SXSW Film Review: 'All American High Revisited'
An Eighties high school doc gets another chance at life
By Kate X Messer,
10:00AM, Sun. Mar. 16, 2014
Oh, the white anklets and crew socks, the feathered and poodle-permed hair, the pre-washed and pastel-everything… You couldn't pay many of us who lived through the 1980s the first time to live through them again. But, somehow that damn decade manages to trigger nostalgia gyrations like so many skanking Molly Ringwalds.
It's a time drenched in youth culture allure, especially for kids of subsequent generations, thanks to the 2-D high school portrayals by pop movie makers like John Hughes.
Director Keva Rosenfeld and producer Linda Maron set out in 1983 to document a year in the life of Torrance High in sunny Torrance, California. They gained access that by today's standards might solicit reports to the NSA or have parents crying foul or statutory-something.
Somewhere along the timeline of cinéma vérité/not-so vérité, between An American Family (the ground-breaking 1973 PBS series about SoCal's Loud family) and MTV's The Real World (1992), there is the original All American High, an awesome yearbook-to-the-max, offering privvy peeks into the senior Class of 1984 as it cheered, danced, and partied its way through the typical school year.
The film hones in on the mild culture shock experienced by Finnish exchange student Riikkamari Rauhala, whose keen observations about American high school life say a mouthful about the enticing value-meal combo of American liberty and excess.
Riikki is the stand-in for every late-to-the-party valley girl (especially the ones a generation removed). She's the outsider looking in, who, through friendship with popular girl Lisa, becomes an insider. At first, American culture is totally exotic and bemusing to her: "Here, on a normal, regular school morning, the guys, they wake up earlier to blow dry their hair. In Finland, I don't know any guy who does that," she observes. By year's end, however, she's charmed by and fully integrated into life at Torrance High.
Clearly influenced by cinéma vérité's big man on campus, Frederick Wiseman (his landmark 1968 documentary, High School is about as seminal as seminal reality docs go), Rosenfeld plays the "Pay no attention to the man behind the camera" game well. His 1984 take on high school is celebratory, never condescending (at least toward the kids: The footage of the "Modern Life Styles" mock marriage class was as played for laughs then as it is now).
Rosenfeld gained some serious trust and access – a kegger, Prom at the mall, the post-Prom motel fête, the students' over-all jovial fuck-all attitude toward school and life (as Riikki notes: "I think high school prepares more for social life than work life").
The film does a great job of penetrating the after-school lives of these teens and setting the tone of the day. And as a literal document of the mid-1980s, it deserves a screening in every prop and costume shop in the film world. The pleats, the argyle, the faux Ray-Bans, the keyboard neckties, and those criminally short shorts worn at the time by young men cannot be scrubbed from the eyes once seen.
What the film does not do is in its margins: While the broad divisions of preppies, punks, and "metal-ers" are noted breezily, the film never engages in what we all know to be true about high school life: the cliques, the bullying, the challenges to the status quo, the academic consequences, consequences in general, and class or race issues.
Torrance, California has one of the largest Asian communities in the country; that fact is clear in some of the crowd shots. The reigning cultural hegemony of affluent, white kids might very well have been an intentional point by Rosenfeld, but it still feels like an opportunity missed to right the wrongs of Long Duk Dong.
It's easy to imagine why the film wasn't considered totally bodacious in its original 1987 release. Perhaps it was too soon for the kids of that generation to feel anything but squeamish (OMG for the fashion alone), and was too real-life-risky business for parents or post-college Reaganites clinging to beliefs that their culture wars were producing nice little potential business leaders and nuclear families, not future dystopians or ambivalent party hounds. There is also the media factor: Reality must have had a hard time competing with Facts of Life, Breakfast Club, and 16 Candles.
So, here's the sad truth: After airing a few times in 1987, the documentary sat, un-viewed since, like some back-to-the-future time capsule.
In 2013, after a successful special double-feature screening with friend Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Rosenfeld realized he had a rare gem on his hands. As much as we all glorify the 1980s, the cultural relics most of us construct in our heads are courtesy of TV and movies. For an era at the cusp of the Information Age, precious little actual footage circulates at the rate to which we are accustomed today. No shit: There was no YouTube, no Snapchat, no Insta-anything.
So Rosenfeld took his gem, re-mastered it, and did what any good 1980s filmmaker of teen life would do, he went back and revisited the persons of interest. In typical Eighties high school movie fashion, the film includes a "where are they now," segment. Instead of stuck on at the end in the credits, it's about the last 1/3 of the film and includes scenes of Riikki's family watching the footage together a generation later. Riikki's daughters become to the viewer what Riikki was in the original 1987 footage: the audience's translator and point of insight and understanding.
No matter their own personal politics at the time (the scene of the parent-parroting class discussion on nuclear disarmament is chilling in retrospect), these kids were at the end of an era, of sorts. Life – real and virtual – was only going to get faster and more documented from that point forward. The subjects onscreen had no idea that their unassuming and playful natures would create such stark contrast to "reality" as constructed on television today.
With every page turn of your high school yearbook, it becomes more and more clear that the tome was never intended to accurately document a year in the life of your alma mater. No, the motivation behind that volume is the same as the one behind this film – to trigger memories and emotions through fun visual reminders of your fast times at an all-American high.