The movie takes place on a single night in 1962, immediately before two good friends, Curt (Richard Dreyfus) and Steve (Ron Howard), are about to leave for college. Curt and Steve are facing enormous changes and they are both scared and excited. Although the film is nostalgic in tone (based on the memories of director George Lucas), it is clear the country is on the brink of enormous (and tumultuous) changes, too.
Most of the episodic plot centers on kids driving around and interacting with each other. Curt and Steve stop by the high school dance. Curt’s sister, Laurie, is Steve’s girlfriend, and is very concerned about losing him when he goes away. Steve tells his friend Terry “the Toad” (Charles Martin Smith) that he can use Steve’s car when he goes to college, and Terry spends the night driving around, feeling powerful and exciting. He meets Debbie (Candy Clark), a pretty, if slightly dimwitted, girl, and is thrilled when she agrees to ride with him. But the car gets stolen, and he has a frantic time getting it back.
The boys have another friend, John Milner (Paul Le Mat), who is a hotrod champion. When he tries to get some pretty girls to ride with him, they send a bratty thirteen-year-old (Mackenzie Phillips) to get in his car instead. John gets challenged by a tough guy named Bob (Harrison Ford). Laurie, angry with Steve, agrees to ride with Bob in the race.
Curt spends the night in search of a mysterious blonde (Suzanne Somers), who whispered “I love you” to him from her car. He finally goes to see Wolfman Jack, the DJ all the kids listen to, to ask for help. John wins the race, but Bob’s car crashes. Steve realizes he cannot leave Laurie, and promises to stay and attend the community college. Curt finally leaves, his radio on his lap as the plane takes off. He listens until the sound disappears in static.
This brilliant and highly influential film (almost everyone connected with it became a star) provides a good opportunity for talking about some of the feelings teenagers have as they move into adulthood.
Curt is deeply conflicted between his big dreams and his fear of leaving home. But it is Steve who discovers he is not ready to leave. Although he tries to break his ties to home by telling Laurie he plans to date other people and giving his car to Terry, when Laurie is almost killed in the drag race he sees how much he cares for her. Thoughtful older teens may like to speculate about the symbolism of the mysterious blonde in the white Thunderbird, and the guidance from Wolfman Jack.
Families should talk about why Curt is so ambivalent about leaving. What does Curt’s ex-girlfriend’s teasing tell you about him? Why is Laurie afraid to let Steve go? Why does Laurie ride with Bob? Who is she hurting? Why does the movie end by telling you what happens to those characters in the future?
Don’t waste time on the sequel,