Classic Corner: Valley Girl

A classic archetype of youth subculture, the Valley Girl–a gum-popping, mall-shopping teenl from the LA suburbs–both embodies its moment in time (the materialism and anti-intellectualism of 1980s America) and reverberates in our own. (The markers of her “Valleyspeak”–vocal fry and the liberal use of “like”–have left an indelible mark on American speech.) Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl, both fizzy and well-observed, is similarly a vivid interpretation of its era and a refreshingly lasting representation of the joys and pangs of adolescence.

A romcom laced with drama, Valley Girl is a droll riff on Romeo and Juliet. The star-crossed lovers are Julie, the titular Valley Girl, and Randy, a rough-around-the-edges, New Wave-ish rebel from Hollywood Hills. Randy crashes a Valley party, sparks fly, and the two begin a whirlwind romance. Their love is eventually threatened by the teen equivalent of a bloodthirsty medieval clan: Julie’s clique of popular friends, who want her to ditch Randy and get back together with her ex Tommy, a preppy lunk with a wardrobe full of striped polos and a sense of entitlement to match. In the final third of the film, Randy strives to win Julie over with an escalating series of loopy romantic gestures, and all ends well in a satisfying drama-at-the-prom sequence. 

It all rests on Deborah Foreman’s performance as Julie. Her ditzy surfaces never really conceal a dazzling luminosity and a surprising sobriety. If she doesn’t quite have the fervor of a theatrical tragic heroine, she’s got something more interesting: a profound and genuine curiosity. She starts off already wondering what lies beyond her candy-colored world: between her genial smiles you see her eyes constantly on the move, as if the something good that’s coming for her is hovering just out of sight. Her blazing loveliness is matched by a pensive, inquisitive quality. When she’s falling for Randy, it’s not just about moony-eyed attraction; she has a genuine desire to understand him and his world. As she gradually succumbs to peer pressure, she shades in all the nuances of growing discomfort and distress that comes from trying to make big decisions when you’re not really sure who you are yet. 

As Randy, a heartbreakingly young Nicolas Cage seems not fully in control of his intensity, but Coolidge knows what to do with that mercurial charisma. As he reels between brooding, dopey and sheepish, he matches the film’s shifting tones and encompasses the volatility of adolescent moods. After he’s jilted, Randy is the more ardent and sympathetic lover, but Valley Girl never entirely sugarcoats the realities of teen relationships, and there are powerful moments when we’re reminded that boys can be scary when they’re angry.

The chemistry that ignites between Foreman and Cage is something more than what springs from the anodyne meet-cutes typical of rom-coms. It’s here where the Shakespearean source is most evident and most successful; what happens is not puppy love, but passion, with all its unruly force and its power to completely upend your sense of self, and even of reality. There is making out here that is hotter than many sanitized sex scenes in movies made for adults.  

This is not to say that the film takes itself too seriously. Julie and Randy’s budding romance is shown mostly in a bubbly montage, a pop fantasia set to Modern English’s “I Melt With You.” The film parodies without diluting pleasure, and there’s a distinct allure to the candy-colored world of the Valley, with its gleaming surfaces and its exuberant fashion. (A particularly brilliant touch is the ruffled blouse Julie wears to the party where she meets Randy, which suggests the Renaissance while still being twee in an 80s way.) The final prom scene is a feat of production design–a girl’s dream in a symphony of pink and lilacs. While it’s not terribly believable that a bunch of preps would have Josie Cotton performing her cult classic New Wave song “Johnny Are You Queer?” at their high school dance, it’s an undeniable bop and a kind of brilliant ironizing of the hyper-heteronormative world of not just the Valley, but the ‘80s teen comedy itself. 

Valley Girl still has legs because it knows what it’s supposed to be, yet always manages to be something more. It hits all the teen flick beats: there’s a big party scene with lots of romantic drama, but it shows the kind of casual coercion with which boys often lead girls into hookups. There’s got to be a sleepover scene with scantily-clad girls, but while in their leopard-print panties, they make casual endorsements of bulimia that will be darkly familiar to veterans of real-life sleepovers. In capturing both the fluffy fun and roiling turmoil of adolescence, Valley Girl provides a sugar rush of ‘80s nostalgia while giving us something more to sink our teeth into.

“Valley Girl” is currently streaming on Showtime and Kanopy.

Julia Sirmons writes about film, media and performance. Her work has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room, CrimeReads, The Theatre Times and Another Gaze. She has a PhD in Theatre and Performance from Columbia University.

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