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There are some movies that just seem destined to be made for a specific actor. On a bigger scale, it would seem impossible to think of say, Indiana Jones, and not see Harrison Ford as the star, or maybe Rain Man and not Dustin Hoffman. These are iconic roles and films but made so mostly because of the actors who so perfectly captured the characters.
For the 1986 drama Lucas, that actor is of course Corey Haim, and while the film is not exactly on the same level as Indiana Jones and Rain Man of course, it is a movie so tailored to his physique, style and presence he wholly makes Lucas the character his own. So much so that there could be no one else who could possible be Lucas. The film itself is an uncommonly good teen film that diverts far from the tracks of the era’s typical teen romp, save for a few, and paints these young people as genuine interests well worth getting to know. Here’s why.
THE STORY: Directed by David Seltzer, the story follows 14-year-old Lucas Bly (Haim), an accelerated high school student with above average intelligence who likes to observe bugs and listens to classical music. It’s like actual kooties for a kid in school and pushes him far into the peripheral. One summer day comes upon a pretty young girl named Maggie (Kerri Green) playing tennis by herself in the park, and who has just moved to town looking for a friend. Opportunity knocks.
The two bond but Lucas finds himself enamored with the 16-year-old and hopes there is something special between them but when school starts, things change. Lucas is, as always, the target of bullies, save for football star Cappie Roew (Charlie Sheen), a former tormenter who has very specific reasons for coming to Lucas’ aide. When Maggie decides to become a cheerleader in order to get closer to Cappie, it drives Lucas to re-evaluate his stance and actually try to join the football team himself.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: There’s an honesty to Lucas that is rare in films of the genre with bullies that and heroes that feel genuinely-motivated with Lucas the character a wonderfully-realized character that is never contrived or manipulative despite some trapping of the premise that lead to the occasional familiar trope, though even these are handled with great care.
Seltzer, who also wrote the screenplay, is less interested in the usual hyper-realized sexuality and overt characterizations of movie teens and more so in the authentic relationships the school environment affords these young bodies and minds. Keep your eye on Sheen who delivers a sensitive and deeply-affecting portrayal of an athletic star who has great potential to be a villain but is anything but, and even though he has reasons for his empathy of Lucas, we sense that even without that, he’d be a good guy.
Take for instance a moment when Cappie is shirtless (for funny reasons) in the school laundry room alone with Maggie. It’s a scene that could easily have been a forced ploy to get the two attractive people into a sexual situation, as most films might do, but here, is a prolonged moment of deep admiration for each of the characters that creates a bond of affection rather than lust. It’s really good.
A GREAT MOMENT: The film has a number of positive and emotional ups and down with some terrific performances from the entire cast, including Winona Ryder in her screen debut. But this is all about Haim who drives this completely, sinking into the character with great conviction without making him a caricature.
Pay attention to a crucial moment when he discovers Maggie is slipping away from him as she chooses to join the cheerleading squad rather than go tadpoling with Lucas. It take place on the yards in front of the school as the squad is talking to potential recruits. As the meeting breaks, Lucas speaks with Maggie and can’t understand why she would do such a superficial thing while she counters that she just wants to have fun.
Notice what Haim does here, his already small frame leaving him shorter than most in the cast, naturally giving him a smaller presence. To elevate his argument and give him some control, he climbs a small tree as they talk, putting him just above her head, and while it forces her to look up to him, it also, unbeknownst to him, impresses upon us his immaturity, revealing that he is still so very young in a world growing up too fast around him. Haim is simply spot-on in this role and it aches to watch him in moments like this where he gives Lucas such wonderful vulnerability. This moment is really good.
THE TALLY: Lucas is an exceptional rarity in coming-of-age movies, an intelligent and honest film that never panders to its audience. It is populated by “real” people who have an earned place in the story and while each are positioned by the stereotypes of the genre, all work in great unison without ever making it about who they are but rather why they are. It’s smart filmmaking.
There are many rewards in the story and for those who have yet to find this treasure, it’s well worth seeking. While Haim is no longer with us, he did have a number of memorable movies that came to define a short era in the 80s and early 90s, but Lucas will always be his defining role, a movie and a part that seem to have been made just for him. It’s what to watch.