American Graffiti


Advertised popularly as "America's favorite coming of age" story, American Graffiti tells the tale of a small group of teenagers as they share their last night before two Curt Henderson and Steve Bolander (played by Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard respectively), are scheduled to leave for college. The movie is very consciously set in the past, with drive in's and classic cars portraying a 1950's-esque culture of innocence. The two most difficult issues which the group must deal with are Bolander's having to leave his younger girlfriend (Henderson's sister) and with Henderson' reluctance to leave. The following clip is from the beginning of the film, when the main characters are planning their last night together. Interspersed with these two main storyline's are those of two other characters, Terry the Toad and John Milner. Terry goes through his own coming of age night, as he gets drunk for the first time and then proceeds to lose his virginity, two important coming of age events in American culture. Milner, on the other hand unwittingly and unwillingly becomes involved in initiating a younger girl into teenage life. Indeed, especially after Henderson accidentally becomes involved with a youth gang initiation ritual at the same time that he is chasing after a beautiful blonde 'dream' woman, this film is quickly filled with a variety of interesting takes on the coming of age myth.

Toad's story is one of continuous small defeats and awkward moments on the journey to manhood. In the end he, who was earlier portrayed as a nerd, is triumphant in his quest to become a man but only after much difficulty. Milner, who is portrayed as older and (since he is a car mechanic while everyone else is college bound) less intelligent than the other characters, reluctantly is forced to ride around with a junior high school girl. In the end he helps her to realize that she will have plenty of time to experience high school. However, the stories of Henderson and Bolander are always predominant and are the most wrought with issues of nostalgia and coming of age. Indeed, in this story the nostalgia which the characters feel towards their own lives makes them hesitant to undergo the coming of age ritual of going off to college.

Over the course of the movie the internal struggles between nostalgia and anticipation which each of the two characters feels continue while they each attempt to find closure and move on. In the following clip Henderson explains his going to "the freshman hop" at the high school from which he recently graduated. The events of the night have a significant effect on the outcome of this story, as Henderson becomes involved with a gang called "The Pharaohs" while Bolander attempts to settle the situation with his girlfriend. Over the course of undergoing a night with "The Pharaohs" Henderson decides he must leave. At the same time Bolander's difficulties with his girlfriend lead him to reconsider whether in fact he ought not continue to live as he did in high school, where he was class president and he dated the head cheerleader. In this clip Bolander and Henderson have traded their earlier positions as they continue the debate over whether to leave for college as planned. In the end Henderson decides to go while Bolander chooses to remain in town and attend community college for a year so he can stay with his girlfriend. The movie itself concludes by detailing the futures of these characters, a practice common in historical coming of age films and television series.

Previous     Next

Introduction:
Cultural Stories
The Historical
Coming of Age Genre
Dazed and
Confused
Nostalgia and
Anticipation
Conclusion:
Time and Memory
American Film as
Cultural History
American
Graffiti
Rites of
Passage
History and
Society
Works
Consulted