Cool cars, classic rock and roll, and teenagers at a crossroads, George Lucas’ American Graffiti is both a vibrant encapsulation of the early ‘60s and a timeless comedy whose characters remain imminently relatable today.
Set on the last day of summer in a small California town in 1962, American Graffiti tracks a group of friends grappling with decisions that could affect the rest of their lives. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is considering putting off college for a year despite getting into a prestigious school with a scholarship. His friend Steve (Ron Howard) is excited to leave for the same school, but is running into serious issues with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams), who is staying behind in the town. Meanwhile, Terry “The Toad” (Charles Martin Smith) has been given Curt’s car to take care of for the night and sees it as his chance to finally be cool. All the while, John Milner (Paul Le Mat) tries to keep up his reputation as the best driver in the valley while suddenly being stuck with a 12-year-old girl named Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) as he cruises the town.
Directed and co-written by Lucas, along with Gloria Katz and Willard Hyuck, American Graffiti may be Lucas’ most resonant film. It’s most certainly his most human and by far his funniest. Heavily influenced by Lucas’ teenage years as part of the cruising culture in Modesto, California, and backed by radio personality Wolfman Jack and a collection of rock and roll, do-wop, and R&B, American Graffiti almost feels like time travel, with every piece feeling authentic to the era, despite being filmed a decade later.
Released in 1973 and looking back on small town America before the Vietnam War, it’s clear that Lucas is using a filter of nostalgia to reflect on a happier, untainted time. While that sheen of “the good old days” may be evident in certain key moments (i.e. having a young girl be driven around town at night by a guy she doesn’t know or having two character walk away from a flaming car wreck with nary a scratch), as well as in tertiary characters like The Pharaohs, it doesn’t diminish the humanity of the main characters involved. Each character may be varying shades of cool (or uncool in the case of Toad), but they most often feel like someone you may have known growing up. While the specifics of each character’s challenges may be rooted in the time period, they are each relatable and timeless teenagers.
Those qualities mean that American Graffiti works as both an endlessly relatable coming of age tale and a time capsule. Choosing between comfortable familiarity and a new life, trying to create a new reputation, and navigating difficult transitions in romantic relationships are staples of the end of the teenage years, no matter what decade it is. Lucas has no intention of crafting an overt lament over the past or pumping melodrama into the proceedings. Rather, the importance of the decisions made by each character in American Graffiti is balanced by the commonplace nature of the night. Throughout the course of the film’s heavily interconnected vignettes, each character has equal time given to both crucial decisions and spur of the moment adventures. Avoiding a heavy-handed approach (aside from the on-screen epilogue, which dips into weightiness far more than the rest of the film) has most certainly helped Lucas’ film age gracefully.
The vignette approach also has its strengths and weaknesses, as some stories are simply more entertaining or better paced than others. Curt’s hemming and hawing about his decision to leave and his pursuit of a mysterious blonde give the film greater meaning but, thanks to Dreyfuss’ mischievous everyman approach, still feels light enough on its feet. But Steve and Laurie’s relationship drama has far too much back and forth to maintain interest or coherence. While their early scenes pack in both laughs and convincing heartbreak, they alternate between love and hate far too often until the film’s climactic race, which gives appropriate closure despite the weak lead-up.
Really, it’s Le Mat as John and Smith as Toad who keep the film humming along while the other two leads deal with the more serious matters. John’s begrudging friendship with the young Carol is innocent and sweet enough to stay fun and quite often hilarious, while his budding rivalry with the hotshot driver in town (a young Harrison Ford) gives enough racing thrills to satisfy the gearheads in the audience. Meanwhile, Toad is enough of a well-meaning and hapless dork to inspire audience affection that balances out laughs at his expense. He feels more real than the legion of clichéd pencil-neck dorks that would fill out the ranks of raunchy comedies in the years to come. But that’s true of most characters in American Graffiti. You grow to really like them in the course of this single night out on the town.
While the neon dazzles and the muscle cars enthrall, Lucas makes sure to underscore what a small town this truly is by having gossip travel fast, returning to the same streets again and again, and showing how little there is to actually do in this nameless town. Of course these teenagers would fill their nights with cruising the town and looking to get into whatever trouble they could, there’s nothing else to do. Once the sun rises to reveal the miles of empty farmland all around, the dazzling neon fades and the audience realizes why so many people want to leave.
Using Techniscope cameras and 35mm film, Lucas sought a documentary-like look for American Graffiti that would add a layer of realism. Cruising through town at night, his mostly car-confined characters are often obscured with a more natural amount of darkness than one normally sees in mainstream cinema. It’s a choice that adds a certain amount of closeness to the conversations that happen while on the road, helping the audience feel more personally involved with the people they follow. But that’s not to say the film is without gorgeous shots.
When Lucas and cinematographers Ron Eveslage and Jan D’Alquen choose to let the cameras work their magic, the scenes truly pop off the screen. Moments like Steve and Cindy’s single-shot tear-soaked dance or John and Carol’s spotlight-lit shaving cream attack on another car are absolutely gorgeous. It helps that period-evocative neon signs and soft streetlights, which glint off the classic cars that fill the roads, light the streets.
These images have come to define the time period in conjunction with attitudes and music that fill American Graffiti. But thanks to the intimate character work that fills the film, Lucas’ ode to the ‘60s is a classic that will live on for generations.