It's the last summer night before friends Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) are to leave on a plane for college the next morning, and Curt is having reservations about leaving his Californian smalltown home behind. Steve can't believe what he's hearing, and implores him to pull himself together and seize this opportunity. As Steve is going away, he asks the local nerd Terry (Charles Martin Smith), known as Terry the Toad in spite of his protests, to look after his expensive car and Terry is delighted with the responsibility, not being able to wait until he can give up his motor scooter and drive around in a real car. However, he really needs a girl to go with it; Steve on the other hand is in the process of rejecting his childhood sweetheart...
If all George Lucas had directed had been science fiction movies, it would be easy to say he had no feeling for character at all, relying on his actors to bring their roles to life - or not, as the case may have been. Yet there's American Graffiti in his C.V., his first big hit (within the U.S.A., at any rate) and the most human of his films even if it still trades in nostalgia as his Star Wars films did. It may be a catalogue of high spirited adventures over one night in 1962, but a sense of melancholy develops, a sense of lost times that later historical events stole the innocence from.
If it had been made by anyone else, American Graffiti might well have been a brash, gaudy comedy full of dumb jokes and bright colours, but in writer and director Lucas' hands it takes place largely in darkness, and opts for a more realistic approach. Never mind that there's a lot of plot convenience to contrive a story that makes all these things happen in a single evening, you don't think about that until after the film has finished; while it's playing you're just along for the ride, as Debbie (Candy Clark) is when she gets picked up by the somewhat desperate Terry, flattered that he thinks she looks like Connie Stevens.
There are four separate plots going on here, all expertly edited together by Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas under the director's supervision, as Curt notices a beautiful blonde in a car who mouths "I love you" towards him, speeds off, and becomes his obsession for the night, and Steve and girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) fall out when he selfishly suggests that they see other people when they're at college (they're now adults, after all). Meanwhile, the older cool kid John (Paul Le Mat) unintentionally picks up a thirteen year old girl, Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), when he was really looking for someone more mature, and embarrassedly has to explain her presence to anyone who asks by saying he's babysitting.
There are plenty of clever and even touching character moments in the script by Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Hyuck that endear the cast to the viewer, so you don't need to have gone through the experience to enjoy it. Carol shouting "Your car's as ugly as I am!" to would-be racer Harrison Ford, or keen to impress Terry describing himself as being called "Terry the Tiger" are two of many. The film is perhaps now more famous for the careers it launched than on its own terms, but there's a unifying element to the night, and that's the radios blaring out Wolfman Jack's show, with wall to wall oldies, all perfectly chosen, plus he makes an appearance at the end, sort of, to help out the lovelorn Curt. Yet Lucas, as in his other films, tends to rely on the personalities of his cast - who are excellent - to win you over, and there's a feeling he's keeping them at arm's length as if they're subjects of a documentary about a distant, golden era. Followed by a sequel that the epilogue hints at.