I love Shakespeare-adaptation films that were clearly conceived by producers who never read more than the Sparknotes in high school — movies set in modern times with tangled romantic subplots that just barely seem to echo the old stories of the Bard.
There’s “O,” (2001), which turned Othello into a basketball player; “10 Things I Hate About You,” (1999), a classic, more-or-less sexism-free high-school adaptation of “Taming of the Shrew”; “My Own Private Idaho,” (1991), in which Gus Van Sant sticks scenes from “Henry IV” into the streets of the Pacific Northwest; and there’s the criminally underrated “Get Over It” (2001), featuring a high school’s musical adaptation of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (please watch “Get Over It” soon).
These films all take the skeletons of time-tested, classic stories and give them new personalities, new details and updated jokes. They work because they play with the formula yet still give audiences exactly what they’ve always wanted — love, betrayal and slapstick comedy.
But before any of these movies, there was Martha Coolidge’s 1983 low-budget rom-com “Valley Girl,” which is like “Romeo and Juliet” only in the sense that two people who are different fall in love and one’s friends don’t really approve. Nobody even dies, man.
More than just one in a long list of “R&J” retreads, though, “Valley Girl” is one of the greatest underdog successes in film history. Coolidge was given a mere $350,000 to make the film, with the stipulation that there be multiple scenes with bare breasts, and somehow, she turned in a commercial smash and work of art that’s still worth watching today.
The plot is one of the oldest stories ever told. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Contrivances break boy and girl apart. Boy wins back girl. In this case, the boy is Randy (Nicolas Cage, believe it or not), and the girl is Julie (Deborah Foreman, best known for roles in some minor, cult-ish ’80s flicks). Randy is a punk from Hollywood. Julie is an OG Valley Girl. Julie’s friends don’t like Randy, which means she has to choose between him and them.
Coolidge, who also made “Real Genius,” perhaps the best-ever college-prankster film outside of “Animal House,” has a special knack for working within limitations of both genre and budget without succumbing to cheap gimmicks or tired clichés. Of course, we know the entire plot of “Valley Girl” the moment Randy and Julie lock eyes for the first time, but the world of these characters is portrayed in such a thrillingly engrossing way that plot doesn’t matter.
The entire first act, for instance, is reminiscent of a Richard Linklater film —even though “Valley Girl” was released over half a decade before “Slacker” hit screens. The opening scene with Julie and her friends at the mall is entirely in “Valleyspeak,” with characters throwing back and forth recently popularized phrases like “to the max,” “far out” and “gag me!” with authentic inflection. Immediately, we’re let into these girls’ lives in a way that feels as natural as a movie can be.
We then move to a party, which is where Randy and Julie first talk, but special care is taken to ensure that we’re at least a small part of every attendee’s conversation, even if they’re inessential to the main story. And when Randy gets thrown out of the party and has to sneak back in, he doesn’t immediately reunite with Julie. Instead, we’re treated to a long sequence of Cage looking bored in a shower as he listens to the other couples flirt and get high. Maybe these scenes were all shot just because they were cheaper than anything with action, but they give “Valley Girl” a unique, lived-in, almost cinéma vérité style.
Randy proceeds to take Julie on a beautiful tour of downtown L.A., where their perfect chemistry doesn’t fizzle out, even in the face of unfamiliar, intimidating (for Julie) sights. The shots of their driving tour of the city at night are stunning, with landmarks like the Chinese Theater captured alongside burlesque clubs, diners and a guy getting pulled over by a cop. It’s not often that a rom-com has a strong sense of geography — most of them take place in New York or just any generic city — but “Valley Girl” owns Los Angeles, making any viewer who has never been still feel like a local. (Meanwhile, Cage keeps hilariously yelling nonsense out the car at random people on the street: “Rico! Nah, you didn’t do that!”)
When I saw Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” this year, the scene that most stood out to me was early on, when five baseball teammates were simply driving and rapping along to the The Sugarhill Gang. It’s perfectly sweet, and no other director, I thought, would linger that long on kids just listening to a song.
But Coolidge takes care to show her characters just hanging out, and that includes Julie and her friends lipsyncing to Bonnie Hayes’s “Girls Like Me.” It’s a fraction of the length of the Linklater sequence, but that moment kicks off one of the strongest scenes of the film — a simple slumber party where the girls talk about eating, boys and little siblings, with rapid-fire dialogue that somehow avoids being too smart or overwritten while also remaining engaging. It’s so intimate that I almost feel guilty watching it — like I’m violating the characters’ privacy.
Foreseeing the independent films of the next decade, Coolidge approaches her subjects like a sociologist — studying what they do while not forcing them into any contrived problems. The conflict of “Valley Girl” is the same conflict every high school junior has: “Who am I?” The director understands teenagers in a way few artists do. They don’t have clear motives; they’re not always consistent personalities. They’re just trying to learn and do what feels right.
Coolidge’s tremendous empathy for all of her characters is perhaps best exemplified by the roles of Julie’s parents. In most any other teen movie, parents are antagonists, whether they’re well meaning or not. They ground the kid or force them to do homework or forbid them to attend the party, and it’s up to the protagonist to work around the obstacles they lay down. However, in “Valley Girl,” Julie’s parents are fully developed people — members of the Woodstock generation who run a health food restaurant and try to give their daughter as much space and freedom as possible.
Her dad in particular steals his scenes, both as a solid advice-giver and, more comically, a guy who has to retreat to the bathroom to smoke a joint when it really hits him that his daughter is growing up. Together, amid all the hormones and confusion of the younger characters, Julie’s parents remind us that growing up and figuring out the world is a process we never completely finish.
Also notable in “Valley Girl” is a decided lack of cruelty. As Roger Ebert noted in his review at the time, “This is one of the rare Teenager Movies that doesn’t try to get laughs by insulting and embarrassing teenage girls.” It’s clear that Coolidge sees how to make the best possible versions of what could be painfully awful movies, and she challenges herself to go above and beyond what’s expected of a micro-budgeted exploitation movie called “Valley Girl.”
The soundtrack is unbelievable, filled with classic ’80s songs before they got tired out and some weird, exciting deep cuts. First of all, the rich kids’ party is filled with this weird, seemingly Joy Division-influenced post-punk that everyone loves to dance to in the dorkiest ways. If that scene is true to life, I’m super jealous. Beyond that, the prom is played by Josie Cotton, who sings the minor new-wave hit “Johnny, Are You Queer?” I don’t know about you, but I didn’t hear anything that provocative at my prom (well, maybe “Get Low”).
And most memorably, there is a literal three-minute falling-in-love montage set to Modern English’s then-new “I Melt with You,” which, coupled with cute moments of Randy and Julie around town, is earnest and endearing enough to improbably give that song new life for me.
Of course, there are still flaws in this movie. Cage, while charmingly goofy and bright-eyed with love, plays his “punk” character more like The Fonz than anyone who would truly seem dangerous. When the plot wheels actually do spin, they feel unnatural and rushed. But even so, I want to put “Valley Girl” in the lineage of films that brilliantly capture young people trying to figure out love, identity and what they want for the future — from “Boyhood” to “Mean Girls” to “Clueless,” all the way back to when “The Graduate” practically reinvented cinema.
The last shot of the film is, in fact, a direct invocation of “The Graduate” ’s famous ending, in which Hoffman and his bride are beaming in the back of the bus post-wedding. Like any other high school movie, “Valley Girl” climaxes with a prom scene, one that Randy disrupts to get Julie back, setting off a hilariously overdramatic fist fight and then food fight.
Busting out of the gym, the couple hops in a limo and leaves for a hotel. They sit in the back seat, exhausted and high on endorphins. More than likely, this is a moment they’ll look back on with embarrassed nostalgia, after they’ve had other relationships and made more mistakes. But right now, this is the most thrilling night of their lives, and we’re right there with them.