Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Film #21: Gregory's Girl

Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth specializes in what I call "Saturday Afternoon Movies." You know how you feel on a Saturday if everything is in store for you, as if the air is cleaner than the days before, excitement is flooding your veins and all your stresses have dissipated into the past? Most of Forsyth's films make you feel like that, even on non-Saturdays. But catch them on that weekend day, at 2 or 3 PM, and the effect is palpably overpowering. You feel like you've been shot in the butt by a cherub, you're so feathery-light.

I saw my first Bill Forsyth movie in 1981, when I was at the perfect age of 14. My sense of romance was just blossoming and I stepped hopeful into Gregory's Girl on that--yes--Saturday afternoon completely unaware of what joy I was soon to have. I remember being immediately won over by the film, even though the American print I was watching was obviously overdubbed to mask the players' thick Scottish accents. But somehow this made the film funnier. I've seen the original Scot version of the film, and I still prefer the American prints. They have an odd faceitiousness about them, as if made in another dimension right next door to our own. The movie itself has this asset, too. It's a warm film--very warm. But Gregory's hometown looks strange and sterile, his parents are almost never seen, his friends have more than the average number of quirks, his little sister seems to have sexual knowledge way beyond her ken, and his teachers are baldfaced goofs. Hell, this kid can't even walk right.

But this is the way it feels to by young and in love for the first time--you see the alien lurking through your insides. Gregory's Girl captures the reality of our naive romantic yearnings, but it does so via surprise. This is evident from the very beginning, as Gregory and crew lose their shit over catching a naked woman through their binoculars, only to be followed by some younger boys who take a gander through the glasses and knowingly comment "All that fuss over a bit of tit?"

The gawky John Sinclair Lewis plays Gregory, the luckless goalie for a suburban high school's soccer team. When Phil, the team's manager (the only regularly-seen adult in the film, played by Jake D'Arcy) puts a call out for new team players, he and his footballers are stunned to discover that the best potential ringer is Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a self-assured young lady with a killer kick and a body to match. Though her teammates are initially suspicious, she conquers any doubts about her abilities soon after she captures their desires and their first victory.

Gregory resolves to become chief among her suitors and, though she remains cordial, she really doesn't seem at all taken with him. No matter. She agrees to a date anyway, thereby putting a burner under Gregory's hormones and a charitable ulterior plan in motion. The movie hereby becomes a smitten recreation of what it's like to be in love before we even know what love really is. It captures the adolescent rapture in feeling something so endlessly new. And it draws a clean line between young women, who know what the heart wants, and young men, who are bumbling around aimlessly until the opposite sex chooses to take their hands and show them the way.

This is clearly demonstrated not only by the climactic switcheroos involving Gregory's romantic fate, but most memorably by the relationship Gregory has with Madeline, his wiser-than-wise ten-year-old sister (Allison Forster), who opines that love is like a sweet dessert: you want to always cherish the unruined thought of it, to keep it wholly untasted. "But it can't go on like that forever," she says. She's obviously way ahead of everyone in the movie; she knows that romance has just as much potential for heartbreak as joy.

The movie's plot is simple, but its eccentric characters are indeed complex. Forsyth's self-admittedly autobiographical screenplay amasses a lovable but pathetic group of geeks. Gregory's romantically-desparate best friend Andy (Robert Buchanan) insists on spouting off lame trivia about the 100-mile-an-hour speed of a sneeze and the high ratio of women to men in Caracas, Venezuela, all the while never realizing that this trait is exactly what's driving girls away. Steve
(William Greenlees) is the school's dispassionate star home ec student who's more concerned about mixing the perfect batter than picking up women. "Did you wash your hands?" he smirks as sous-chef Gregory goes on, on and over the precipice about his passion for Dorothy (I treasure Gregory's comeback: "Food, food, food. Is that all you ever think about? It's unnatual. You know, you're a freak!"). Eric (Allen Love) is the obsessive photographer hatching sly plans to hawk photos of Dorothy alongside Steve's marzipan treats.

The few adults in Forsyth's world are memorable as well: D'arcy as the put-upon coach (one of my favorite scenes has two fellow teachers making fun of his sorry new mustache by way of deceptive compliments), Chic Murray as the out-to-lunch, whimsically piano-playing headmaster ("Off ya go, ya small boys!"), and Dave Anderson as Gregory's distant driving instructor dad ("And, Gregory...we'll start the driving lessons when you've mastered the walking bit").

And then there are the little details: Gregory's electric toothbrush vibrating wildly on the kitchen counter; a boy in a penguin outfit stumbling his way back to class; a terrible track-and-field hopeful continually making laughable goes at the high jump; Gregory singing happily as he blow-dries his armpit hair; lovely Susan (Claire Grogan) listening intently to Gregory meowing in reply to a nocturnal cat; Andy's determined poetry recitation, which prompts a teacher to literally throw the book at him; Gregory emitting a little yelp after seeing a girl change, in a phone booth, from virginal attire into sexpot duds; the coach ordering the cafeteria's ravioli after we've just heard one kid call it garbage. And there are so many more bits to enjoy.

Forsyth would direct more ambitious films, including 1983's perfect fairy tale Local Hero and the underrated Being Human with Robin Williams (a box-office bomb that effectively stunted Forsyth's career). He even went on to direct a Gregory's Girl sequel. But I refused to see Gregory's Two Girls, because I'm afraid it might sully my devotion to the original. After all, who'd wish that on their truest love?

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