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Cinemalphabet: V is for Vision Quest (1985)

December 22, 2010

Filmmaker Harold Becker is an odd duck – wonderful artist saddled with a resume suggesting otherwise. His filmography includes:

  • Malice – ill conceived, soggy thriller starting Nicole Kidman, Bebe Nuwirth and a painfully miscast Alec Baldwin in a role that seems like he was asked to play an actor doing a collection of impressions of previous Baldwin roles.
  • Sea of Love – Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin in a psychological thriller and the shit still didn’t work.
  • Mercury Rising – Weirdly paced, paint by numbers Bruce Willis thriller.

Becker’s gems include: Taps and the 1985 classic coming of age story Vision Quest, based on the novel by Terry Davis.

Vision Quest is the kind of coming of age film rarely made anymore. The protagonist is not noble, not completely likable, not middle class and definitely not “going somewhere”. Louden Swain – played by a far too aged Matthew Modine, though quite good – is an eighteen year old guy consumed by two things: getting a lady and getting down to 168 lbs in order to wrestle the most imposing figure in division – Brian Shute.

Unlike many of Becker’s films, the story, plot and pacing is really great. The best kind of storytelling – as far as films go – involves scenes which answer the question, “And then this happened!” meaning, what comes before must inform what happens next (in linear storytelling). Moreover, the secondary characters are integral to the conflict and not merely used as plot contrivances. Swain is a working class kid who wants college and like many other working class kids sees two options: military or sports. What I really love about this film is how his story, class status and life prospects are not romanticized nor are used as the driving force for the plot either.

Of course there are just flat out cool things unrelated to the astute class analysis:

  • Young Forrest Whitaker
  • Michael “Jake Ryan” Schoeffling in a decidedly non Jake Ryan role.
  • Madonna’s cool song Crazy For You
  • Harold Sylvester, the first African American to receive an athletic scholarship to Tulane (Basketball)

Speaking of Harold Sylvester, he is well cast as Mr. Tanneran, Swain’s confidante and English Teacher. The chemistry between the two characters is wonderful, particularly when strained by the introduction to the love interest Carla, a drifter (of course) – played by Linda Fiorentino, who steals most of the scenes with her deadpan delivery of such lines as, “I’m 21. I’ve been 21 since I was 14.”

Louden crushes on Carla and she’s crushing on life, specifically moving to San Francisco and being an artist. Becker did something interesting opting not to adapt many aspects of Carla’s story from the novel thus making her character far more complex. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say it’s definitely a welcome change from many depictions of women in 1980s coming of age films.

This is not a Rocky or The Karate Kid, but if you like those kinds of triumph of the human spirit via sports this is one of the better ones.

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