One of the oldies celebrated by lovers of ’80s fare, Martha Coolidge’s ode to pampered teens in La La Land has aged extremely well. It’s still fairly representative of reality, but the romantic fairy tale angle is what keeps it afloat. Nicolas Cage’s unguarded vulnerability and Deborah Foreman’s infectious smile win the day — we like these kids, even if they’re somewhat idealized.
1983 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 99 min. / Street Date October 30, 2018 / 34.93
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Deborah Foreman, Elizabeth Daily, Michael Bowen, Cameron Dye, Heidi Holicker, Michelle Meyrink, Tina Theberge, Lee Purcell, Richard Sanders, Colleen Camp, Frederic Forrest, David Ensor, The Plimsouls, Josie Cotton.
Cinematography: Frederick Elmes
Film Editor: Éva Gárdos
Original Music: Mark Levinthal, Scott Wilk
Produced and Written by Andrew Lane, Wayne Crawford
Directed by Martha Coolidge
Women directors of the 1980s didn’t have a smooth ride, as can be attested to by the stories of Penelope Spheeris, Amy Heckerling and Martha Coolidge: each found her way to feature film directing by working on documentaries, and especially documentaries about rock music, and made a mark in successful teen romance (or teen sex?) comedies usually pitched at an exploitation level. Still, the opportunities that would have been offered to male directors with similar hits didn’t fully materialize: we’re talking about three fairly quirky careers.
1983’s Valley Girl can perhaps be seen as a smartly packaged follow-up to Amy Heckerling’s sleeper hit Fast Times at Ridgemont High from the previous year. Both had a common ancestor in George Lucas’ nostalgic American Graffiti from a decade (and a generation) before. While cheapjack companies like Crown International were driving teen dating movies into smut territory, Fast Times aimed higher. Its sex quotient was more than naked bimbos in bikinis; the teen world depicted acknowledged and accepted the fact that plenty of teens in all social strata were now sexually active, but placed this truth in a realistic context.
Perhaps there were male directors in the early 1980s capable of handling the subject in a non-exploitative mode, but Heckerling and Coolidge added a veneer of realism, and even sympathy, to their sex scenes. Martha Coolidge had an uphill battle on her hands. Her producers insisted on an ‘R’ rating — they didn’t care how she did but they wanted to see tits at regular intervals. Coolidge responded by making sure that the scenes are never gratuitous. The consistent rough language is also something new added for the Reagan Years; the teen Valley girls I observed around 1985 dressed fashionably but talked dirtier than any group I’d yet met. Our star heroine is (refreshingly) too sheltered to be a full-on Valley Girl. Her new boyfriend from the wrong side of Franklin Avenue swears a blue streak, but it never rubs off on our dazzling Valley Princess.
For foreigners: there’s this place called the San Fernando Valley, just north of Hollywood and Los Angeles proper. Once upon a time, it was affordable; the commute to jobs in Santa Monica or Downtown has been a soul-killer for half a century. Much of the Valley is ugly and it has its slums, but sections to the South and West are as lavish as anything on the other side of the Hollywood Hills.
Valley Girl leaped out from the pack of 1983 movies. It had a commercial hook right from the start — for semi- squares like myself it gave a name to a phenom we’d felt but not codified. Almost immediately “Valleyspeak” became a source of mild ridicule, with cliché lingo not heard in this movie, like “…to the max!” Some of Valleyspeak is derived from Surfer talk, which was news to me. Some of my wife’s students in the late ’70s already had the lingo down. They certainly dressed well — all that New Los Angeles Wealth had to go somewhere, and it got spent on the kids.
Even as a starving student back in college I knew that a potential girl friend wasn’t going to work out … the pampered Daddy’s Girl of a Fox executive, she wore $100 sunglasses and drove a convertible Mercedes [However, she cried at a screening of Wild River, proving she had a soul]. A few years later, it seemed that every post production house had a couple of assistants or receptionists with daddies in the music industry, who were earning minimum wage but had expensive tastes and carried three credit cards. One came back each Monday hung over from weekends spent backstage at rock concerts. I respect producer-writers Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford’s conception of the Valley scene. It’s not overly exaggerated, just ‘optimized.’ The happy-ditzy girls on view could have been trashy or insipid, and they’re not. I think it’s fair to credit Martha Coolidge’s direction with the film’s character sensitivity. Character sensitivity? That became a rare commodity in genre films of the 1980s.
Popular high school girl Julie Richmond (Deborah Foreman) is a model American Miss living the good life in the right part of the Valley, South of the 101 Freeway. A good student, she is indulged by her easygoing ex- hippie parents Steve and Sarah (Frederick Forrest & Colleen Camp, both from Apocalypse Now) who run a Health Food store and want their daughter to have total freedom. Julie is actually miffed when, after staying out all night, her parents assume she’s been sexually active. Julie’s crowd is an insular (in-bred?) pack of entitled, coddled teens given the free run of houses for weekend parties. Drinking is expected and perhaps a little drugs or sex might be shared in upstair bedrooms. Julie’s close-knit group of consumerist girlfriends meet to shop in the Sherman Oaks Mall and have regular sleep-over pajama parties where they discuss boys. Julie breaks up with her snotty possessive boyfriend Tommy (Michael Bowen) because she feels used. At the next party he immediately pressure-talks her best friend Loryn (Elizabeth Daily) into bed. This is a parent-hosted party at the house of Suzi (Michelle Meyrink), who is distressed to see her own mother Beth (Lee Purcell) shoot some fairly direct come-on signals to a boy she admires, Skip (David Ensor).
But the big news of the night are two crashers, the Hollywood punks Randy and Fred (Nicolas Cage & Cameron Dye). Julie had already noticed the interesting Randy at the beach and they are instantly attracted to each other. The Valley boys react to the two ‘lowlife’ outsiders hitting on the girls, and Tommy punches out Randy in a show of bravado. Randy takes the initiative to sneak back in a window and reconnect with Julie. Impressed by the very different Randy, Julie goes out with him for a full night’s cruise. A relationship forms over time as they take in The Sunset Strip and various fast food stops and revival-house movie theaters. Ah, young love.
Trouble comes when Julie feels pressure from her girlfriends not to ruin her social standing by going out with this uncouth tribal non-person. The pressure not to break up with the group is too much: it’s Teen Romance Trauma all over again, when the confused Julie reconciles with Tommy (still a jerk) and the rejected Randy goes on a destructive drunk on Hollywood Blvd. Will this modern Romeo and Juliet get back together again?
A slightly softened fairy tale version of reality, Valley Girl is a charming picture that most of us saw on early cable TV. I’d imagine that it might please uptight adults that can handle the occasional language and nudity, but it’s also accurate/glamorous enough to attract the very group of kids being examined. As the vast majority of American teens never had the freedom or $ fiscal resources to live like Julie, it is indeed a glamorous fantasy — clubbing to name bands, cruising Hollywood in a convertible, necking at midnight on a Mulholland Drive overlook.
Although Deborah Foreman was just as impressive, Nicolas Cage got the publicity push and became the big find of the film. A tallish, somewhat hulking kid with sad eyes and a somewhat goofy but expressive face, Cage is far too sensitive to be a hard drinking, party crashing hoodlum. In fact, with his polite speech and mature attitude, only the way Randy dresses would scare parents as a daughter’s Boyfriend from Hell. The movie downplays what might seem obvious issues — Randy is a very clean guy who doesn’t drink to excess or use drugs. Hollywood High is mentioned but he’s apparently not a student, and neither does he hold down a full-time job. That the parents trust Julie enough to let her stay out all night with this potential thug is not at all a stretch — I knew teens of this time that were virtual latch key kids, but with new cars. Parental involvement might not have entered the picture until the police rang the doorbell.
Deborah Foreman’s Julie puts a genuinely sweet face on the show — she’s not really in the selfish ‘Valley Girl’ mode, but a thoughtful free spirit. She’s the high school dream girl that we ‘average’ high school boys knew was not meant for us. Julie needs the social companionship but doesn’t subscribe to the more radical notions of her girlfriends. When one of the girls boasts of sexual misadventures, the others will make their own crude jokes, but nobody really knows if the stories are true. Julie is seemingly the most mature of her group, but she isn’t the most experienced. A big factor in making the show work is Ms. Foreman’s dazzling smile, that says “I’m happy and I like you.” Julie is irresistible, so much so that we find it hard to disapprove of anything she does. She’s Randy’s equal in their scenes together; both actors glow with star potential.
The dream romance angle never completely abandons vulgar realities that would have been deal-killers for my earlier-generation crowd. Given bad news at Julie’s doorstep, Randy retreats to his car with furious shouts of ‘F___ You!’ I can’t say that that’s very good form for a classic romance story, but as shown it’s depressingly believable.
Two sidebar subplots are handled in way that tells us that director Coolidge gained the full confidence of her cast. Loryn allows herself to be talked into bed by the loutish Tommy, but we understand immediately that she’s insecure and deeply in need to be accepted by boys. When she breaks off the incident, her look of self-loathing is quite touching. Loryn may boast of later sex adventures, but she’s not going to talk about this disaster.
The second older woman-younger student subplot showed up in several sleazy ’80s films. Suzi Brent fears that her mother Beth is flirting with her boyfriend Skip, and it’s true. Skip eventually finds an excuse to drop by the Brent house during the day, and Beth Brent puts the proposition to him straight and direct. It’s not some stupid seduction scene, but a direct come-on from a woman who knows what she wants, trying to find out if she’s attracted a man or a baby. Instead of sleaze, the scene gives us a real-life resolution seldom seen in ‘serious’ dramas.
Valley Girl’s dating montages catalog a number of memorable places in North Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Hollywood Blvd. and the Sunset Strip. Music fans will know more than I do about the Plimsouls and Josie Cotton; as I never went to a club on the Strip I can only say that the samples here feel more credible than did comparable A.I.P. teen scene pictures from the late 1960s. The movie theaters memorialized here — the long-gone Sherman and the Tiffany on the Sunset Strip — were for a time both revival houses.
The actual cruising scenes on Hollywood Boulevard remind us of how rough that part of town was back then — I encountered no trouble but others talked about being mugged. We glimpse the Paramount theater across from Grauman’s Chinese, which is now the Disney El Capitán. Today’s tourists enjoy the neon and the stars on the sidewalks, but can still be intimidated by the transient street people, Scientology touts and just plain freaks that proliferate at any time, day or night. The stretch of sidewalk with Donald Trump’s Walk of Fame Star looks like a crime scene, 24-7.
Budget issues surely kept the film’s Prom finale from being all that memorable, especially when compared to the major set piece of De Palma’s Carrie, or the nostalgic fantasyland that Nicolas Cage would return to in Peggy Sue Got Married. But it functions well enough. Valley Girl’s open-ended finish is no classic. It’s actually a little vague, with its two smiling kids in the back of a limousine, like the Beverly Hills dropouts in the last shot of The Graduate. We certainly aren’t thinking that this likable pair has a real future together… is the punch line that they’re off to some hotel to finally have sex? That likely outcome is a pretty depressing vision of ‘happily ever after,’ but I can’t say that it’s unrealistic.
Shout Select’s special edition Blu-ray of Valley Girl is a debut for the title on HD disc; the 4K scan gives the show a far better appearance than what I once saw on cable television. Future David Lynch cinematographer Frederick Elmes’ work overall is exemplary: colors pop, and the granularity is fine even in night scenes. The music track doesn’t rely on needle-drop pop and instead shows some discretion — The Psychedelic Furs, Men at Work and the very nostalgic ‘I Melt With You’ by Modern English. Shout stresses that all of the original music from the theatrical version has been retained — no substitutions.
Shout ladles on the extras good and thick. As quite a few were produced for an earlier DVD, we see some of the participants in time depth, from 1983, 2003, and now. A pile of interviews is present, each beginning with a frustrating minute-long intro. In the section on ‘the parents,’ Colleen Camp and Frederick Forrest reminisce about how many people on the show had worked on Apocalypse Now. The director commentary and long conversation extras will please fans of the film and those curious about its cast; the Coolidge and Cage interview is fun despite his decision to wear a weird coat and colored glasses.
The new material brings back the same three speakers from the older extras, Martha Coolidge, Elizabeth Daily and Heidi Holicker. They engage in a good discussion of the values of the original story, and the image of women that it presents. Slightly #MeToo- inflected, the women talk about the brief nude scenes in Valley and why they think they’re legitimate.
A storyboard piece is present, and another new featurette is a very long piece about The San Fernando Valley, with history I wasn’t aware of … when I first saw the Valley in 1970, the suburb boom was just beginning to eat up the farms and fields in the northern and western parts.
Two original music videos are present as well.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good +
Supplements (from Shout): Valley Girl In Conversation — Featuring director Martha Coolidge with actors E.G. Daily And Heidi Holicker; Greetings From The Valley – A short history of the iconic San Fernando Valley hosted by Tommy Gelinas of the Valley Relics Museum; Extended interviews from 2003 with Nicolas Cage, Cameron Dye, Frederic Forrest, E.G. Daily, Heidi Holicker, Colleen Camp, Lee Purcell, producers Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford, Peter Case of The Plimsouls, Josie Cotton, DJ Richard Blade, and more; Storyboard To Film Comparisons; Feature length audio commentary with director Martha Coolidge; Original music videos From Modern English and The Plimsouls; Valley Girl: 20 Totally Tubular Years Later; In Conversation with Martha Coolidge and Nicolas Cage; The Music of Valley Girl; Making-of featurettes and interviews with cast and crew.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 25, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson