David Seltzer’s Lucas, is quite simply, the best American movie made about adolescence. Sure there are others: Say Anything and Superbad particularly in their own ways contain wisdom about youth atypical of your normal Hollywood producer. But none contained the heartbreak and goodness of youth as well, and portray the set as carefully, as Seltzer did – and Lucas is one of the great movie characters. That this appreciation is being published on the day of the news of Corey Haim’s death is certainly no accident – when I found out, it hit me with a bit more force than I expected. Corey Haim’s life after Lucas was checkered to say the least – and the denouement was as sad as it was inevitable. Haim’s life professionally and personally could never really get back to that shocking start to his career – but now that he is gone, one hopes that the image of him putting on the varsity jacket as he is cheered does not get swamped in the volume of other nonsense.
Lucas, in its writing, Seltzer’s direction, and Haim’s performance, above all, is true. It is true to its core. Lucas is a fourteen year old who looks younger than that. He is accelerated (which makes someone who skipped second grade empathetic), and seems hopelessly out of place in the world of high school and frankly the socially advancing world (a world Seltzer stays resolutely in – in fact we don’t even see Lucas’ home until a crucial sequence late). He also has a smarty pants snobbery about him when he discusses the value system of sports and the false bravado he can conversate with. Sure enough he runs into a girl Maggie (Kerri Green) – and after the requisite contrivance to meet, they hit it off immediately. Here, the movie gets it exactly right. It is not lust, it is not valuation or criteria – they just click in a way that inexperienced love or crushes only can.
But that is not the end of its emotional perfection. While Lucas carries the torch, Maggie, who is a little older (NOT accelerated), is looking up the class scale romantically. While this on its own is not revelatory, that the upperclassmen are not uniformly treated as Cro-Magnon misanthropes is not. Somehow Lucas is not the only kid allowed to be good. Of course he is teased and famously called Lucaplachea by some of his classmates (indeed, that is also a truth of teenage life), but the kids are portrayed as relatively normal. In fact, the football star, in one of Charlie Sheen’s earlier performances, ends up actually being a good guy – a complete flip of the normal script. He turns out to become one of Lucas’ best friends and tries to protect the kid from those making fun of him, and then from total heartbreak when the QB and Maggie end up falling for each other.
What most people remember about Lucas are the triumphant moments – or perhaps how Lucas gets on the football field, which would make the movie seem like a billion other “big game” or cliched teenager movies. However, the football game works dramatically if not realistically – and how the movie gets there is unique. It’s not a “big game” movie in any way – and when Lucas gets to his final vindication … it is one of the best closing scenes in all of filmdom.