Temperatures around the country may be soaring, but the summer season’s trying to wind down. Football’s back, with college and pro football players set to take the field. Kids are clinging to those last few hours of freedom before they’re forced to head back to school. Maybe that’s why we’re in the mood to discuss Corey Haim’s
incredibly sweet and heart-breaking dramedy, Lucas
, in the When Can I Watch column.
Written and directed by David Seltzer
in 1986, Lucas
stepped through a teen-angst door that had been kicked open by John Hughes with Sixteen Candles
(1984) and The Breakfast Club
(1985). It covered so many similar bases – high school crushes, raw betrayals, awkward teenagers finding their place on the cool-kid food chain – but traded the snark of Hughes’ defiant screenplays for an open-hearted, endearing honesty that helped make the film an instant classic.
Lucas doesn’t get the same attention as Hughes’ beloved comedies, which is unfortunate because it holds its own with any film occupying the short list of beloved teen staples. So, let’s study the locusts, go out for the football team, practice our slow clap and figure out when you can watch Lucas with your kids.
The Discussion: First Loves, Broken Hearts and Bug Collections
Our sons both have February birthdays. Wait, it gets worse. Not only do their birthdays fall in the same month, they occur on the same week. It makes for a busy couple of days around the O’Connell household.
Earlier this year, my wife Michele was up late decorating, as she normally does, hanging birthday signs and colorful streamers to surprise the boys once they woke up. I was so impressed with her work that I snapped a picture of her mid-streamer and posted it to Facebook. The next morning, my best friend posted a funny, but telling, comment beneath the photo, saying, “And somewhere in the world a little girl sleeps .... completely unaware of the disappointment she will be to her future mother-in-law for not making as big a deal of P.J.'s birthday.”
Great line. But it also got me thinking, and not for the first time, of the little girls out there, somewhere, who are waiting for my sons. I’ve talked about this before in the column. I’m a big believer in destiny. I’m convinced we’re all walking a pre-determined path. Everything happens for a reason.
Someday my sons, P.J. and Brendan, finally will start meeting the girls of their dreams. And when it happens, I pray they have a smoother go at it than Corey Haim’s wide-eyed, misguided Lucas.
For those who don’t know the story, Haim plays the title character, an offbeat outcast who isn’t even aware of his outsider status. One listless summer, Lucas meets and befriends Maggie (Kerri Green
), a semi-shy beauty way out of his league who nonetheless finds the bug-collecting, hyper-active runt interesting.
“Did you think we’d be such good friends when we met?” Lucas asks Maggie as they listen to a free symphony concert while hiding in the sewers beneath the neighborhood park. They both seem kind of surprised that fate has pushed these opposites together.
But their innocent relationship can’t survive the social pressures of high school, where Maggie starts to fall for Cappie (Charlie Sheen
) and Lucas goes too far to try and stay on his soul mate’s radar.
Lucas easily could have succumbed to the cheesy melodrama of an afterschool special. We almost wait for Seltzer to take the easy road toward resolution, to let his characters off the hook. He never does, which is why Lucas ranks as one of the best in its genre. We’ll break down the film’s highs and lows in the Red Flags and Green Lights sections.
Red Flags: “So what’s up with you and Lucas?” “We’re just friends.”
The kiss of death. Just friends. Nobody hoping to score points with a beauty wants to hear that dismissal. Lucas doesn’t hear it directly – the conversation takes place between Maggie and a shirtless Cappie in the high school laundry room (did anyone’s high school have a laundry room?) – but he eventually feels the sting of Maggie’s “just friends” sentiment.
And really, the boldest red flag attached to Lucas has to be the open-wound performance given by the late Corey Haim, who wears his character’s insecurities, needs and shattered emotions on the sleeve of that too-big-for-his-lanky-frame football jersey. His performance is so moving, it's dangerous. Your kids don’t know the Coreys. They don’t recognize Haim as the cocky teen star of The Lost Boys or License to Drive. All they’ll see is a fragile (and potentially suicidal) geek bearing the weight of the world, so be ready to talk to your children after Lucas about the boys and girls who are bound to be picked on in school.
Yes, Lucas joins the long line of movies we’ve talked about in the column that dig into teen bullying, which sadly seems to go hand-in-hand with high school-set films. And Seltzer goes to great lengths to ensure that Lucas presents a realistic depiction of school cliques. There are band geeks and athletes, and never the twain shall meet. So when Lucas leaves it all on the field, so to speak, to impress Maggie, the physical and emotional pains hurt like hell.
But the bullying in Lucas never escalates much beyond one scene late in the film where football players slap heat cream onto Lucas’ groin after he humiliates one of the Neanderthals in the shower (where you also get a shot of some dude’s ass). And there isn’t too much to caution against beyond the general hazing. The language is soft, outside of a few questionable curses by the school’s befuddled football coach. And your children likely won’t pick up on the subtle suicide references sprinkled throughout Seltzer’s multi-layered script, from the Romeo and Juliet references to an ongoing discussion about a character who committed suicide off screen, supposedly for love. Their inclusion only makes this drama all the more insightful for older audience members.
Green Lights: “Can you imagine that? Turning from something ugly into something beautiful?”
Lucas is talking about his beloved bugs, but the line’s also meant to hammer home the point that the whole movie’s about metamorphosis, with this one underdeveloped boy trying to rush through his growth process so he can catch the beautiful butterfly who has stolen his heart.
The Romeo and Juliet talk establishes Lucas and Maggie as denizens of different worlds. But the tragedy of Lucas expands to include multiple characters, stretching it from a love triangle to more of a love pentagon that sweeps up Haim, Green, Sheen, Courtney Thorne-Smith and Winona Ryder in her feature film debut.
Stop for a minute and bask in the neon glow of that brilliant ‘80s cast. Corey Haim before Corey Feldman sullied his reputation. Meek, wispy Winona Ryder before Tim Burton hooked her for Beetlejuice. Kerri Green, fresh off The Goonies and John Candy’s Summer Rental. Jeremy Piven, whose hair was thinning despite the fact that he’s playing a high schooler. And a handsome Charlie Sheen, long before goddesses, Twitter meltdowns and “Winning!”
The joy, however, stems from watching Seltzer juggle his players, giving each enough time to develop their leg of the soap opera. One beautiful scene stands out. The students are performing in a choral ensemble, and Seltzer’s camera pans, unbroken, from face to face, conveying the transition of feelings and loyalties between his characters without letting them say a word. It’s so effective because his young cast is so damn good.
It all comes back to Haim, whose resiliency in the face of adversity gives us parents a living, breathing teaching tool as they watch with their kids. “You can’t make me quit. Ever!” Lucas shouts while sitting in the water fountain, cooling his crotch. Then he proves it on the football field, where his heart almost fills that larger-than-life jersey.
You can have Rudy. When it comes to pint-sized pigskin players, Lucas ranks as my all-time fave.
Oh, and is Lucas the first example of a slow clap in a high school movie? If it isn’t the first, it’s certainly one of the best.
Lucas works best on kids in their early teens, ones who are around his age (12 or 13) and likely going through the same problems these characters face.
Parents of middle schoolers who are watching their children become high school freshmen would find a ton of take-home lessons in David Seltzer’s spot-on script.
Any younger kids likely wouldn’t be interested in the film’s honest depiction of the social circus that is high school.
For previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, and The Sound of Music, to name just a few.