Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the coming-of-age warmth of David Seltzer’s ‘Lucas’.
The stereotype about male movie-bloggers/critics is that we’re all muscle-bound jocks whose interest in film is rivaled only by our love of sports, partying, and frequent dabbling in lady bits. It’s true of course, but I never really fit that mold as is probably evident in my phrasing of that last bit about vaginal dabbling. I was a skinny kid with glasses who loved movies, books, and exploring nature far more than any team sport or school dance, and while I’m no longer a kid and a little less skinny the rest of it still holds true today.
So it’s easy to see what young me saw in the 1986 coming-of-age comedy Lucas, but unlike so many movies I loved around that time – sorry The Ice Pirates – writer/director David Seltzer’s feature debut has remained a wonderfully entertaining and affecting film through the decades and across multiple re-watches.
Lucas (a terrific Corey Haim) is a high-school student comfortable in his own skin. He knows he doesn’t really fit in with the other kids – he’s smart and accelerated resulting in him being younger and smaller than his classmates – and his financial situation leaves him removed from the fast cars, new clothes, and partying of the popular kids. He’s perfectly content though with his small handful of friends (including Winona Ryder in her film debut as Rina) and his solitary hobbies involving insect watching and exploring the woods around town.
As summer winds down and the new school year approaches fourteen-year-old Lucas begins feelings the first rumblings of an attraction toward the opposite sex. He innocently spies on some cheerleader routines (before being run off to cries of “pervert!”) and then meets the new girl in town, sixteen-year-old Maggie (Kerri Green).
He stares as she practices her tennis swing, and when she notices him the two share a friendly conversation. His social awkwardness isn’t of the exaggerated variety found in most teen comedies, and instead, he’s simply unaware of traditional social graces – he continues to stare after their chat ends and even presses play on some Tchaikovsky to provide a score to the majestic beauty before him.
Lucas’ first crush begins right there in that moment. And just like that, he’s doomed.
The pair spend the remaining days of summer hanging out together, goofing off, and exploring each other’s interests – he even introduces her to classical music – but like a platonic, song-free Grease their dynamic changes once school starts. Her world broadens while his remains the same, and when she meets the captain of the football team, Cappie (Charlie Sheen), the two develop an attraction.
Cappie would be a prick in most other films of this type – the guy we in the audience know is wrong for Maggie right from the start – but Lucas parts ways with most films early on. Cappie’s actually a pretty swell guy. He’s no saint, but his popularity doesn’t prevent him from being kind or stopping bullying when he sees it. He and Maggie fit together better than she and Lucas ever could. Is it unfair? Of course, but anyone who ever went to high school knows it’s an unfair truth.
There’s no shortage of movies about awkward teens fumbling for love outside of their social circles or cliques, and the one near-constant is the outcome. Pretty in Pink, She’s All That, The DUFF – love finds a way, and our geeky, nerdy, outcast protagonist succeeds at winning the object of his/her affection. Lucas takes the road less traveled in its third act though and confirms for Lucas what we and Maggie already know – she has no romantic interest in him.
Teen films that run viewers through the gauntlet of emotional ups and downs only to see our hero/heroine fail are few and far between – the emotionally brutal The Last American Virgin comes to mind – as typically our main characters get the girl/guy of their dreams or realize in the final ten minutes that the one they actually love has been in front of them the whole time (Some Kind of Wonderful, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!). Rina fills that role here, at least in theory, but once again Lucas chooses not to go the expected route. Her affection for him is clear, but the film keeps her at arms length throughout for a reason – she deserves better than being a consolation prize – and like Lucas and probably hundreds of other nameless kids at their school, love will have to wait.
Lucas himself is not immune to the film’s insistence on giving its characters shades of grey as evident in both his emotion and attitude. The school assembly scene where the football team is paraded to cheers and applause – a sad nod to high school reality where even the administration champions its athletes above all others – sees Lucas made the butt of a prank that lands him onstage. He turns it around briefly, but when he leaves it’s as little more than a forgettable joke. Maggie catches up to him, and we see his battle to prevent things like this from wearing him down. He’s broken, temporarily, and the vulnerability is heart-breaking. His frustrations turn into sadness, but they also turn cruel as he judges Maggie’s interest in cheerleading as the act of a superficial person.
All of this comes to a head as Lucas shifts slightly into an underdog sports film leading up to an atypical ending that still gets me every time I watch. In a last ditch effort to win Maggie’s heart he tries to join the enemy and become what he hated most – a football player. He’s shut out but crashes the game in one last valiant effort, and after being laughed at and ignored, and with his team down in points, he finds himself the only player in position to catch the ball.
The music swells, the crowd is finally on his side – everything is riding on this catch. The ball flies through the air, lands in his arms, and against all odds Lucas scores a touchdown.
Except… he doesn’t.
Lucas fumbles the ball because of course, he would. The underdog doesn’t succeed in the final moments. He doesn’t win the game. He fumbles the goddamn ball. An opposing player picks it up, and as Lucas tries in vain to tackle him he finds himself in the bottom of a pile-on, bruised, bloodied, and unconscious.
As with the love story, this is not what we’ve been trained to expect from underdog sports films. This is madness. This is painful. This is perfect.
The final moments of the movie are probably the most well-remembered as Lucas finds approval from his classmates, nerds and jocks alike, for the effort he made and his refusal to give up. It’s a strong, important message that too many films are afraid to acknowledge. Of course there’s a slow clap (led by Jeremy Piven), this is the ’80s after all, but as touching as these final minutes are – I still tear up at the look of joy on Haim’s goofy face as he puts on the over-sized team jacket and raises his arms in triumph – it’s the journey that the film takes to this particular destination that I appreciate most as a viewer. It’s funny, sweet, sad, and just so damn rewarding in its respect for character, honesty, and the real world that I myself inhabited.
Seltzer followed up Lucas with Punchline and Shining Through, two perfectly adequate adult dramas, but it’s a shame he never returned to the world of awkward teens and young love. There’s an honesty to what he captures here – not just in Lucas’ failure to win over Maggie or catch that goddamn ball, but in the world he’s crafted and populated with characters more dimensional than the norm. It’s fine having films that offer escape from reality – necessary even – but a movie that entertains while remaining true to its characters by finding satisfaction in even unsuccessful efforts is a rare experience worth celebrating.
Related Topics: The Essentials