This 50 Year Old Movie Remains a Coming of Age Classic


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Oct 10, 2023

This 50 Year Old Movie Remains a Coming of Age Classic

At 50 years old, American Graffiti remains a cornerstone for the high school genre, and for George Lucas's career. While he's unquestionably best known today for taking mass audiences to a galaxy far,

At 50 years old, American Graffiti remains a cornerstone for the high school genre, and for George Lucas's career.

While he's unquestionably best known today for taking mass audiences to a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas first enjoyed success on a much more immediate, personal scale. His breakout film, American Graffiti, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this month, remains arguably his finest achievement as a writer and director.

Released at the perfect time, in which the film industry was struggling to rediscover its identity in the midst of the studio system's collapse, American Graffiti incorporated many of the hallmarks that would eventually help shape the modern blockbuster era. And more than that, it still holds its title as the quintessential high school film, to the point where even the best entries in the genre now can't help but live in its shadow.

The story of American Graffiti's inception is almost as famous as the film itself. In 1971, USC film school graduate George Lucas released his debut feature, THX 1138, a cold and clinical story set in a dystopian future. After it underperformed at the box office, Lucas's friend and fellow filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola challenged him to make something "warm and funny" that could appeal to mainstream audiences.

Promptly, Lucas drew from his years growing up in Modesto, California, during the early 1960s, when he and his friends would spend their days driving cars and trying to pick up girls. The resulting script, which he wrote with help from future Temple of Doom scribes Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, was American Graffiti, an episodic comedy-drama illustrating the adventures of a group of teenagers over the course of a single night on their last evening of summer vacation.

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All four of the protagonists – Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), Steve (Ron Howard), John (Paul Le Mat), and Terry (Charles Martin Smith) – are based in some way on a particular chapter in Lucas's youth. Specifically, street racer John is rooted in Lucas's years in high school driving cars and hanging out with hot rod enthusiasts, while nerdy Terry was inspired by his socially awkward high school days, and Curt was modeled after his persona at USC.

The result is a film that feels extraordinarily authentic to the era. Classic rock 'n' roll music from Bill Haley and the Comets and Buddy Holly permeates the movie in place of a score, and all the minor details, from the drive-in diners to the costume design, feel immediately recognizable to anyone who grew up in the late 50s and early 60s. Lucas created a labor of love for the time he grew up in, and the personal quality is what makes it so special.

It's easy to look back at American Graffiti and appreciate and still enjoy the laid-back hangout vibes and loving recreation of its era. But there's a subtle melancholy undercurrent to the proceedings that even the best contemporary high school movies forget about, and it's ultimately what elevates American Graffiti into something truly special.

From the start of the proceedings, it's clear that the night that unfolds is going to be the last night that Curt, Steve, John, and Terry spend together. Curt and Steve have recently graduated and are heading to college; Steve is excited to leave his small town, while Curt isn't ready to fly out of state the next morning.

Socially awkward Terry excitedly prepares to look after Steve's beloved car while he's gone, only to spend the night chasing after it after hoodlums steal it. And street racing king John ends the night facing off an arrogant challenger (a pre-Han Solo Harrison Ford) and only narrowly avoiding a potentially fatal crash. Meanwhile, Curt spends the night chasing after an unknown blonde woman in a white Thunderbird, seemingly symbolizing his reluctance to move forward with his life and to stay in town, wasting time with his friends.

As such, we realize the end of the night will signify the end of the current chapter of these characters' lives, and that while Terry and John will still have time to spend entire racing and picking up girls, Steve and Curt will be leaving their youth in the rearview mirror and journeying into adulthood. This finality is further demonstrated by the film's post-script, detailing how Curt and Steve have moved into adult-oriented careers, while John died in a car crash and Terry was reported missing in action in Vietnam.

It's also no accident that the film takes place in 1962. Only a year later was the shocking assassination of President John Kennedy, and the war in Vietnam and several social rights movements soon followed. The stability of the 1950s had made way for tumultuous social change in the 1960s, and Lucas uses his film to not only illustrate the final chapter in the lives of his characters but a symbolic final night of stability before the loss of innocence for an entire generation.

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The film industry was in the midst of an overhaul at the time of American Graffiti's release. By the end of the 1970s, studios had shifted their marketing priorities, realizing that youth turnout was driving the success of smash hits like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Star Wars, and they helped usher in the blockbuster era as we know it.

And American Graffiti was one of the clearest early examples of a youth-driven film that became an unexpected breakout hit. It was clear the film spoke to its audience without talking down to them; it understood the emotional difficulties of being young in a changing world, and it captured a particular moment in time so vividly that it remains the definitive ideal of a high school coming of age film fifty years later. And without its success, Lucas may have never gotten the chance to create his galaxy far, far away.

American Graffiti