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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

All the Right Moves for All the Wrong Reasons

A film with tremendous integrity, All the Right Moves (Michael Chapman, 1983) puts skewed cultural priorities into grim perspective. It's the story of Stef (Tom Cruise), a high school senior with just enough talent to play college football, but not enough to make the major leagues. Showing uncommon wisdom for a teenager in this sort of movie, Stef plans to leverage his football talent into a scholarship so that he can pursue an engineering degree in college; it's his way out of the dead-end, decaying factory town that has already claimed the sweat and happiness of his father, brother, and ancestors down the line.

Stef's coach, Burt Nickerson, (Craig T. Nelson) wants to escape, too; if he can win one big game against a team ranked third in the state, he's almost certain to land a prestigious and financially rewarding college coaching gig. Similarly, his players have a shot at showing college scouts their value.

But the game is narrowly lost, with some of the fault going to Stef, some going to the coach, and there's blame all around. The coach manages to land a job at a California college anyway, but he slander's Stef's reputation, scaring away college recruiters. It looks like Stef is doomed to stay in town and work a factory job, just like his family before him.

Meanwhile, Stef's girlfriend Lisa (Lea Thompson) supports Stef's efforts to secure a place in college, even though she knows success means she'll lose him. As she notes, there are no scholarships for her; she's a talented saxophonist who dreams of being a musician, an impossible dream given the price. Only the football players have a chance of actually achieving the American Dream.

In the end, the coach relents and offers Stef a full scholarship at the college he's coaching at in California, and his mom, dad, brother, and girlfriend are all on hand to urge him to take the opportunity. Stef signs the contract, and we have our happy ending, one that comes in the last seconds of the film and is shot and acted so wryly that the filmmakers dare us to take it at face value.

So we shouldn't. This may be a happy ending for Stef, but the larger injustices prevail. The film explicitly states that there is no escape for Lisa and so many others, but Stef takes his shot anyway. You can hardly blame him. But maybe you can blame a culture's values for trapping so many for the sake of so few.

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