One way to get me really worked up is to say that the 80's were a terrible decade for movies. Of course this stems from the popular argument that they're far inferior to those released in the 70's, the decade long referred to as the "Golden Age" for film. Don't get me wrong, I understand the argument. The 70's were full of creatively groundbreaking works that revolutionized how we view movies, but if I'm hosting a party and can only screen titles from one of those decades, I know which I'm choosing and it sure ain't gonna be the 70's. It's a party, not a film class.
It isn't often that I'm actually inspired by film criticism I've read but a very personal and moving piece went up recently at The House Next Door celebrating one of my all-time favorite 80's films, The Karate Kid. That coincided with Movie Geeks United's fantastic special on the Summer of '84. What I took out of both was that for anyone who was lucky enough to live through the films of that decade (whether it be as a little kid, teenager or adult) you were part of an exclusive club. It's so cool and unless you were there you just can't fully grasp what those movies mean to us. It's impossible. Much like it might be impossible for me to understand what Taxi Driver or Jaws means to someone older who went to see it on opening day.When you live through it and remember where you were when you first saw it, who you were with, and the reaction you had it becomes more than a movie. It's an experience. And over time it becomes harder and harder to separate the two. I have a theory that those films that make that special connection are the ones that end up on people's Top 10's. For me, the 80's are full of them.
1986's Lucas isn't really a "teen movie," despite always being lumped in with the likes of The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Say Anything, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Maybe the studio just needed a familiar reference point to make audiences feel better about going to see it when it was released. It didn't work. No one went to see it and to this day, despite accumulating a small cult following, it's still gone relatively unknown and unseen by far too many. Roger Ebert seemed to be the only film critic in America who seemed to grasp its uniqueness, rightfully giving it a spot on his top ten of 1986, and his raving four-star review will always be one of my favorites. He wasn't overstating his case either. While avoiding the trappings of a teen movie, it'll certainly work as one if you're in the mood to view it that way. And going beyond being one of the best films of the 80's, it still holds up to this day as one of the most honest films about growing up ever made.
When you re-watch a movie like Lucas (as I did just last year) you start to realize that it is sometimes true that they don't make them like they used to. I'm not sure a movie about young people that's this smart could be released today, especially considering it didn't entice audiences even then. Less discerning eyes could view the movie as a triumph of the underdog. But anyone who looks closer would see more there than that, especially in its ending. It's punctuated with the pangs of adolescence and digs up childhood memories many of us would rather leave behind, yet also do anything to revisit. You could almost get frustrated watching the film because we're so set in our ways which characters we want to root for and why, but writer/director David Seltzer has us question that, eventually forcing us to concede that he might know more about growing up than we do. It's also a great case study in how a single screenwriting decision (and one that hasn't been been repeated since in this genre) can turn a great film into something much more. It's just as emotionally potent now as it was in 1986. HEAVY SPOILERS FOLLOW.
Lucas (Corey Haim) is a bright but very nerdy and socially awkward 14-year-old who spends his summer catching insects and mowing lawns for cash. This changes when one day he meets Maggie (Kerri Green), a new girl in town a couple of years older than he. Quickly they become friends and a few weeks before school starts are in each others company constantly, a new exciting experience for a loner like Lucas, who's always struggled with social interaction. Then reality sets in. School starts and Lucas must come to grips not only with his growing feelings for Maggie, but her emerging popularity among the "popular kids" that bully and torment him daily. When she becomes a cheerleader (which he refers to as "superficial") and starts dating the star football player, Cappie (Charlie Sheen), jealousy rears its head and he begins lashing out. He can feel her slipping away. The cards are all laid out on the table for your typical 80's teen movie. The geek tries to win the girl from the jock. Geek gets girl. End of story. But Seltzer breaks that well-worn screenwriting rule, twisting our feelings and emotions into knots as we watch.
We're all predisposed to cheer Lucas on in his quest to win Maggie's affections. He's a great kid who obviously cares about her a great deal and deserves to be happy. He's the underdog. By that logic (at least in Hollywood) Cappie has to be a jerk since he's a jock. But not only is he not a jerk, he's a great guy and the only person to ever stand up for Lucas, who he's still grateful to for helping him with his homework so he wouldn't have to repeat a year of school. Unfortunately, how great a guy Cappie is means very little to Lucas who now only sees him as an opponent.
Sheen (who would go on to star in that year's Best Picture winner Platoon and Wall Street the following year) may be easy to dislike these days but you wouldn't know it here. This is one of his best roles and as much as I've tried so many times to hate this character every time I watch the film his subtle performance just won't let me. The response of Maggie and Cappie when they realize what's happening is essential to the story. Their first concern is Lucas. You get the impression that if they really could stop what's happening between them they would. As terrible as we think we're supposed to feel for this kid, these two characters feel worse. And when they reach out and legitimately try to help him through this and he shames them you can almost feel your allegiance shifting. When he whines, pouts and acts out you still feel bad for him, but a whole lot less.
Lucas is so self-involved that he fails to recognize that he's causing another character as much pain as he thinks Maggie is causing him. Winona Ryder (in her first screen role) plays Rina, an outcast with a crush of her own on Lucas, who hardly acknowledges her existence. Despite Ryder getting top billing on the DVD cover (an rather blatant attempt to capitalize on her later fame), it's a nothing part that doesn't amount to anything, which is exactly the point. While Cappie and Maggie worried about hurting Lucas, he never gave Rina's feelings for him a second thought. Seltzer fittingly places her as far off our radar as his.
Arguably the film's most memorable scene is where Lucas flat-out asks Maggie why she doesn't feel the same way he does about her. This is the first movie of its kind to ask that question, then actually bother to stick around for an answer. We start to to wonder whether maybe Lucas is being unfair in rejecting her friendship, which may not be as bad a consolation prize as he thinks it is. His immature reaction has us questioning whether he's even ready for a girl like Maggie. Probably not. At least not yet. With his stubborn refusal to give in and misplaced, unearned sense of entitlement, he isn't the innocent underdog you'd expect, and Haim refuses to simplify the character in that way with his sensitive performance, among the all-time greatest from a child actor.
Like most 80's movies the stars in it went on to varying degrees of success, or lack thereof. I refuse to even acknowledge what's happened since with Corey Haim. For me he'll always be frozen in time in this role and regardless of the direction his life and career took, nothing could overshadow this. Someone needs to tie him and Sheen down and force them to watch this movie on endless repeat so they can see just how much they still have to offer. Kerri Green (who co-starred in 1985's The Goonies) shows poise and grace far beyond her years as Maggie, but was never really heard from or seen again after this. But if those 100 minutes are all we're ever going to get from her, I'm fine with it. You can't reasonably ask for more. There are also a couple of "Before They Were Stars" cameos from Jeremy Piven and Courtney Thorne-Smith. Smith plays Cappie's ex-girlfriend while Piven actually has fairly large role as one of Lucas' tormentors.
Lucas has frequently shown up on those lists of "Movies That Make Guys Cry" and it isn't difficult to see how. When that now infamous "slow clap" starts in the hallway in the film's final scene, it's a rare instance where someone else could have the exact same emotional reaction to the scene, but for totally different reasons. That some to refer to it as "cliche" or "syrupy" is insane. Lucas doesn't get the girl. He still lives in a trailer with his alcoholic father. He's still a nerd who's unpopular at school. We have no clue whether his relationship with Rina will work out, that is if he even decides to explore a relationship with her. And if he does, he's kind of been forced to "settle." That's not to mention he was almost crushed to death and humiliated on the football field. Some happy ending that is. And that's why that slow clap at the end of the film means something and isn't a joke like in so many other movies. For a brief, fleeting moment Lucas earns the respect of his peers. It's a small, but importantly realistic victory in a movie that specializes in understatement.
It would have been easy for Seltzer to just cop out and give us the ending we all wanted to see with Lucas winning the "big game." Instead, he's more interested in exploring why we'd even want to see that ending in the first place. It wouldn't be honest. This one's more complicated, but then again, so is growing up. As a director, Seltzer never really did anything again after this and I can't say I blame him. He probably felt there was nothing else left to say. And he's right, there isn't. Other films in this genre have tried since and failed to re-capture the same magic. More than just a quintessential 80's movie or a nostalgia trip, Lucas has stood the test of time to emerge as an underrated classic in its genre.