All American High Revisited – A Review

The 198384 school year at Torrance High in Torrance, Cal., is chronicled in this flawed but fun documentary, which—as All American High—played the 1987 Sundance Film Festival and several lesser film festivals, plus popped up at various movie theaters across the U.S. paired with the short Drive-In Blues. The following year, it also appeared on PBS. Though it earned plenty of plaudits along the way, it made much less of a splash than the similarly themed Seventeen, which charted the 198081 school year at Southside High School in working-class Muncie, Ind., and eventually faded away.

In the hour film, the high-school experience is seen through the eyes of Finnish exchange student Rikki Rauhala, a personable young woman who quickly realizes that, unlike back home, American high school—at least for the crowd she falls in with—is more about socialization than education. Pep rallies, beer bashes and a school dance held in a shopping mall are among the festivities she enjoys, along with her first football game—though her eyes remain on the cheerleaders throughout, as she only previously saw cheer squads in the movies and on TV. She’s also bemused by American slang, our penchant for profanities, and how appearance’s sake leads some girls to pursue boyfriends.

The documentary also delves into the peculiarities of Torrance High itself, which had its own video/pinball arcade (!) and classes devoted to “Modern Lifestyles,” surfing and other things that were foreign to students in my suburban Philadelphia high school during my 198283 senior year. (We did, however, have a “smoking patio” for a time.) 

None of the featured kids seemingly fret about grades or post-school life. They’re presented as if they live in the now through graduation, when a glimpse of what the film could have been comes into view: A teacher spots a student not wearing a shirt and tie beneath his graduation gown and questions whether he could afford them. She even says she’d have bought them for him if she’d known. Was he not from money? Early in the film, Rikki calls Torrance High a “wealthy school.” Is it? Or is that just her perception? We’re never told. Later, she notes that the assumption for prom is that couples will arrive in a limo shared with another couple—but then we see her and her date arrive in an old Mazda. Knowing the socio-economic makeup of the school’s community would have been good to know.

It could have made the film more interesting, as well, if it had broached the difficult subject of race alongside that of privilege. Instead, it skates by such things as if they don’t exist. Reagan-era high-school life is basically presented as a never-ending party. 

That said, the Revisited portion of All American High, aka the final 30 minutes, does make up for some of those deficiencies. Thirty years on, director Keva Rosenfeld sets out to learn what happened to Torrance High’s Class of ’84 and meets with several of his subjects. A metalhead is now a law-enforcement officer; a conservative is now the opposite; and a kid who charged admission to his beer parties (and made beaucoup bucks) is now a police chief in Texas. No one’s present life is what they expected way back when, from what they say. There are also snippets from a filmmaker Q&A that followed a screening of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and All American High that’s entertaining thanks to several of the subjects being in attendance. A young woman seen in the film admitting to cheating on tests is now an elementary school teacher. How fitting!

Rosenfeld’s quest also takes him to Finland, where he reunites with the star of his documentary, Rikki. She’s happily married, has three kids and, when watching the original film with her family, wipes away tears. (Her kids, on the other hand, are alternately bored and bemused by the sight of their young mom.) 

As I said up top, All American High Revisited—which was released on DVD in 2014 and is available to stream (for a fee via Amazon or for free via Pluto TV) is flawed but fun, and as such is worth the watch for any first-wave Gen Xer or anyone curious about what life was like before the tech revolution upended everything. Leaving aside the matters of class and race I broached earlier, its main flaw is diametrically opposite that of Seventeen, which suffered from zooming in on the melodrama of high-school life. Here, it’s mostly shiny happy people doing shiny happy things.

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