The underrated teen comedy-drama about a lonely, lovelorn nerd turns 35 this year.
As we continue the bleak discourse about how well pop culture of the past has aged (or hasn’t, rather), it’s probably safe to say that the vast majority of 80s comedies aren’t going to hold up to present day scrutiny. Hobbled by casual racism, sexism and homophobia (not to mention rape gags, if you’re Revenge of the Nerds), to watch many of them now is to cringe in discomfort. Teen comedies didn’t often escape it either, as evidenced by the vastly different Porky’s and Sixteen Candles, both of which aged like milk. It’s interesting that the comedies that addressed “dark” subjects, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (abortion) and Heathers (suicide) are the ones that managed to survive relatively unscathed.
Then you have hidden gems like 1986’s Lucas, which offers a different kind of bittersweet viewing experience. It’s the rare 80s teen movie that doesn’t portray boys as slobbering pussyhounds and girls as either sluts or cockteases. The kids in Lucas are remarkably normal, like people you’d have seen rooting around in the locker next to yours in high school. Even the bullies are just big dumb lugs, rather than budding psychopaths. The titular character, played by Corey Haim, could definitely be classified as a “nerd,” but isn’t portrayed in that broad, clownish way familiar to so many movies in the same genre. He’s just a smart, awkward kid whose very specific interests (in this case entomology) set him apart from most of his peers.
While also failing to recognize that his friend, Rina (Winona Ryder, in her feature debut), has a crush on him, Lucas doesn’t know what to do with himself when he develops feelings for Maggie (Kerri Green), an older classmate who’s new in town. Maggie is unfailingly nice to Lucas, but wants to embrace the full high school experience, joining the cheerleading team and dating football star Cappie (Charlie Sheen). Despite the fact that Cappie is also nice to Lucas, and even looks out for him in the face of school bullies, Lucas bristles at what he perceives as Maggie’s betrayal.
Now, it would be fair to say that Lucas railing at the “unfairness” of a girl he likes dating someone else is classic incel behavior. He could have very easily come off as a creep, particularly when he just assumes that Maggie will be his date to a school dance without actually asking her. That he doesn’t isn’t so much due to David Seltzer’s screenplay as it is to Haim’s performance. One of the last times he’d portray a character that couldn’t be summed up with “smirking asshole,” Haim plays Lucas as deeply sad and lonely. As we learn in a third act reveal, he’s essentially raising himself, and Maggie treating him like a normal person, giving him her time and attention, is incredibly powerful.
The kids in Lucas are remarkably normal, like people you’d have seen rooting around in the locker next to yours in high school.
At just fourteen, he hasn’t yet learned that someone can like you, but not like you like you, and that’s just how life is sometimes. It’s practically a rite of passage as a teenager to hold a torch for a friend, and not have them return your feelings in kind. The film makes the smart choice of not ending with Lucas getting what he wants (nor does he get Rina as a sort of “consolation prize”). He’s simply wiser, and hopefully a little less inclined to make assumptions about how people feel about him, good or bad.
There’s also a refreshingly nuanced, unbiased approach to the characters. Lucas is bullied, but he’s not a perpetual victim either. The conflict with Maggie is one he created himself, by failing to take her feelings into consideration. Maggie doesn’t lead him on, unless simply being nice to him is the same thing (which, regrettably, some people believe). At no point is it even implied that Lucas “deserves” to date Maggie, or that Maggie should be punished in some way for turning him down. Nor does it suggest, as did so many 80s teen movies (and too many now), that Lucas would be better off if he tried to be like everyone else. There’s no makeover scene, no moment where he miraculously doesn’t need his glasses anymore. In fact, when he does try to be like the popular kids — in this case, by joining the football team — it results in disaster. The “and everyone clapped” scene at the end may seem a little corny, but it’s a better ending than if Lucas discovered some previously unknown talent for kicking and won the big game.
Mostly, Lucas is a very gentle movie, depicting teenage life as not one of constant parties, fighting with rivals, or going to absurd lengths to try to get laid. Mostly the characters hang out, go to school, and figure out how to deal with the slings and arrows of falling in love (or at least, intense like) for the first time. It’s almost as if Seltzer, who also directed, was actually interested in treating teenagers as real people, rather than objects of titillation or disparagement for adult audiences. It is, as earlier stated, a rare gem.
Not to end this on a bummer note, but to watch Lucas today is to see a sort of tragic trapped in amber moment, before both Corey Haim and Charlie Sheen lost themselves to drug addiction, before Sheen became a grotesque punchline, before Haim died in his mother’s arms at age 38. They’re both so devastatingly young here, actual teenagers playing teenagers. Among many of the accusations Haim’s friend and frequent co-star Corey Feldman has leveled over the years is that Sheen raped Haim on the set of Lucas. It’s impossible to view it outside that shadow, even if Haim himself never made such a claim (not to mention that his mother vehemently denied it), and without remembering that Haim, even at only fourteen, was already on his way to being chewed up by the industry. Mostly, it adds an element of heartbreak to the whole affair, as we watch these two lost boys try to navigate the world, their whole lives in front of them, full of promise and possibility, just getting to act like normal kids.