The 1978 film, Corvette Summer, tells the story of Kenny Dantley (Mark Hamill).
Kenny is a student at a high school in Southern California. He lives in a trailer park and he’s kind of dumb. He’s the type who rarely shows up to class and, when he does, it’s just to discover that he managed to score a D-minus on his last test. Kenny doesn’t think school’s important, though. All Kenny cares about is cars. He doesn’t date. He doesn’t have friends. But he can rebuild a corvette and spend hours talking about why it’s the greatest car in the world.
Yes, Kenny’s an idiot.
Kenny’s auto shop teacher, Mr. McGrath (Eugne Roche), warns Kenny that he’s spending too much obsessing on cars. Don’t fall in love with a car, Mr. McGrath says. A car is just a machine and a machine will always let you down. A machine is something that you build so you can sell it and move on to something else. To me, Mr. McGrath makes sense but Kenny’s like, “No, that’s totally squaresville. Real melvin, man.”
(Well, okay, Kenny doesn’t use those exact words but you can tell that he’s thinking them…..)
Anyway, Kenny and the shop class have just rebuilt a red corvette and Kenny’s convinced that it’s the greatest car ever. However, on the same night that the car makes its debut by cruising down the streets of Kenny’s hometown, it’s stolen! Maybe Kenny shouldn’t have given the keys to Danny Bonaduce. Kenny gets so angry that he smashes a cup of coke and attempts to beat up Bonaduce.
Mr. McGrath tells Kenny that these things happen and he suggests that Kenny instead look into enrolling at a community college after high school. Kenny, however, is too obsessed with finding his car to listen to Mr. McGrath. He even prints up flyers with a picture of the corvette. “Have you seen this car?” the flyers ask. Amazingly, it turns out that someone has. He tells Kenny that he saw the corvette in Las Vegas.
That’s all it takes for Kenny to head to Nevada. Of course, since Kenny doesn’t have a car, he has to hitchhiker. Despite the fact that Kenny looks like a killer hippie and tends to spend a lot of time yelling in a somewhat shrill manner, he’s picked up by Vanessa (Annie Potts). Vanessa is an “aspiring prostitute” who lives in a van. “Vanessa” is written on the side of the van, which means that it will be useless if anyone ever needs to use it as a getaway vehicle for a bank robbery. Way to go, Vanessa.
Once they arrives in Las Vegas, Kenny and Vanessa work a series of different jobs while looking for that corvette. Along the way, Kenny falls in love, discovers that there’s more to life than just cars, and also suffers a bit of disillusionment when one of his mentors turns out to be not as perfect as Kenny originally believed.
Corvette Summer is best known for being Mark Hamill’s first post-Star Wars role. He’s in almost every scene of the film and, to be honest, his performance kind of got on my nerves. Some of that is because, as written, Kenny is almost unbelievably stupid. But Hamill doesn’t help things by giving a rather shrill performance in the lead role. Though the film may be a coming-of-age comedy, Hamill is so intense in the role that he comes across as being less like a naive teenager and more like a mentally unbalanced time bomb. You find yourself hoping that he’ll get the car back before he’s forced to take hostages. Annie Potts is a bit more likable as Vanessa but her character is dreadfully inconsistent. One gets the feeling that she’s mostly just there so that Kenny can finally lose his virginity and be a little bit less of a loser by the end of the movie.
I will say that I did really like the performance of Kim Milford, who plays a superslick car thief named Wayne Lowry. As I watched the film, it took me a few minutes to realize where I recognized Milford from. He was the star of Laserblast, a film that featured Milford finding a laser gun and using it to blow up a sign advertising Star Wars. Milford only has a small role in Corvette Summer and we’re not supposed to like him but he’s so handsome and sure-of-himself that it’s hard not to prefer him to the rather histrionic character played by Mark Hamill.
Corvette Summer is such a film of the 70s that watching it is like stepping into a time machine. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Indeed, in 2020, the main appeal of a film like this is a chance to see how people lived in 1978. (It’s always a bit odd to watch a movie where no one carries a phone or has a twitter account.) Watching this film in 2020, it’s hard not cringe a little at the sight of not only Kenny hitchhiking but also people stopping to pick him up. Seriously, are they just trying to get killed?