Movie Reviews

Movie Review: American Graffiti – A Different Time, the Same People

Written by George Lucas, Gloria Katz, and William Huyck
Directed by George Lucas

Prior to his meteoric rise to icon status following the release of Star Wars, George Lucas wanted to make a film about the uniquely fifties “mating ritual” of cruising and he coupled that with a coming of age film. Amazingly, the studio backed his writing and directing a coming-of-age film with a cast of then virtual unknowns. Looking back at the film now, with its cast who would go on to enormous success, it appears Lucas might have missed a calling of finding talented but unknown actors (the role of Anakin Skywalker not withstanding).

Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfus are two buddies, Steve and Curt, about to leave for college in the east. The night before they leave, the two go out with their friends. The night is spent cruising on the local strip and sitting at the local hamburger joint. All the while, the two are shown about to leave their comfort zone. This is the place they grew up; the places they know; the people who know them. Can they leave it all behind to chart their own path in life?

As the night progresses, the answer becomes increasingly muddy. Curt already has misgivings about the idea of going away to college, while Steve seems more certain. This is despite the fact he is leaving behind a steady girlfriend in Laurie (portrayed by Cindy Williams) and a treasured automobile which he intends to leave in the care of a trusted friend, Terry (portrayed by Charles Martin Smith). As he takes the car out for a drive, he encounters his “dream girl”, Debbie (portrayed by Candy Clark). The local hood, John Milner (portrayed by Paul LeMat) ends up taking care of the younger sister (Mackenzie Phillips) of a girl he’s hot for and finds out it’s not as bad as he thought it would be, although it does cramp his style a bit.

Throughout the film, the focus switches from what’s going on between the various characters throughout the night. Steve delivers his “we need to see other people” speech to Laurie who’s understandably hurt. That is, it’s understandable to everyone but Steve. His conscience wants to get the better of him, but there’s also a stab of jealousy in there as he begins to think of their separation in terms of what her life will be like, not just his.

The cast reads like a who’s who of names who would go on to be famous in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In addition to those named, Harrison Ford, Kathleen Quinlan, and Suzanne Somers appear in the film in various supporting roles.

I believe it was due to the success of the television show Happy Days and Ron Howard’s and Cindy Williams’ association with the show that for many people American Graffiti gets lumped in as something of an extension of that show. It truly is not, and not just because it takes place a few years later and in a different part of the country. Happy Days had characters who were really cartoon characters of what we thought the 1950s were about, while American Graffiti shows a country and a people on the brink of change. There’s something in the air at the end of the film, and the epilogue really isn’t necessary. Just knowing the year – 1962 – and watching the plane leave the airport I could feel the innocence dying away, both in the characters of American Graffiti and in the country.

This is also about growing up. I see it in my teenagers now; their lives pre-occupied with evenings at the movies, ice rink, mall, or each other’s homes. Their future doesn’t seem to extend much beyond the next Friday evening or an upcoming school event. American Graffiti picks up on the is that it? feeling after high school graduation when the years of certainty that came with the change of seasons is suddenly pulled out from under the feet.

This is why in a sense the story here is timeless. I had the experience in a sense when my life changed from times of what was going to happen at the roller rink every Friday night to figuring out what direction I wanted my life to take (and I’m still not sure I have that right), just as what seems to happen to every generation. My kids might not live in the same exact setting depicted in American Graffiti, but as spreading their wings and venturing out into the world draws closer and closer, I can see more parallels. I doubt they would see it, though. It seems to be something you can only pick up on from the other side. For me, at their age, American Graffiti was a fun film about a time long ago, not something I thought I could relate to.

The acting is great, and it’s easy to see why many of these actors went onto the greatness they would achieve. Ron Howard is strong as Steve, and he’s much more than just a different version of Richie Cunningham. Richard Dreyfus is building on the nervous, unsure characters he seems to portray in many of his films as well as taking Curtis to a new level of acting out. I could see hints of other characters he would portray and it’s an amazing thing to look at an actor’s work early on and see pieces of roles he will do in the future.

I feel bad that Cindy Williams got type-cast when she took on the role of Shirley Feeney in Laverne and Shirley. She does a decent job here as Laurie, the main strong female character in the film, as she is realizing that she will be facing life alone in a small town, no longer defined by the man she has been dating.

American Graffiti is one of my favorite films, although it’s one I really enjoy watching from the beginning and not picking up halfway through. There are some films when I catch on television that I can just pick up and watch, even if it means missing the first fifteen minutes. American Graffiti isn’t one of those. I enjoy watching it all the way through, and not just for the star power. It might not resonate the same way many of the John Hughes films do about growing up and coming of age, but it’s a terrific, fun story.


The Making of American Graffiti – Interviews with the cast and crew about the film.
• Cast & Filmmaker Biographies
• Universal Web Links
• Production Notes
• Theatrical Trailer

7 replies »

  1. This is one of those films that I’ve owned in at least three home media formats: VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray disc. (I doubt that I’ll upgrade to 4K unless something happens to my HD Blu!). American Graffiti is one of the best movies ever made, too. Not on the same level as, say, Schindler’s List or The Godfather, but one of the greatest coming-of-age films in Hollywood history.

    One of my favorite elements, and a key one, according to George Lucas, is the soundtrack. Lucas has said that he wrote every scene while listening to the specific song. It wasn’t the other way ’round, where a director shoots a scene, edits it into the movie, then gets together with the composer or music supervisor and they confer about what song goes there. For the dance scene between Steve (Ron Howard) and Laurie (Cindy Williams) at the high school sock hop, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was always going to be the song heard playing. (I absolutely love that song, even though it also has bittersweet links to my own relationships, especially, you know, my last one.)

    George has also said that if American Graffiti is about the “decision-making” time in a young person’s life, Star Wars is the thematic (if not literal) sequel.

  2. I agree!

    The film depicts a nostalgic version of America several months before the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. I believe George Lucas’s avatar in American Graffiti was Curt; the timing suggests that George was about to start college around that time in real life. He was going to major in anthropology, if I recall correctly.

    Oddly, Lucas didn’t pick a lot of songs that were spanking new to that specific year (“Where Were You in ’62?”) Most of the music is 1950s, although The Beach Boys’ Surfin’ Safari was pretty current in the timeline.

  3. I saw this first in a theater with a friend and her older brother and sister-in-law who were newly married. So long ago. The older brother and sister-in-law had four kids who are adults now. They’re both gone. My friend has three kids who are adults now.

  4. Great review. This is one of my top three movies. “Local Hero” and “Paris, Texas” are the other two, but this one has been with me the longest. I first saw it on TV, when I was about 9, and fell in love with it right away. As I return to it, every few years, I’m amazed how it changes based on my age when viewing. They went from fascinating older kids, to peers I could relate to, to young teenagers that get me reminiscing of my high school days. For an older movie about an even older time, this movie never ages. It’s timeless.

    • I think I was around the same age you were when it came out. You are right, the meaning does change as you get older. So much of it for me now is about a time of innocence before they would face the Vietnam War.