By Toby Venables
“I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” says Back to the Future’s metal-playing Marty McFly to his bemused 1955 audience. “But your kids are gonna love it.”
First released as All American High in 1987 to critical acclaim – but with very limited distribution – Keva Rosenfeld’s fly-on-the wall documentary of life at a California high school also seems to have found its time. Now remastered, it incorporates and updates the original, featuring a coda that reunites us with some of the key protagonists 30 years on, allowing us to reassess those heady days.
Our guide to this real-life Breakfast Club is “Rikki” Rauhala, an exchange student from Finland, for whom everything is strange. Through her, we negotiate a year in the life of Torrance High, from Homecoming, through classes, parties and pep rallies to the Prom and graduation of the class of ’84. She makes a breezy, easily relateable protagonist, her outsider perspective and often hilarious commentary providing a neat way in for those not familiar with the culture, and a fresh take for those who are.
Studious Rikki is at first bemused by the high school’s classes – which to her seem “more like hobbies”. She tells us you can learn “auto repair, how to decorate a window in a shop, how to take care of children, how to divorce, how to get married…”. No sooner are we dismissing the last of these as wild exaggeration than we are whisked to Mrs Dority’s class. “You will go shopping for a marriage partner in this class,” she tells her students.
There follow mock weddings, presided over by a mock minister. “Sometimes ‘mock’ means ‘to make fun of’, but we’re in no way making fun of the institution of marriage,” he explains somberly, the effect of his words somewhat compromised by the fact he’s wearing a giant cardboard sandwich board in the shape of a heart. And after the mock weddings? Well, mock divorces, obviously.
Mall culture is another shock for Rikki. As she wanders its arcades with her friend Lisa we learn that Torrance has the largest mall in the world (certainly there’s nothing like it in Finland in 1984). Rikki describes her initial shock at the sheer volume and variety of “trash” on sale there, but she learns to love Torrance, which is “clean and safe”. After a while, she says, you just buy that stuff and don’t even think about it. So integral is this vast cathedral of commerce to their daily lives that it even provides the venue for Homecoming Ball, where Rikki dances just yards from a shop window containing duplicates of the dress and shoes she bought for the occasion.
Anyone who has seen Romero’s Dawn of the Dead may experience an involuntary shudder at this point. Not that Rosenfeld ever suggests his subjects are mindless zombies. The film has been described as satirical, and it is – but Rosenfeld keeps things light, and the satire is never at the expense of the participants, who are always treated with respect – even warmth.
And there are many more memorable encounters along the way. There’s the kid who organises an epic party – we are talking hundreds – with a business acumen that would impress Gordon Gekko (you’ll have to wait till the end to find out what he’s doing now; it’s not what you expect). Then there’s the careers pep talk from members of the US military, after which the students mainly want to know about the cash bonuses and leisure facilities they’ll get. And there’s the Homecoming Queen – a self-styled dead ringer for Princess Diana – whose crowning to the strains of God save the Queen now seems, thanks to subsequent events, the weirdest detail of all.
The passage of time and the nostalgia it brings has rendered all these subjects far more fascinating than they must first have appeared. While All-American High drew comparison with The Breakfast Club after its initial release, Revisited becomes a kind of reality version of Back to the Future, with much of its humour and intrigue being driven by the two time periods regarding each other from opposite ends of the telescope.
And so we time-shift forward 30 years. Those teenagers are now themselves mothers, fathers, teachers and police chiefs – and when director Rosenfeld revisits Rikki in her home in Finland, we find she has a daughter who is the exact age Rikki was when she toured us around Torrance in 1984. Together the family watches the original film. Rikki laughs. Her daughter cringes and hides behind her hand. Rikki cries. Her husband looks thoughtful as 17-year-old Rikki talks about attitudes to sex (she claims Finns are more open about sex, and have their first sexual experiences earlier; “That’s a bit of a generalisation…” he mutters).
In many respects, this is the film’s most raw, emotional moment. It also seems to be setting us up for something more – the one thing that, narratively and emotionally speaking, will close the circle: the reunion of Rikki with her friends of 30 years ago. But this never occurs. We’re left instead with reflections from Rikki’s daughter as a representative of the next generation, who now understands that her mom was once a teenager too, partying, drinking, having sex.
In the end, though, this is not a film about raw emotions. It asks some fundamental questions about life, sure, but it’s not out to probe too deep for the answers – and seems to avoid the harsher truths that must lurk in Torrance High Schools darker corners. We see a rich mix of races and cultures, but get no hint of racism or bullying. People drink and take drugs, but no one seems to come to any harm because of them. There’s a fight at the epic party, but we don’t know why or what the outcome is – we just cut to the organiser counting his dough. It’s an occupational hazard. A background detail. Rikki herself suggests that the reason her fellow students are so endlessly preoccupied with hair, clothes, boyfriends and girlfriends is that they are ashamed of sex. But as with Back to the Future’s Libyan terrorists and disturbingly Oedipal subplot, the film doesn’t linger. In this optimistic world, the kids are alright. There’s no room for cynicism. Boys keep swingin’ and girls just want to have fun.
This is about friendship, heartbreak, parties, music and having a good time – all the things those great 80s teen-centric movies were about. It’s The Breakfast Club, in which kids of different cultures and backgrounds can easily overcome their differences. It’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where rules are broken and shit happens, but somehow life’s still good. And most of all it’s Back to the Future, in which time-travelling Marty McFly learns exactly what Rikki’s daughter ultimately learns – that his parents were once just like him. Like these, the joy All-American High Revisited provides is as uncomplicated and user-friendly as the burgers Rikki and Lisa chomp before class. If this film does lack anything, it’s the narrative closure that all those perfectly honed movies provide.
But hey – I’m thinking too much. Time to perm that hair, slap on the Huey Lewis and bow to the source of ultimate 80s wisdom: the T-shirt. As one Torrance student’s printed slogan proudly proclaims: ‘Fuck Art – Let’s Dance!’
All American High Revisited is in cinemas and available digitally now, it was released July 3rd.