A Retrospective on American Graffiti (1973)

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

Before Star Wars and before Indiana Jones, writer and director George Lucas developed a coming-of-age film entitled American Graffiti. Differing greatly from the blockbusters he would later produce in his career, American Graffiti maintained a budget well below $1 million and featured a cast of relative unknowns, well, unknowns for the time of course.

Now, despite the film's small scale, it managed to establish a legacy over the years through its intimate and bittersweet depiction of teenagers on the brink of the rest of their lives. It is a film that showcases the fear one may have when transitioning into an uncertain future, which of course is a threshold any individual can relate to.

Thus, American Graffiti may initially appear to be a straightforward film comprising teenagers seeking thrills on their last night of summer, and it certainly is.

However, it is also a film that exquisitely exemplifies the nostalgic youth everyone has experienced at some point in their lives.

American Graffiti
American Graffiti (1973) dir. by George Lucas

September of 1962

As aforementioned, American Graffiti traverses the journey of a group of teenagers on their last night of summer. Unsurprisingly, many of these teenagers are simply trying to find a good time on their final night of vacation. With this, many of them are also doing the best they can to avoid acknowledging the future that awaits beyond high school and outside of their hometown of Modesto, California.

Now, perhaps the most reluctant of these teenagers is Curt Henderson, played by Richard Dreyfuss of Jaws and The Goodbye Girl fame.

Curt has plans to leave for college the morning after this final night of summer vacation. Though, as the sun begins to set and the morning draws closer, he begins to wonder if he truly wants to leave his hometown for an uncertain college experience.

One of the primary motifs of American Graffiti comprises the fear of the unfamiliar and the unknown. In addition to Curt's own fears, characters such as Steve Bolander and Laurie Henderson fear negative change to their romantic relationship.

Thus, the town of Modesto itself exemplifies familiarity and comfort to the characters who reside within it.

Ironically though, the town also maintains a static nature. This is ultimately why the film's characters can feel comfortable in their identities, relationships, and futures as they know what to expect when it comes to living in Modesto.

Therefore, as many of the characters express trepidation in moving elsewhere and embarking on adulthood, they consider remaining in Modesto. What takes many of them a long time to realize though is that the town also promotes an immutable life, one that stunts growth and self-innovation.

American Graffiti
American Graffiti (1973) Written by George Lucas, Gloria Katz, & Willard Huyck

A Streetcar Named Desire

In his development of American Graffiti, George Lucas wished to maintain a focus on the carefree, teen culture of the 1960's.

Engulfed in this particular culture is the act of cruising, an act in which friends would drive around town together without a clear objective besides just simply enjoying the ride.

Unsurprisingly, cruising plays its own character in American Graffiti. In fact, its depiction exemplifies the very immutability Modesto maintains in addition to the escapist mentality a variety of the film's characters have.

For example, as Curt continues to doubt his own decisions in regard to his future, he participates in cruising with both friends and strangers without any clear objective in destination. Simply, Curt wishes to numb himself in a way. He wishes to escape the inevitable reality of his decision making with an activity that puts him out of control.

Of course, one's passage into adulthood marks the reception of responsibility. In a way, Curt is attempting to skirt the acceptance of responsibility by hopping into the backseat of anyone's car and going along for the ride. He wants to extend this interminable journey in an effort to delay his transition into adulthood.

It is worth noting that even though the act of cruising may relieve an individual such as Curt and make them feel as though they are participating in a continuous ride into eternity, various aspects of cruising align with the characteristics that define Modesto.

Both concepts facilitate existence but without growth or change. Interestingly, Curt may have been very well aware of this aspect as he attempts to find an adventure that will allow him to escape his predetermined destiny and stimulate a change outside of going to college.

That escape comes in the form of a mysterious blonde woman.

American Graffiti
American Graffiti (1973) Cinematography by Ron Eveslage & Jan D'Alquen

Some Old White 1956 Ford Thunderbird

While cruising, Curt encounters an unrecognizable blonde woman who seems to mouth, "I love you" to Curt before driving away. In this moment, Curt makes it his mission to determine the identity of the woman and meet her.

Unfortunately for Curt though, the only distinguishable factor he can make about this woman is the fact that she drives a white 1956 Ford Thunderbird.

So, as he tries to figure out who this woman is, he asks various individuals about her identity.

Some believe the woman to be the wife of a notable man in town, others believe her to be a prostitute. Curt refuses to believe any of these claims until he meets her himself.

In his efforts to do so, Curt takes on a variety of methods. His final effort, and most successful, features him delivering a message to the woman through the radio. The woman actually ends up hearing the message and gives Curt a call. Though, she does not reveal her identity and merely tells Curt that they could potentially run into each other later that night while cruising.

In this moment, Curt has a choice. He can either stay in Modesto, continuing to chase this seemingly ephemeral entity without the guarantee of actually meeting her, or he can fly east and move forward with the next phase of his life.

Curt chooses the latter.

American Graffiti
American Graffiti (1973) Produced by Francis Ford Coppola


Considering Curt's persistent doubts throughout the film regarding his future, it may come as a surprise that he ends up abandoning his search for the mysterious blonde to follow through on his college plans.

There may be a variety of reasons why Curt sticks to his decision. Though, my personal interpretation is that he came face-to-face with the true identity of Modesto in the form of the mysterious blonde woman.

In a way, she represents the inaccessible tether Curt wished to keep to his youth. Had Curt decided to stay in Modesto, he most likely would have been chasing this woman for an uncertain amount of time with little to no success. His life would have remained unchanged as he would have remained in this persistent cycle of cruising and going along with this unachievable adventure.

In a way, this mystery blonde was a dream, a vision of what he hoped would last in his life.

American Graffiti
American Graffiti (1973) distr. by Universal Pictures

The Beauty of Impermanence

There are a variety of interpretations one can have in regard to the film's title. My personal interpretation is that the "graffiti" depicts the permanence of characters' respective youths despite the fleeting nature of adolescence.

Even though characters such as Curt are leaving Modesto behind to pursue adulthood, his youth is inscribed in his hometown of Modesto. Though he is crossing a threshold into another phase of his life, he cannot change the events of his past.

Now, moving forward, he may look back on Modesto and his time there with a heavy sense of nostalgia. He may perceive his past with greater reverence and passion than he had when he was living in it.

Graffiti of course is often defined by its colorful, artistic nature that makes a permanent mark on the surface it comes into contact with. In the context of this film, Modesto is that surface upon which Curt and his acquaintances lived their vibrant youth without worries of responsibility, college, or the future.

American Graffiti
American Graffiti (1973)

Out of the Woods

American Graffiti may not be one of the most notable films to come out of the 1970's, though it is certainly one of the most captivating.

As aforementioned, the film succeeds in capturing an era of one's life each and every individual has experienced. It succeeds in capturing the ephemeral nature of youth in addition to the gravity the transition into adulthood maintains.

Ultimately, American Graffiti is a film that transcends its era and will make you want to live like a teenager again, even if only for a night.