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American Graffiti Film Review: One Nostalgic Night

A nighttime shot of Mel's Drive In in the film American Graffiti

American Graffiti uses catchy music, bright visuals, and strong characters to take audiences back to their childhood and observe it from a new perspective.

Director: George Lucas
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 110′
US Release: August 11, 1973
UK Release: March 28, 1974
Where to watch: on digital & VOD

While it’s Star Wars and its endless sequels that George Lucas has become most well-known for, the filmmaker’s roots are actually pretty far away from the sci-fi genre altogether. Lucas’ second feature, American Graffiti, tells the story of a handful of high school graduates as they cruise through the streets of California on their final night before leaving their hometown for good.

From the opening frame to the last, the film is brimming with the spirit of youth and freedom that perfectly captures this very specific period in everybody’s lives: the entire world is in front of these characters, and it’s that untapped potential that makes them so interesting to watch.

American Graffiti isn’t a very plot-forward story, but rather it relies on the chemistry between this unique cast of characters to drive the narrative forward, getting the audience hooked into their lives and simply watching them interact with each other on-screen. It’s the kind of film that simply wouldn’t be made today because of complaints that “nothing happens”, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. By making this story so quiet and contemplative, Lucas leaves room for a much more subtle and emotional perspective on this period of our lives that’s often framed simply as exciting. But there are plenty of other emotions that come alongside growing up: fear, nostalgia, curiosity, just to name a few. Instead of the “school’s out” attitude that you’d expect from this kind of story, American Graffiti taps into these other emotions instead, and as such, is much more relatable.

Alongside the characters themselves, American Graffiti also examines the culture of 1960s America and the rock ‘n roll lifestyle that came alongside it. It uses the characters as vessels to explore youth culture, particularly in regards to music and film, and how this had changed in the years leading up to the film’s creation in the early ‘70s. It’s almost a time capsule for how drastically culture was changing at this point in time, even though the universal experience of growing up and leaving your friends remains somewhat the same. Very few films in the years since have offered such a mature and ubiquitous examination of this experience, which is exactly why it still holds up today.

A yellow car is going against the flow on a road at night in the film American Graffiti
American Graffiti (Lucasfilm & Universal Pictures)

Alongside the sharp screenplay and relatable characters, another of American Graffiti’s strengths can be found in the star-studded cast. In fact, many of the actors might not have been huge names at the time, but have since become some of Hollywood’s biggest names in both acting and filmmaking: Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, etc. They’re the perfect candidates to play these characters, not only because of their acting ability, but also because their lives were so entangled with the Hollywood lifestyle and the concept of stardom that this could be integrated into their characters. There’s a level of meta-commentary that only these actors could’ve pulled off, and their shared experiences in the industry gives them a sharp chemistry that really sells their friendships on-screen.

What’s so special about American Graffiti in comparison with the countless other coming-of-age films from this period is simply how genuine and universal it feels. It doesn’t hide behind the glamour and optimism of youth, but rather admits that getting older and leaving your friends behind can be a difficult process, and that’s not a bad thing. Childhood is only one portion of our lives, and while we’re spending time worrying about it coming to an end, we’re ignoring everything that still lies in front of us.

Get it on Apple TV

American Graffiti is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

American Graffiti: A scene from the film (Universal Pictures)

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