the night with the Pharoah’s, a local gang.

Meanwhile Steve’s girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams), tries convincing him to stay. As Curt sees the mystery woman and wonders about possible adventures and/or women in the future, Steve and Laurie have a night anchored in nostalgia that makes Steve reconsider what he’s doing.

Milner and Terry each pick up girls in their long night on the strip. Terry’s girl is Debbie, an adventuring type of gal that he feels the need to lie to impress. Terry ends up having all sorts of problems, like how to buy beer, having his car stolen, and getting into a fight.

Debbie sticks by him, and when he finally admits to the truth about who he is, likes him anyways. Meanwhile Milner accidentally picks up a spunky 13 year old and they spend the night bickering. But a gradual bond forms between them and you can tell John wishes she were several years older by the end of the night.

The film ends with a climactic race between Milner and Bob Falfa (Harrisson Ford), a new guy in town who wants to take down the champ. Laurie is in Falfa’s car, as she and Steve had a fight earlier in the night. Milner wins as Falfa crashes.

Steve rushes up to her and promises not to leave her. Milner has triumphed, but the years of being #1 (and staying a kid) are wearing on him as he admits to Terry that he would’ve lost if Falfa hadn’t crashed. Curt leaves for college the next day leaving Steve and the rest of them behind.

In an epilogue we read that Curt became a successful writer, Curt sells insurance, Milner dies in a car crash, and Terry was reported MIA in Vietnam. Even this was influential as most teen movie now also have these postscripts.

The film has so many items which have been borrowed thru the years. The sound track, which is basically nonstop ushered in the way all teen movies use rock/contemporary music to be used as the score. Graffiti is downright hysterical at times, even with lesser films borrowing sequences or themes.

I really wonder what kinds of movies George Lucas would’ve made if he hadn’t made the Star Wars saga. American Graffiti is truly the fount from which all teen movies drink. It’s one of the best movies of the ’70s.

four stars out of four stars

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