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This story of four working-class kids in a small industrial town--who go their separate ways after high school in the innocence of 1961 and come together again at the end of the turbulent Sixties--is as much about the coming of age of America as it is about the changes the characters go through. The four friends of the title are thoughtful Danilo, a Yugoslavian immigrant with dreams of being a writer and a scholar; Tom, good-looking and athletic, who is bound for the army; cautious David who has mixed feelings about staying in town and joining the family mortuary business; and lovely, ditzy, exasperating Georgia, who tries to inspire all of them with her longings for a life of Bohemian adventure. It is told through the eyes of Danilo, whose story is loosely based on the writer Tesich's own life growing up in Bloomington, Indiana. Written by
Behind the nostalgic music, we see a young boy get off a train. He is arriving from Yugoslavia to meet his father, a man he has not seen in a decade. At the train station, we meet the man. He never smiles.
Thus, we begin our journey into "Four Friends", Arthur Penn's powerful and amazing film. You may ask why I began my review that way. Well, that is the way the video box describes the film. You may have figured out that the film will be the story of the boy trying to get along with this emotionless man and eventually, he will peel away at his cover and expose the kindness.
Well, if you bought that, I've got a bridge I want to sell you. You see, modern Hollywood would make that film. Penn has always been an outsider and has never resorted to typical cliched storytelling. He always tells interesting stories about people (his credits include "Bonnie and Clyde", "The Chase", "Alice's Restaurant" and the underrated "Mickey One") and "Four Friends" is no exception.
A typical Hollywood film would focus on the boy who is named Danilo. But Steve Tesich's script only focuses on that for about 4 minutes and then abandons him. We meet the adult Danilo, played by Craig Wasson (whom you may recognize from "Body Double" and "Nightmare on Elm Street 3") and his friends, Tom, David and the passionate Georgia. The movie takes us throughout the Sixties. Now in a lesser film, the events would receive the attention. But in "Four Friends", these events happen, but Penn and Tesich is more concerned with character study than plot and I think the film is better that way. We know the events; we don't need to dwell on them again.
I know I haven't described much of the plot, but I don't know if you can describe "Four Friends". It's not one of those "high-concept" films that can be described in a single sentence. It's a film of many moods and textures. It's also a genuinely emotional experience. The final twenty minutes of this film moved me to tears. I'm not ashamed to admit it. Rarely does a film have such power that it can reduce me to tears. The acting is first rate, especially by Craig Wasson, who seems to be one of the most underused actors working today. This is such a difficult, emotional performance and Wasson pulls it off. He should have received an Oscar for this. Another great performance is by Jodi Thelen, who has an even more difficult role than Wasson. But she handles it extremely well and gives Georgia a certain dignity most Hollywood actresses wouldn't (they'd be too scared to even try; they'd be more concerned with image rather than giving a great performance; that's not what acting is about). She also deserved an Oscar.
"Four Friends" didn't receive much of a push in 1981. Maybe people just didn't have the emotional capacity to handle it. And clueless executives couldn't push it as another "American Graffiti" (it lacks the wallop of "Four Friends"). So they let it die. Too bad, for this is one of the very best films of the 1980s, a decade where more and more slick trash was created and great art like this was without a home. I ask you to give this film a chance.
**** out of 4 stars
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