Movietime: Four Friends

In the final scene of Four Friends, a 1981 coming-of-age comedy-drama-whacko film about four working-class teens in the ’60s, the title characters are gathered around a beach fire on the Lake Michigan shore. It’s several years after high school.  The half-decade or so since already has taken a toll on the now 20somethings in horrible, haunting ways.

fourfriends-posterBut the friends — the dreamer son of a hard-working immigrant, his two buddies and the girl they all adore — are together. They’re still friends. And the world, as painful as it’s been and promises to be, still beckons before them.

GEORGIA: You know what we’ve never done?

DANILO: A lot of things.

GEORGIA: You got it, kiddo.

I am, unapologetically, an absolute sucker for an upbeat ending in a movie. I can appreciate a non-traditional finish — hey, how about that Thanos in that last Avengers movie, eh? — but, if it’s done right, an ending that leaves you smiling after a couple hours of sitting in the dark is way better than one that has you bummed or confused or sorry that you didn’t get a third drink refill and another gallon of popcorn to make it worth your while.

Four Friends was written by Steve Tesich, who had won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1979 for Best Picture nominee Breaking Away. Tesich was born in Yugoslavia, so stories of immigrants and hard-working fathers and the American dream run deeply through both of these films. (Although, in Breaking Away, the main character only pretends, hilariously so, to be Italian. Paul Dooley, as the beleaguered father, is awesome in that movie.)

You won’t see Four Friends on TV. I’m not sure it’s ever been on TV. (I remember reading once about a feud between the distributors and somebody that has kept it off the small screen forever.) It’s not a widely known film. It was reviewed well at the time of its release — Roger Ebert said “this is a movie that remembers times past with such clarity that there are times it seems to be making it all up” — but it didn’t make much of a box-office dent.

I watched it the other day — I scraped up a DVD from somewhere years ago — and found it just as weird and as funny and as poignant as I remember. There’s a fight scene late in the movie that is both unexpected and gloriously ridiculous. Jodi Thelen is wonderfully, beautifully goofy as the dance-happy Georgia. Reed Birney as Danilo’s college roommate is great.

Four Friends has scenes in it — the fight, a posh wedding, Georgia at a wild party in the city, especially — that are shocking. Some will love those scenes. Some will not. The film has aged so that some of it now seems a bit trite, cliché, definitely a bit too made up. It’s corny in parts, predictable in others. It’s not a great movie.

But when it’s at its best, it plucks at memories of high school friendships and the unbreakable ties of struggling, proud families, reigniting that feeling we all had when the world was still new and the possibilities still endless.

The movie is especially notable, now, for its unapologetic portrayal of America through the eyes of its young immigrant main character (Wasson). Danilo sees the country for all that it is but, throughout the movie, celebrates it for all that it can be, too. It’s a movie of the late ’70s about the ’60s that, in that way, rings totally true in the 21st century.

Wasson had a spotty career as an actor after his starring role here (though he did headline the 1984 Brian DePalma thriller Body Double). Thelen’s Georgia was so quirky good, I think, that the portrayal may have hurt her career. She had a bit part in The Wedding Singer and has a part in the Showtime reboot of Twin Peaks, but nothing much in between.

Tesich died at 53 of a heart attack in 1996. Four Friends was maybe the last big movie for director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man). He died in 2010.

It’s going way overboard to call Four Friends a classic. It’s not. But it’s worth the watch. As corny as it may seem at times, it’s certainly worth celebrating friends, family and the American dream. Especially in these times.


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