Lucas (United States, 1986)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In the decade of the 1980s, when the teen movie was redefined as either a juvenile sex comedy or a bloody slasher movie, Lucas became one of the few exceptions to try a different approach. Even today, thirteen years after it first played in theaters, Lucas remains one of the best films to tackle the themes of first crushes and the adolescent angst of not fitting in. It's a poignant and effective character study that manages not only to explore important teenage issues without condescending to the audience, but to offer an upbeat ending without descending into mawkishness.

Lucas is perhaps the most overlooked gem of the '80s teen genre. It's certainly not the only good film of the era to concentrate on high school characters - movies like Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Say Anything all operated in that realm and have earned loyal followings. Despite being as good as any of those pictures, Lucas remains largely forgotten. Perhaps it's because the career of director/writer David Seltzer went nowhere, or possibly it's because the film never clicked with a target audience that craved breasts and gore instead of touching stories about believable characters. Or maybe it's too real. Whatever the reason, Lucas never caught on - not in theaters or on home video. Yet it remains as worthwhile a cinematic experience today as it was in 1986.

Lucas (Corey Haim) is a misfit, but he's not a misanthrope. A 14-year old accelerated high school student with far more intelligence than common sense, he is the prototypical nerd. Like most children who are all brains and little brawn, Lucas is an outcast at school - he is relegated to a clique of others like him, whose scholastic aptitude overshadows their social maturity. Although Lucas has friends, he is pretty much a loner. His home life is not a happy one, and, rather than spend time in the trailer where he lives with his alcoholic father, he prefers to be outside, catching insects in a net or earning a few dollars cutting lawns. Being with other people is not Lucas' style - until he meets Maggie (Kerri Green).

Everyone remembers their first love. It's the kind of thing that leaves an indelible impact upon the psyche. Two decades later, I still remember mine - her name, her smile, the color of her eyes... For Lucas, it's Maggie. She's new in town and doesn't yet have any friends. The fact that she's two years older than him doesn't mean much to Lucas, and he cheerfully takes on the task of being Maggie's constant companion. It's the middle of the summer, and they spend a few idyllic weeks together sharing a variety of experiences. For a short period, they are in a magical world all their own until reality, in the form of school, intrudes. As Maggie meets other people and becomes increasingly popular, the green eyed monster of jealousy begins to grip Lucas. His emotional crisis reaches a pinnacle when Maggie starts dating Cappie (Charlie Sheen), a football player. Cappie is the only jock at school to treat Lucas with respect, but that doesn't mean much to the younger boy when he sees his special relationship with Maggie slipping away. And it also doesn't matter to Lucas that Maggie never saw him as more than a friend, or that there's another girl at school who is desperate to be his girlfriend.

The final scene is a little over the top, but, coming in the wake of such an insightful, well-written script, it's easy to forgive a little excess (especially since Seltzer avoids falling into the trap of the obvious feel-good moment, which comes ten minutes earlier). Seltzer clearly has a good feel (and memory?) for what it's like to be an outsider during the most turbulent years of one's life. Lucas is a brave boy who has led a difficult life, but there's a heartbreaking scene when the tears finally come, and he lashes out in misplaced anger at the one person who's trying to understand and comfort him. Actually, there were a few times during the film when I felt as if Seltzer was plundering my memories. To one degree or another, everyone will relate to Lucas. The truth is that we all feel like outsiders during high school even if we're members of the most popular clique, and, as a result, there's a little bit of Lucas in each of us.

Maggie and Cappie defy stereotyping by growing into three-dimensional characters. Despite their obvious attraction for one another, they recognize what's happening with Lucas, and do their best to help him. Almost as interesting are Rina (Winona Ryder), who is getting the same treatment from Lucas that he is receiving from Maggie, and Ben (Ciro Poppiti), Lucas' best friend. Lucas does contain a few types - particularly a nasty jock named Bruno (Thomas E. Hodges), a win-at-all-costs coach (Guy Boyd), and a beautiful-but-shallow cheerleader (Courtney Thorne-Smith) - but none has a significant role.

In a refreshing change of pace, most of the high school students in Lucas were played by actual teenagers. The exceptions - Charlie Sheen, Thomas Hodges, and Jeremy Piven - were only 21 at the time, so it doesn't strain the viewer's credulity to accept them as seniors. Lead actor Corey Haim, who gives an astonishingly well modulated performance (this was before his life and career went off-track), was 15, and Kerri Green (who vanished into obscurity following her fine work here), was 19. Sheen and Winona Ryder (15 at the time, and appearing in her first feature) were the only cast members to forge substantial Hollywood careers after Lucas.

Lucas is fiction, but it touches the heart like real life, and the title character is so strongly drawn that it's hard to identify with him as nothing more than an artifact of a writer's imagination. In the end, Lucas manages to be touching, sad, thoughtful, funny, and joyous - it's a nearly-perfect portrait of the incredible highs and lows that accompany the high school journey of a square peg who doesn't fit into a round hole. A recent motion picture called Never Been Kissed (starring Drew Barrymore) adopted many of the same themes as Lucas, and the failure of its approach underlines how difficult it is to attain the pitch and rhythm exhibited by Seltzer's movie.

Lucas (United States, 1986)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1