For the past week, we’ve been taking a look at 80 of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable films ever made about being a teenager and going to high school. We’ve been posting the reviews in chronological order and now, 30 reviews since we started this series with a film from 1946, we have reached the 1980s, a decade this is often considered to be the golden age of teen films. For our 31st Back To School review, we take a look at 1983’s All The Right Moves.
How did you spend your Labor Day weekend? Me, I spent it visiting with my family down at my uncle’s place. Sunday afternoon, I was laying out by the pool and listening to my cousins Peter Paul and Paul Peter have a conversation. (And yes, I do call both of them “Paulie.”) They were talking about the Dallas Cowboys and I have to admit that I could not understand a word that they were saying. It was like attending a Latin Mass, in that all I could do was hope that I was nodding at the right moment. I can’t help it. Football goes right over my head. I know that the players are trying to score touchdowns and I know that whenever fall and winter come around, everyone I know is going to be complaining about the Cowboys. But that’s it. (I also know that, what we in America call soccer, the rest of the world calls football. But, to be honest, I really don’t care.) Football talk might as well be a secret language.
However, I’m clearly in the minority as far as that’s concerned. America loves football and so does Texas. (Yes, I do consider my home state to be its own independent nation. Take that, Vermont.) And the American film industry has a long tradition of making movies — like All The Right Moves — about football.
In All The Right Moves, Tom Cruise plays Stefan Djordjevic. Stefan lives in a poor town in Pennsylvania and happens to be one of the stars of the Ampipe High School football team. And that’s a pretty good thing because this town is obsessed with football. The proud Coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) is under constant pressure to win and Nickerson responds by pushing all of his players. However, it finally looks like his approach is going to pay for both him and Stefan. Nickerson is being considered for a college coaching job. Meanwhile, Stefan has a chance to get a scholarship to play football in college. Interestingly, Stefan’s ambition is not to play professional football. Instead, he wants to go to a good college so he can get an engineering degree. Stefan’s main fear is to end up like everyone else in the town, working in a steel mill and not having any way to escape from a life of poverty.
All The Right Moves starts out as a standard sports film but, halfway through, it takes an unexpected turn. Ampipe High plays a game against their main rival, Walnut Heights High School. This is the big game. This is the game that most sports movies end with. This is the game that you watch knowing that Nickerson and Stefan will overcome their differences (Nickerson is stubborn, Stefan is cocky) and that they will manage to narrowly win.
Except, of course, Ampipe doesn’t win. As the result of a last minute mistake, Ampipe loses their lead and they lose the big game. Nickerson yells at the team in the locker room. Stefan yells back and Nickerson kicks him off the team. Suddenly, Stefan finds himself with no future. And Nickerson finds himself and his family being targeted by the angry, football-crazed citizens of the town…
For a football movie, All The Right Moves is actually pretty good. Of course, it’s not really about football. It’s about the desperation of people who have found themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty and how something as seemingly inconsequential as the high school football team can become an entire town’s life. It’s about how two stubborn men — Stefan and Nickerson — allow their own fear of being trapped to keep them from thinking and acting rationally.
The film is also distinguished by good performances from Tom Cruise (who, in the same year, would play a much different high school senior in Risky Business), Craig T. Nelson, and Chris Penn (who plays Stefan’s best friend on the team). However, the film’s best performance comes from Lea Thompson, who is so good in the role of Lisa, Stefan’s girlfriend, that you can’t help but wish that the film had been more about her than him. In probably the film’s best scene, she calls out Stefan for being selfish and points out that, regardless of what happens in Stefan’s future, she’s going to be stuck in the town that he’s so desperate to escape from. The scene where she and Stefan make love is sensitively handled and it also features a split-second or so of Tom Cruise full front nudity.
So, there’s always that.
It’s no Risky Business or Fast Times At Ridgemont High but, as far as high school football films are concerned, All The Right Moves is not a bad one.