Sunday, March 31, 2013

American Graffiti through a YA lens

I recently watched the movie American Graffiti again. What struck me this time was how much this 1973 film really is a YA story, even though it's more commonly considered a nostalgia piece about 1962 (the year of its setting). It's true that the music and the cars are an integral part of the film, and that some details of the story could not easily be transported to any other time. (What current generations, raised by helicopter parents, will notice especially is how all the teens in the film are free to drive around until sunrise, with no hint of curfew or parental involvement.)

But, boiled down, it's a coming-of-age story. The bare bones of the plot could be told in many settings, with many different characters. Two boys are supposed to leave in the morning, for college on the other side of the country. The one who's been eager to leave is suddenly unsure; the one who would just as soon stay has already committed to going, breaking home ties to the point of lending out his beloved car and suggesting to his steady girlfriend that they be free to see other people. In the morning, one boy leaves and the other stays, both of their decisions affected by the events of the night, and both of their decisions setting the course for their separate futures. At the same time, their nerdy younger friend tries his hand at impressing a girl he's just met; this character, who seems at first like just a lovable goofball, has a grim future at war. The fourth main character, whose life has revolved around cars, is beginning to realize that what makes you a king in your late teens won't necessarily set you up for life. On the night in question, he is still popular, still the best racer, still the envy of his peers, but he can see the cliff's edge looming.

I suspect that what made this movie such a success was not just fond recollections of drive-ins, drag races, Wolfman Jack, and sock hops. There's a larger appeal in a story about such nights: The last night your friends were all together. The moment when you realized high school was really over. The day you decided whether to stay or go.