On ‘American Graffiti’ and Having the Courage to Leave Our Comfort Zones

In Classic Film Throwback Series, Featured, Reviews, Sam Hendrian by Samuel Hendrian

This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series

– By Sam Hendrian –

Spoilers Below

Before there was Luke Skywalker, there was Curt Henderson. Ring a bell? Probably not. He is the ordinary but immensely relatable young man at the heart of American Graffiti, George Lucas’s first hit film that came out four years before Star Wars. A fun, episodic, tune-filled tale of youth in the early 1960s, it offers an insightful and ultimately moving reflection on the fleeting bliss of innocence and the great courage it takes for a person to leave her or his comfort zone to fulfill a greater purpose.

“Put your glad rags on and join me, hon/We’ll have some fun when the clock strikes one/We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight/We’re gonna rock, rock, rock, ‘til broad daylight/We’re gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight.”

Ah, the life of a teenager. These lyrics of the classic rock song that plays at the beginning of American Graffiti effectively convey the innate desire of most young people: to have a good time as long as possible. We meet four such young people before the song concludes; their names are Steve (Ron Howard), Terry (Charles Martin Smith), John (Paul Le Mat), and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss). While they all have different life goals, they are all united in their enjoyment of puerile pleasures (cruisin’ the streets, chasing girls) and fear of impending adult responsibilities.

While about equal time is spent on each character’s story, it is Curt who undergoes the most growth and gives the film its thematic shape. He and his buddy Steve are both leaving for college out East in the morning, and he is starting to have significant doubts about flying away from the nest. “It doesn’t make sense to leave home to look for home, to give up a life to find a new life, to say goodbye to friends you love to find new friends,” his sister quotes him as saying. His mind knows that he needs to grow up and move on to bigger and better things than street-cruising and girl-chasing, but his heart is overwhelmed by acute sentimentality and a longing for childhood to last forever.

Curt’s doubts about whether or not he should actually leave home in the morning are further complicated when he sees a beautiful blonde woman seem to mouth “I love you” to him from inside of a car. “Someone wants me! Someone roaming the streets wants me!” he exclaims excitedly. While Curt knows that he will probably never see this beautiful girl again, he entertains the fantasy of her possibly being his soulmate sent from heaven, and the idea of staying home and searching for her seems much more exciting than leaving home and venturing into the murky unknown of college life.

Meanwhile, Curt’s friend Steve claims he is quite ready to fly the coop and start his college adventure. While he is sad that he will be away from his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams), he is enticed by the idea of dating beautiful college women. “I thought, maybe before I leave, we could agree that… that seeing other people while I’m away can’t possibly hurt, you know,” he tells Laurie in a manipulatively jubilant tone. “I think it would strengthen our relationship. Then we’d know for sure that we’re really in love. Not that there’s any doubt.” These humorously illogical and immature words brilliantly characterize not only Steve, but many young people who do not yet understand the beauty and purpose of romantic commitment.

Terry, or “The Toad” as he is nicknamed by his friends, is not yet college-bound and still has some time to savor his childhood innocence and immaturity. Steve lends him his car, and he wastes no time in showing it off and using it to impress a somewhat dull-witted but delightfully spunky blonde girl named Debbie (Candy Clark). He and Candy stumble around town together, drinking booze that they acquire with the help of a thief and attempting a backseat sexual encounter that goes awkwardly wrong due to their mutual clumsiness. It is in their story that the distinct difference between innocence and immaturity is most clearly delineated. While both Terry and Debbie are ultimately innocent souls with good intentions, they also possess a significant immaturity that blinds them from seeing the importance of temperance and the true purpose of sexuality. Fortunately, Terry experiences the consequences of his drinking in a steady slew of vomiting fits, and both he and Debbie are made quite uncomfortable by their awkward backseat encounter, so there is hope that they are on an upward path to maturity.

John Milton is the charming town troublemaker and street-racer. A bit older than the other boys, he has a significant Peter Pan complex that has compelled him to stay home and do whatever it takes to be a fun-loving teenager forever. When Curt is expressing his doubts about leaving home to Steve, Steve uses John as an example of what will happen if he does not fly the nest: “You wanna end up like John? You just can’t stay 17 forever!” One of John’s favorite pastimes is driving down the town’s main street in his fancy car and looking for pretty girls who might want to take a ride with him, and he happens to end up with a feisty thirteen-year-old girl named Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) in the front seat when he leans out the car window and tells a car full of girls that any of them are welcome to come ride with him.

John tries to kick Carol out of the car, telling her that she is much too young for him, but she refuses. They cruise around town together for a while until John can convince her to tell him where she lives so that he can drop her off. It is in the exchanges between John and Carol that we see the charming innocence and sweetness that lies underneath John’s “tough guy” facade. He sort-of becomes like the big brother Carol never had, and when he finally drops her off at her house and humors her with a kiss on the cheek, we see a tenderness and endearing vulnerability in his eyes that we have never seen before. John may be the most immature character in the film, but he is also ultimately the most innocent, and the memory of this innocence pierces the heart when a closing title card reveals that he is killed by a drunk driver two years after the events of the film.

While we catch insightful glimpses of all the teenaged characters as we go back and forth among their different stories, Curt Henderson is the central focus of the film’s final moments as he becomes more and more convicted that he does not want to leave for college in the morning. Having been searching in vain all night for the dream girl he saw who seemed to say “I love you,’ he goes to the headquarters of the legendary disc jockey Wolfman Jack to ask him to relay a dedication over the radio to the mysterious girl. The man he encounters there claims that The Wolfman is not around at the moment, even though he of course is secretly the real deal.  Not caring whether he is talking to the real Wolfman or not, Curt pleads, “I may be leaving town tomorrow, and it’s very important that I… damn it, that I reach this girl right now.” The Wolfman gently asks, “You don’t know whether you’re going to leave town or not?” Curt replies, “Well, I’m supposed to go to college back East tomorrow, and I don’t know if I’m going to go. I don’t know.” The sage DJ then comes back with subtle but inspiring words of wisdom about why Curt most definitely ought to leave for college in the morning:

“I can’t talk for The Wolfman, but I can tell you one thing. If The Wolfman was here, he would say, ‘Get your ass in gear.’ The Wolfman comes in here occasionally bringing tapes, you know, to check up on me and what not. And the places he talks about that he’s been, the things he’s seen… There’s a great big beautiful world out there. And here I sit, sucking on popsicles.”

While The Wolfman has a comfortable life, he does not want Curt to end up like him. He wants him to leap beyond his comfort zone and explore the great big beautiful world, to find out who he was meant to be and what his greater purpose in life is. Yes, to leave the comforts of home takes great courage, but The Wolfman believes that Curt has this courage inside of him, and as Curt leaves the disc jockey’s headquarters, he begins to think he might be right.

To Curt’s delight, The Wolfman relays his dedication to the mysterious blonde on the radio, and she calls him on a public telephone at sunrise. Curt is thrilled to hear her say that she knows him, and he asks excitedly, “Who are you? How do you know me?” She replies in a sultry voice, “It’s not important.” Curt is not satisfied with this answer, and he comes back, “It’s important to me! You’re the most beautiful, exciting thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and I don’t know anything about you. Could we meet someplace?” Then comes the wake-up call: “I cruise Third Street every night. Maybe I’ll see you again tonight.” Curt suddenly realizes that connecting with this woman is not meant to be. She is an enchanting Siren singing to him so that he will stay home and drown in mundanity, but the wise words of Wolfman Jack are still fresh in his mind, and he knows that he just has to venture out into the great big beautiful world and discover his greater purpose in life. Hanging up soon after, Curt puts his fantasy behind him and finally musters the courage to get on the plane for college.

Throughout the whole film, Curt wrestles with fears of adulthood and doubts about leaving his childhood behind, but in the end, he stands triumphant as he says farewell to his family and friends and boldly begins the first adventure of his adult life. His buddy Steve got cold feet last minute and has decided to stay home for another year to be with his girlfriend, and Terry and John have no plans of leaving home soon. All boys are united in a gleeful innocence and love for life, but only Curt has the courage to harness this innocence and joie de vivre and take it beyond the comforts of home. As he stares out the plane window in the film’s second-to-last shot, there is a hope and excitement in his eyes that shows he is quite ready to leave his childhood life behind and embrace the independence of adulthood.

American Graffiti is an amusing, relatable, and ultimately beautiful movie that skillfully depicts the courage it takes to leave home for the first time and masterfully paints an effective portrait of the uneven blend of innocence and immaturity that is the teenager. Like Luke Skywalker, Curt Henderson is just an ordinary kid who longs for excitement in life, an excitement he initially hopes to find by pursuing the mysterious blonde woman but that he ultimately finds in taking a bold first step towards the great big beautiful world beyond home. Wherever we are in life, we all can learn from Curt’s courage and venture out of our comfort zones to discover the ways we are being called to live richer and more fulfilling lives.

About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.