Packed with some small-screen legends of the 1960s and young TV stars of the late 70s and early 80s, High School USA is heavy on the resultant nostalgia but sadly very light-on when it comes to entertainment.
First published in the March 2023 issue of Street Machine
The premise is simple: Excelsior High School’s senior class clown, JJ Manners (Michael J Fox), accidentally bumps into the ‘cool group’ queen Beth Franklin (Nancy McKeon) and falls madly in love.
Unfortunately, she is the main squeeze of head jock and class president, Beau Middleton (Anthony Edwards). Beau may have the school faculty and various parents convinced that he’s the quintessential Mr Nice Guy, but he is actually a prick to his fellow classmates, especially JJ.
In the meantime, JJ is hard at work managing the daily lives of his close friends: boy-genius Otto (Todd Bridges), who has built his own working robot (Jerry Maren) in shop class; space cadet Bandini (Tom Villard); and lonesome losers Archie (Crispin Glover) and Chuckie (Michael Zorek).
Beau’s relentless pranking of JJ is matched only by the latter’s relentless advances towards Beth. Beau’s true colours soon become apparent to Beth, who is tiring of his mean and childish ways. In fact, she’s just about done with blokes altogether, choosing instead to pull the dreaded ‘just friends’ card on JJ. However, some loaded advice from Beth’s cool-group frenemy Cara (Dana Plato) keeps her hanging in there with Beau.
The two suitors decide to duke it out via the only appropriate way for young men to solve problems, a road race. The winner will pocket a cool $1000 and the unwavering respect of their classmates.
JJ intends to race against Beau’s 911 in a hotted-up Trans Am owned by Archie’s dad, Milton (Bob Denver – yep, Gilligan himself!), and is in with a serious chance. But the plan goes haywire after Beau’s goons get wind of it and the Pontiac is unceremoniously written off only days from the event.
It is then up to JJ and his motley crew to turn his battered Plymouth convertible into a race-ready road weapon, so Otto uses his nous to engineer a full-sized bus engine in place of the old 273-cube small-block.
The stage is now set for Beau to have his arse handed to him, with JJ hoping to walk away with not only the race win and a thousand bucks, but also the affections of Beth.
With its many well-known TV stars of the time, High School USA is probably best looked upon as a trip down memory lane for Gen X-ers. Otherwise, it’s a mostly corny, disjointed and fairly boring film.
What is interesting is the character typecasting laid down in this film that would continue to play out for a number of the actors in their future roles – most notably Michael J Fox with his near-hyperactive onscreen energy and Crispin Glover with his awkward, twisted shyness.
Sadly, the film’s attempts at humour haven’t aged well, but the road race is pretty cool, and the concept of jamming a bus motor into a Valiant gives the flick some desperately needed kudos.
- 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
- 1974 Porsche 911
- 1965 Plymouth Valiant convertible
- 1971 BMW 2002
- 1965 Ford Mustang
- 1983 Ford Thunderbird
- 1957 MGA coupe
- 1983 Ford Mustang
- Michael J Fox
- Nancy McKeon
- Anthony Edwards
- Todd Bridges
- Dana Plato
- Crispin Glover
- Michael Zorek
- Bob Denver
- Dawn Wells
- Tony Dow
- Cathy Silvers
- Jerry Maren
- Tom Villard
Some tyre-smoking Trans Am testing will pique your interest, while the rough-and-ready road race is an appropriate finale.
A scrappy high school senior falls for the girlfriend of a well-heeled jock, igniting a battle for her affections.
Cool flick fact:
High School USA doubled as a pilot for a projected NBC sitcom – hence its heavy helping of then-hot young TV actors.