Co-written and directed by George Lucas, and yet something of an outlier in his professional career, American Graffiti is a film that uses ’50’s/’60’s car culture in a coming of age/“first night of the rest of their lives” type of story. Though I’m typically unenthusiastic about deep-dives into teenage culture (known for low-stakes, cliché drama), Lucas created some really great characters in this one.
First things first, American Graffiti is a beautiful movie. Each shot has a crystal-sharp foreground and a depth that glowed with all the nostalgia it evoked. Lights burned into the film like the neon draped throughout the frame and looked great reflected off of the waxed cars. I was also impressed by how well the film establishes the main 8 or so characters within the first 30 minutes, splits them, and then sends them careening around the town and through the story, like a narrative version of the cruisin’ it depicts. The film expertly used its classic rock soundtrack, and the DJ Wolfman Jack interludes proved to be a brilliant framing device.
I enjoyed all of the characters, but was most rooting for Richard Dreyfuss’s Curt Henderson. Lucas goes to great lengths to show Curt’s struggle to find purpose in a new phase of life, bouncing him between a school that has moved on without him, to adults who expect so much of him, to a gang who sees promise in him, to an adoring new crush (who likely doesn’t exist). In fact, it’s not just Curt who goes on a transformative journey: each character experiences a natural and honest growth over the course of the film. In fact, the film is such a good start-to-finish character piece that I found the concluding, on-screen epilogue to be a bit jarring. This extra information was both unnecessary and yet a natural conclusion for the characters. It was definitely a sobering means of transitioning the audience back into reality.
I never really understood ’50’s-era nostalgia but I think this film really laid it out for me. I suppose it’s not about hot rods, and burger joints, and greasers, and classic rock. I mean, sure, all of that stuff was there, but it’s really about the largest generation in our nation’s history sharing a collective adolescence before life and history forced them to grow up in an abrasive, at times traumatic way. American Graffiti was filmed just 11 years after the time it purports to be staged in and yet, in that time, the United States became an entirely different country. In this way, this film’s use of nostalgia (as well as most of the ’80’s/’90’s-era nostalgia that is so hot right now), isn’t so much about returning to a moment in history as it is about returning to a moment in life. Yes, stories of adolescence feature low-stakes, cliché drama—but maybe we all miss when our lives knew nothing more.