Monday, January 31, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Lucas" (1986)

"Lucas" is one of those movies that you look back on and are flabbergasted by how many talented young performers appeared in it. Corey Haim, Charlie Sheen, Kerri Green, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Tom Hodges and Jeremy Piven would go onto careers of varying length and quality, but the collective impact is just tremendous. It even featured a 13-year-old Winona Ryder in her very first screen role.

Other than "School Ties," it's hard to think of other movies where so many youngsters have so forcefully announced themselves to the world. Another is Ryder's own "Girl, Interrupted" from 1999, which was to have been her big Oscar showcase but ended up as the launching pad for Angelina Jolie, Brittany Murphy, Clea Duvall and Elisabeth Moss.

"Lucas" didn't make many waves at the box office back in 1986, but it's gone on to become a cult hit on video. It's a tender drama with both comedic and tragic undertones, and does a better job of busting out of the jocks-vs.-nerds conformity than do most teen movies.

It was written and directed by David Seltzer, who's had a long screenwriting career and also directed three other features besides "Lucas,' his first. ("Punchline" and "Shining Through," both underrated in my opinion, among them.) He's got a nice touch with his cast, who don't try to fit their characters into squares and circles, but let them breathe -- their failings, idiosyncrasies and goodness seem to just spring out of them naturally, rather than being forced by the necessities of the plot.

Lucas, despite being the stereotypical outcast at Park High, doesn't moan and mope about his status. He seems perfectly content with being different, because that's who he is, even if it means occasionally getting picked on by the football team members. Like jocks at most high schools, real or fictional, they assume their prowess on the playing field entitles them to special treatment, especially from teachers and administrators who will turn a blind eye to their hooliganism.

But not all athletes are bad guys, they just react to the environment around them. Their primary relationships are defined by competition, so that's how they think they should interact with everyone. Lucas, who's only 14 and small, becomes their target of choice.

He's probably do better if he just kept his head down, but Lucas has the gumption to talk back -- so much so that his nickname is Leukoplakia, or cancer of the mouth. How many kids would've come up with such an esoteric insult? Maybe it was Lucas himself, who's a science whiz who's been bumped ahead a couple of grades, and some dolt overheard him and turned it around.

I really liked the part of Cappie, the captain of the football team played by Charlie Sheen. Movies of this genre usually insist that he be the worst of the worst, but in fact Cappie is a friend of Lucas who does what he can to protect him from other jocks. There's just something so heartwarming about Cappie as a sort of big brother, a decent young man who probably would have turned out a lot different if it weren't for influences like Lucas -- who helped Cappie out with schoolwork when a bad illness laid him up for two months.

Seltzer instinctively understands the nature of adolescent romance, the way everything seems so fatalistic and certain to teens. Lucas takes a shine to Maggie (Kerri Green, fresh off "The Goonies"), the cute new redhead in town. Over the summer they bond and become best friends. But once school starts, Maggie gravitates to the circle of athletes and cheerleaders. She soon develops a crush on Cappie, which he obviously reciprocates despite a long-term relationship with Alise (Thorne-Smith).

It's no surprise that Lucas is smitten by Maggie. For him, she represents not just the perfect girl but everything that is good and right about the world. When she disappoints him by rejecting his appeals for something more than friendship, it sets his whole world to spinning.

Ryder has a small but pivotal role as Rina, a slightly dorky girl who secretly adores Lucas. She does everything she can to make this clear to him, short of actually telling him so. But the fear of rejection is not limited to just boys, so Rina is just constantly there, circling in Lucas' orbit and hoping for a collision.

So all this amore flying around sets up something I don't believe I've ever seen in a film before: A love pentagon. There's a great, dialogue-free scene where everyone is singing in choir class, and the camera slowly tracks from Rina watching Lucas, who's watching Maggie, who's staring at Cappie, who returns her gaze with a smile, to Alise witnessing the blooming connection.

It would be interesting to see a movie made with all the same characters but from Rina or Alise's perspective. Think about Alise: She's been dating Cappie since the start of high school, and here comes some other girl making moony eyes at her guy, tagging along on trips to the movies, and otherwise horning in on her social life. No fool or sucker, Alise dumps Cappie before he does it to her.

Plot-wise, there really isn't much going on in "Lucas." The last 30 minutes or so is taken up with Lucas trying to get onto the football team to impress Maggie, culminating with him talking his way onto the field during a big game. Lucas breaks away from the scrimmage, waiting near the end zone for a pass, which Cappie finally provides.

In every other teen movie, Lucas would catch the ball and become the hero. Instead he bobbles and drops it. Of course he would -- this is probably the first time he's ever touched a football, let alone tried to catch a 60-yard pass. The other team picks up the fumble, and Lucas bravely tries to stop the runner, holding on like a scarecrow as he's carried downfield. In the ensuing pileup he's knocked cold. Not that it would have mattered even if he'd caught it: They were down 24-zip.

"Lucas" would stand out as an ambitious teen movie, even if no one in it had gone on to any sort of notoriety. The fact that so many did makes it a minor classic.

3.5 stars out of four

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