My favorite back-to-school movie is Lucas. Filmed in the Chicago area in 1985, it was released in 1986 to generally favorable reviews. The movie stars Corey Haim in the title role and includes Kerri Green, Winona Ryder, and Charlie Sheen. This discussion of Lucas will contain **many spoilers** so, if you haven’t seen the film, you might want to stop reading now.

Lucas Bly is a high school student with much intelligence and a deep interest in nature. He is smaller than his classmates, perhaps because he was accelerated a year or two in elementary school. He scorns the superficial aspects of high school social life, including football and cheerleading. During the summer he befriends a girl, Maggie, who is new to the area. She likes Lucas and appreciates his attention, but once school begins she wants to fit in with her surroundings. She joins the cheerleading squad and, by the middle of the movie, she is dating a football player, Cappie, who happens to be the only athlete in the school who does not either bully or ignore Lucas.

I attended high school in the Chicago area, and I can affirm that Lucas shows what life was really like at that time and place. Bullies were bullies, the student body was divided into cliques, and school life seemed more oriented around sports than around scholastic achievement or the fine arts. My high school expected to win football and basketball games until we were overpowered by much bigger and wealthier school districts (represented in the movie by Rockford High School). Along with the scenes inside the school, the outdoor scenes also ring true, especially those set by the tracks of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.

Lucas attempts the hopeless quest of joining the football team, dreaming that he can win Maggie’s affection away from Cappie. Of course the coach has no intention of allowing Lucas onto the team. When Lucas insists upon his legal right to be allowed to participate in school athletics, he is sent to the principal, who demands a note from Lucas’ father giving permission for Lucas to try out for football. Lucas is stymied, since his father will have nothing to do with the school. However, on the Saturday of the home game against Rockford, Lucas sneaks into the locker room after the game has started, suits up, and trots out to the field. When Lucas badmouths the coach (whose team is already losing badly), the coach decides to teach Lucas a lesson—he sends him out to the field for one play. Lucas is of course knocked to the ground, but he is determined and will not leave the field. The next play develops badly, Lucas runs alone downfield, and he has an opportunity to become the hero of the game.

Some people complain about the key scene, which is that one football play. Their complaints overlook the fact that everything that is wrong about that play fits the rest of the movie’s plot. The football coach is incompetent—he probably has not drilled into the quarterback that one football play cannot have two forward passes. The referees probably did whistle the play dead when the second, illegal, pass was thrown, but given the crowd noise, the whistles are not heard, especially downfield. Lucas drops the pass—even if it were a legal pass, it would be incomplete, and the play should be whistled dead. One of Rockford’s players grabs the loose ball and runs with it, which is exactly what good defenses are trained to do. Lucas has never been taught the rules of football, so naturally he tries to tackle the opposing player with the ball. In the pile-up that results, Lucas is knocked unconscious.

He recovers in the hospital, with Maggie sitting by his side. No, she is not his girlfriend now, but as a friend she is concerned for him. A few days later, Lucas is able to return to school. He is uncomfortable at first, as his fellow students are all staring at him. When he opens his locker, he finds a school jacket hanging inside. The football players who once bullied him now lead the other students in the hallway in applauding Lucas for his strong if pointless determination.

I first saw this movie in a one-dollar theater in the summer of 1986. I was in the Chicago area at the time. The Chicago Bears had won the Superbowl in January of 1986—after the movie was filmed, but before it was released. Football fans will remember that Chicago had a rookie defensive lineman named William Perry, nicknamed the Refrigerator because of his size and weight. The Bears’ defense coach called Perry “a wasted draft pick,” but Perry unexpectedly became an offensive star for the Bears. Coach Ditka used him late in one game as a running back, intending only to maintain possession of the ball without risking his star backs. Instead, Perry showed that, because of his size, he could advance the ball against the defense. Soon Coach Ditka was sending Perry into the game on goal-line situations, and the “wasted draft pick” was scoring touchdowns. He became a hero, along with his more experienced and more talented teammates. His jersey, number 72, was a best-selling item in Chicago area stores all that season and through 1986.

When Lucas snuck into the locker room and suited up, he happened to choose jersey number 72. (Remember, this was filmed before the Bears’ football season had started.) The Chicago area residents in the theater laughed and applauded when undersized Lucas trotted onto the field with William Perry’s number on his back. That remains one of my most vivid memories of watching a film in a movie theater. J.


Five more back-to-school movies

Breakfast Club (1985): In this movie, John Hughes gets it right. Five high school students in a wealthy Chicago suburb are forced to serve detention in the school library on a Saturday. Like many other John Hughes movies, this movie portrays the stereotypes associated with teenagers in the 1980s. Unlike other John Hughes movies, the students address and challenge these stereotypes. All five of these students could have attended my high school, and the assistant principal and custodian would also have blended into the scene. When I want to remember what high school was really like, this is one of the two movies I choose to watch.

But, before I go on, I do have one comment. John Bender is being punished for pulling the fire alarm. Andrew assaulted a classmate in the locker room. Brian had a flare gun go off in his locker. (He was planning to kill himself because he got an F in shop class.) Claire ditched school to go shopping. Allison says that she came only because she had nothing better to do, but in another scene she says she is a compulsive liar. What do you think is her true story? Might there be a clue in the opening credits?

St. Elmo’s Fire (1985): This movie also portrays college graduates, although in this case the characters are in the autumn right after their graduation from Georgetown University, each trying to find his or her own way in the post-college professional world. All seven of them are spoiled and whiny, yet for all that their problems are real and their efforts to handle their problems are real.

I have one question: What career is Leslie (Ally Sheedy) pursuing? It’s important that she succeed at her career before she marries Alex, but just what is she doing? Architecture? Interior design? Some key scene or dialogue must have been cut from the movie.

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986): This is a time-travel movie with much more depth and subtlety than the Back to the Future franchise. At her twenty-fifth high school reunion, Peggy Sue is somehow swept back into her high school self, though possessing all the memories and emotions of her adult life. Some memories she is glad to relive, others frighten or distress her, and she discovers some things about her life and surroundings she had not noticed as a high school student. Kathleen Turner plays the complex Peggy Sue character convincingly, her once and future husband is played equally well by Nicholas Cage, and much of the rest of the cast also succeeds, including a young Jim Carrey.

Lucas (1986): This is the other movie I watch when I want to remember what high school was really like. The title character is a nerd, scientifically brilliant, but the object of ridicule from most of the athletes in the student body. He befriends a new girl in town, but soon she is on the cheerleading squad and dating a football player. Lucas tries to reinvent himself to gain her attention. In the near future, I will write a lengthy, spoiler-filled, review of this movie. Suffice it to say that many scenes from this movie put me right back in high school again, for better or for worse.

Dead Poets Society (1989): I attended twelve years of public school before going off to college, so I cannot exactly relate to the rich young men in an exclusive east-coast boarding school designed to prepare them for success in college and in their careers. In fact, I relate much more to the teacher, played by Robin Williams, who challenges the students to think for themselves in an environment that presses them to conform and to stifle individuality. More than Aladdin or Mrs. Doubtfire, this is the movie that comes to mind when I think of Robin Williams—not least because this movie also deals with the tragedy of suicide. Dead Poets Society is beautifully filmed, and the ending is as haunting as any final scene of any movie I can remember.

By the way, yesterday and today’s posts were created and posted from a computer I am still struggling to use, given this week’s update to Windows 10. J.