Dir: Nancy Savoca, 1991. Starring: River Phoenix, Lili Taylor, Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, Mitchell Whitfield. Drama.

The Four Bs: Birdlace, Berzin, Benjamin, and Buel (aka Oakie). They're teenage Marines who met at boot camp and became friends. It's 1963 and Kennedy is president. A war is unfolding and they've stopped in a small town with a base on the outskirts. By morning, they'll be shipped off to a place they've never heard of called Vietnam. They think they'll be there approximately three months, “take a few names,” and come home unharmed. The naivety of these characters and that of the actual young men who thought the same thing is uncanny and heartbreaking.

Gathering $50 per man, the group decides to have a party of some tradition called a dogfight. The objective of the evening is to rent a nice place and throw a sort of going-away bash. The money is pooled and each guy is supposed to bring a date. The man with the ugliest date wins the pool.

A little dark comedy takes away some of the gloom as the boys try desperately to find the most pitiful girl in town. They spare no one in their beastly and swinish quest, heckling middle-aged and frumpy-looking women specifically. Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix) is lagging and experiencing some discomfiture with the game. He steps into a cafe to get away from it for a while and notices a young waitress on her break. Rose (Lili Taylor) is an aspiring musician and sheepishly distant. Eddie puts on the act of the perfect gentlemen and asks her to come to his party. While Rose is no pin-up, she's a really nice girl, and just when he seems relieved that she's turned down his offer to attend, she accepts. This sequence is followed by my favorite scene, where Rose desperately tries to find an outfit to wear to the party. The look of terror, disappointment, and shame on her face as she puts on several outfits is familiar and tender; do you remember the anxiety of dressing up for something as a teenager?

The two meet and head toward the party, only Rose looks nowhere near shabby now that she's had time to get fixed up. Eddie tries to dissuade her from going, but they attend and she discovers the truth about him and his friends. By now, an unspeakable and hasty bond has formed between the two. Setting her pacifism and transgression toward Eddie aside, Rose finds an odd comfort with him. Eddie experiences a fleeting paradigm shift and a lot of confusion in terms of his feelings for the outspoken Rose. For an evening, she surrenders to the boy underneath the animal, and he to the charm of her crooked smile and raspy voice.

The majority of the movie happens in a single evening, and it is this slow progression that allows you to have empathy and exercise understanding. Though the group of boys are uniformly vile and immature, you remember that they are misguided 18-year olds, presumably on their way to slaughter. And young Rose's outlook on the world as a place that should be without violence is given context and a thrust of reality. These are two characters who needed to meet in order to grow, and therefore our viewing of their circumstance seems essential. I was expecting the movie to be more romantic and tender but actually found it very practical and real. Taylor and Phoenix capture the awkwardness of 1960s youth so well that it's as if you entered a time-warp. These actors built a world and make you feel as though you are intruding upon it. The price to be paid is that you must recall the discomfort of being young and led into a future of uncertainty. Dogfight was a natural and wonderful experience on so many levels, with excellent music and costume design to boot. Truly a period piece not to be missed.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Apr 3, 2011 6:07pm
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