Corey Haim stars as the title 14 year-old, who comes across a pretty new girl during the summer holidays. She’s Maggie (Kerri Green) and they spend pretty much the rest of the summer together. By the time school is in session, Lucas has clearly fallen in love with the pretty redhead. However, as high school progresses, Maggie (two years older than Lucas, by the way) becomes drawn to football star Cappie (Charlie Sheen), who is the one jock who stands up for Lucas, the pint-sized nature-lover often cruelly treated by the other jocks. Cappie seems to take a liking to Maggie too, not exactly thrilling Cappie’s blonde cheerleader girlfriend Alise (Courtney Thorne-Smith). Maggie, by the way, also becomes a cheerleader, which Lucas deems a superficial pursuit. Lucas (who has a ‘I saw her first!’ mentality) is heartbroken that Maggie merely sees him as a ‘friend’. So what is a pint-sized science nerd to do when his best girl falls for the quarterback? Try to join the football team to impress her, of course! Meanwhile, Lucas can’t see that he is treating his smitten, pixie-like friend Rina the same as Maggie is treating him. Jeremy Piven and Thomas Hodges play a couple of back-slapping jocks, the latter particularly cruel.
This review will be a bit different than most others of this film, let alone most of my own reviews. As this is a film about high school (and about a ‘first high school crush’), an experience I have very strong views about based on my own experiences, I’ll be looking at this film from the perspective of the high school experience as I experienced it, and as this film explores it.
Although its sporting moments don’t mean as much to a non-American such as myself, this 1986 directorial debut from writer/director David Seltzer (who wrote “The Omen” and directed “Shining Through”) is the one fictional film more than any other that seems truest of the high school experience as I knew it from my own personal experiences (I graduated in 1997. God I’m old, aren’t I?). It’s also just a really entertaining, touching film with some spot-on casting and even the big ‘slow clap cliché’ finale is hard to hate. However, it’s much more than mere ‘entertainment’ to me, which is why I find it strange that the film is somewhat forgotten today. Aside from maybe some viewers having a hard time ignoring unsavoury rumours (about what may or may not have happened to star Corey Haim behind-the-scenes of this film), I really don’t understand why this isn’t considered a classic of the high school movie genre. This film, more than any other before or since on the subject (yes, I have seen “Say Anything…”, and it was OK I guess), really ‘gets it’. It says a lot of what the high school experience is about, without turning any of its three main characters into villains. This one plays fair, possibly fairer than I’d be capable of if I tried to write my own version of such experiences.
Basically it comes down to this: High school sucks, and the girl you like will inevitably fall for a more popular guy and want to run with a cooler crowd, and it doesn’t matter if you met her first. She’s a cheerleader, she loves who she loves and that’s just how it works. You can’t get mad at anyone, because high school kinda sucks for everyone, we’re all just trying to find our way through it, working out who we are and what we want, whilst also dealing with the scholastic pressures on top of that. It took me a long time after high school ended to come to all of this realisation mind you, but I believe it to be true and this film is pretty accurate to that truth. At the time it seems like the end of the world, but believe me, it’s not. Life goes on. So you may not get the girl you want in the way you want her, but if you don’t act like a complete dick like I did back then, you might just have yourself a damn good friend for life.
This film actually helped me see things from different points of view, when I finally caught up with it for the first time about a decade or so ago. The thing I was most struck by was the characterisation of the cheerleader, played by Kerri Green. I didn’t think much of Green as an actress in the otherwise classic kids adventure film “The Goonies”, but she’s actually very impressive here. Physically she’s very ‘high school pretty’, maybe no supermodel but the kind of girl you’d consider absolutely beautiful if she was in your class. We all remember that girl, right? Yeah, that girl’s married with kids now. Admit it, you’ve already stalked her on Facebook, haven’t I? I mean haven’t you. Oops. Remind me to delete that later. Green’s performance here is very sweet and sensitive, as she’s playing a girl who at the end of the day is just like everyone else. She’s just trying to find a way to fit in and get through high school. She’s also the new girl at school, which has its own added pressures, which Green effectively conveys. The problem of course, is that Lucas doesn’t understand what Green is going through. None of the cliques in high school understand each other, that’s as true in 1986 as it was in the 90s when I was in high school, and presumably still true today. Through Green’s performance you can definitely see a girl who isn’t any closer to figuring it all out than anyone else. It’s a wonderfully sensitive portrayal that I’m sure many girls would identify with.
The late Corey Haim gives one of his very best performances as the title character. The great thing about Lucas, and the thing that tends to save his bacon more often than not, is that through personality and fearlessness, he stops most people from laughing at him and start laughing with him to a degree, and it’s no longer as much fun for the bullies. Unfortunately, he proves his own worst enemy at times too, especially when he decides he wants to prove himself on the football field to impress the girl he loves. It doesn’t go well. At all. One of the best things about the film is Seltzer’s writing of the Lucas character. It’s completely honest about him, never sugar-coating him. He’s not perfect, he’s sometimes his own worst enemy as I’ve said, and the film doesn’t always make it easy to love the kid. He doesn’t understand Green’s position and he also completely ignores the girl who clearly has a crush on him (a young and memorable Winona Ryder, in her film debut). Frankly, Lucas is kind of a dick at times. However, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all kinda acted like dicks on occasion back then, didn’t we? Charlie Sheen gives a good turn (the same year he made “Platoon”) as the jock who sees what his fellow meatheads are doing and doesn’t agree with them taking away Lucas’ dignity in their mistreatment of him, ‘having fun’ or not. He’s the boy’s defender whenever he’s able to be, and is it really his fault that he loves the same girl Lucas loves and that she loves him back? From my experience, there’s too few characters like ‘Cappie’ one will encounter in the high school experience, but it does occasionally happen. Most, though, will either act like sycophants to the main bully or will simply never stand up to what they probably sense is wrong. However, if one is honest about the experience, one realises that Seltzer has got it right. Everyone’s a bit of a self-involved dick in some way back in high school, but rarely is anyone truly, truly and irredeemably horrible. It’s an even-handed film about three people who all genuinely mean well and can’t help feeling what they feel. Hell, even some of the supporting characters aren’t completely black-hearted. Pay close attention to Courtney Thorne-Smith’s jilted girlfriend for instance. Not only does she perfect a ‘Bitch, I’ll cut you!’ stare, but this empty-headed bimbo is actually not all that horrible. Her man is falling in love with another girl, so what the hell is she supposed to do, wish them well? Her only crime is vacuousness and jealousy, the former is a prerequisite for most teens and the latter is justified. Thorne-Smith should be commended for not overplaying the bitch factor here.
Truth be told, as much as gridiron isn’t terribly true to any high school experience non-Americans will have had, the sentiment behind the film’s climax is still relatable. We know why Lucas is doing what he’s doing, and it’s heart-breaking. Perhaps the most heart-breaking moment in the whole film is when we see Lucas flinch at Green uttering the ‘f’ word. The 6 letter ‘f’ word (or 7, if the word is pluralised), that is. Anyone who wasn’t popular in high school knows exactly what that non-profane ‘f’ word is, and knows the pain that goes along with it all-too well. It’s a nice word in its own way, but you don’t think so when you’re a love-struck teen on the receiving end of it. Meanwhile, even if you roll your eyes at the ‘slow clap’ final scene, you can’t deny that the scene preceding it is quite simply the sweetest, saddest scene in any teen movie ever made. It’s here that you see that Green really is a true friend and a good person who genuinely cares about Lucas, and it isn’t mere empty sentiment. He might not realise it until years after the fact, mind you, but we the audience can definitely see she has a good heart.
I also have to mention a small but interesting theme addressed in the film: Teen suicide. Obviously, this is an issue that seems to be more prevalent since the 90s than in the 80s, and it’s quite surprising to hear it being mentioned in a film from the era of “Porky’s” and “Risky Business”. It’s just an off-hand remark or two, but it’s there in the background and worth noting. It’s a pressure-filled time in a person’s life, and not everyone makes it out in one piece, I’m afraid. Similarly, Lucas’ home life isn’t a happy one, and it just makes me wonder about the people I went to school with, whether they were friends or on the opposite end of the spectrum. What was their home life like? You really don’t think about what others are going through at that selfish point in your life. So, background or not, I’m glad this stuff is in the film.
No film will 100% capture ‘the’ high school experience, because everyone’s experience is different. However, this film more than any other I’ve seen, if not capturing ‘the’ high school experience more accurately and comprehensively than any other, certainly comes closest to my own feelings and experiences of that time in my life (I didn’t join the football team, I’m physically disabled, and was more often ignored than actually bullied. Other than that, it’s scarily and painfully accurate). It’s also just a lovely, heart-warming- yet heartbreaking film. It deserves a much better reputation than it has. It’s much more than an 80s teen flick, it’s pretty much the 80s teen flick. At the very least, see it to enjoy the hilarity of debutant Jeremy Piven playing a back-slapping, dipshit jock!