Monday 9 January 2023

Valley Girl (1983)

Director: Martha Coolidge
Writers: Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Deborah Foreman, Elizabeth Daily, Cameron Dye and Michelle Meyrink

Index: The First Thirty.

Technically, Nicolas Cage’s next movie after Fast Times at Ridgemont High was Rumble Fish, in an important supporting role.

However, given that he was only seventeen years old and the nobody nephew of the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, other actors in the film felt that he was there only because of nepotism. To counter that, he chose to change his name from Nicolas Coppola to Nicolas Cage and that’s the name in the credits, when it was released in October 1983.

I’m looking at Valley Girl next, though, as it was released in April 1983, half a year ahead of Rumble Fish, because it was shot in two weeks and was intended to be an exploitation flick, a feature meant to take advantage of a notable 1982 fad. Frank Zappa’s only top 40 hit, Valley Girl, popularised the peculiar vocabulary used by the youth of the San Fernando Valley and it was ripe to be exploited. However, it came out in June 1982, so this was too late to capitalise on it properly, but it’s all the better for not trying.

Well, it tries in the scenes that unfold in a valley mall behind the opening credits. Girls in pastel clothes and big hair go shopping and gossip in an echo of Moon in the song. Grody. Gnarly. I can’t stand it. Awesome. So bitchin’. It gets old before the conversation is over and we dread having to sit through ninety more minutes of that. Like totally.

Fortunately, they tone it down when they talk to guys and the whole point of being a Val appears to be that you talk to guys and, later, talk about them. We shift from the mall to the beach, where Julie first catches sight of Randy, then to a bedroom and then to a party. It’s the valley girl life.

Julie is the true lead, with Randy as her love interest rather than the other way around. It’s only traditional Hollywood sexism that credits Nicolas Cage ahead of Deborah Foreman, even if he comes out of this potential disaster better than she does. Realistically, that he does so is probably why he’s as famous as he is now and she’s best known for horror movies like April Fool’s Day, Waxwork and Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat.

Initially, we’re probably all focused on the valley girls, even if the cutest one is Elizabeth Daily as Loryn, because we have a feeling that this is going to be another teen sex comedy, a feeling backed up by the fact that its female director, the debuting Martha Coolidge, found free reign only if she somehow included four pairs of naked breasts.

Daily’s are the first, which may or may not have anything to do with why she would go on to marry Rick Salamon of 1 Night in Paris fame. Certainly they’re not why she’s best known to us today as a voice actor.

However, valley girls exist for guys and we know what they think of Randy the moment they first see him. It isn’t Julie who spouts “My God, what a hunk!” as he runs goofily up from the ocean in a pair of shorts and a prominent V of chest hair, but she’s paying attention and they lock eyes.

By comparison, his first lines are the far less memorable “What?”, “I don’t want to go to the valley”, “I don’t want to go to the valley” and “I’m not in the mood to go to the valley.”

Of course, he immediately goes to the valley to the party his buddy Fred overheard details about, because, if he didn’t, we wouldn’t have a movie.

They’re soon thrown out because they stick out like sore thumbs—we’re supposed to think of them as punks—and because Tommy is very jealous of Randy’s immediate connection with Julie. You see, Tommy didn’t call Julie so Julie dumped Tommy and Tommy didn’t care until he saw Julie with Randy and so Tommy throws Randy out of the party and the whole movie is as teenage soap opera as that suggests.

Also, everyone’s looking for someone else and that includes the people who already have someone. “If I was twenty years younger,” Julie’s dad tells her. That probably didn’t seem creepy in 1983, especially as Steve and Sarah are old hippies who run a health food store. However, Suzi Brent’s stepmum Beth lusting after Skip, a random partygoer, probably did. She’s blatant. He’s a coward. I would not have run from Lee Purcell.

What surprised me was that, after this poor beginning, I started to really dig the movie. It isn’t a great film and it wouldn’t make the top hundred loose adaptations of Romeo and Juliet—and, in case we didn’t notice that, there’s an overt nod to it in a montage scene. However, I stopped hating it and gradually acknowledged how much I was actually enjoying it.

And Nicolas Cage is the majority of that. He starts out goofy and awkward, which initially makes him seem amateur and unworthy, and I didn’t buy him as the hunk the girls lust after—though who I am to judge?—but he is clearly different and that’s important here in a party of pastel clones, Stepford Wives in training.

And he grows as he deepens. His world is on Sunset Boulevard, where he knows everyone. A club there is his home away from home and the only downside is that it’s the Plimsouls as their house band rather than an edgier group from the flyers in the bathroom, like the Circle Jerks. This is safe, the producers much happier with power pop as an edgy alternative to new wave than hardcore punk.

The rise/fall/rise of Julie and Randy isn’t at all surprising but it’s surprisingly endearing. I wonder how much of my connection to it was driven by how little I found any connection to anyone else. Julie always seems a little more mature than her friends and I was never going to be on Tommy’s side, even though he’s more of an asshole than an outright villain.

But I saw Randy as more than just a way out of the valley for Julie. He can be an asshole too but he cares. And maybe that’s what this is to me: the two people in the entire picture who actually care about someone end up with that person, against the odds. And isn’t that what a romcom is supposed to do?

I’d still pick Mrs. Brent though.

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