The transition from teenager to adult is fraught with difficulty at the best of times, but in the 1960s, it seemed the entire world was going through those very growing pains. Innocence was shed, traditions and morals were questioned, and a new generation was stuck in the middle trying to sort it all out. Much of this played out while attempting to dodge an unpopular war raging on the other side of the planet. In 1989, Sandy Wilson sifted the characters of her debut feature through this framework in American Boyfriends.
The year is 1965 and Sandy Wilcox (Margaret Langrick) has left the sunny Okanagan Valley to attend Simon Fraser University. She’s barely touched down when she receives an invitation to the wedding of her Cousin Butch (John Wildman) in Oregon. Already high on her first taste of freedom from home Sandy convinces her new beatnik roommate Julie (Liisa Repo-Martel) and childhood gal-pals Lizzie (Delia Brett) and Thelma (Michelle Bardeaux) to hit the road and drive south of the border for the big event.
Their planned two-day getaway is suddenly extended when Lizzie falls for Butch’s best man Daryl (Scott Anderson) and Butch gifts the keys to his red cadillac to Sandy. She promptly makes the snap decision to drive south to her cousin’s old stomping ground of California with Julie while Thelma heads home to prepare for her own wedding.
The two friends hit the sunny beaches of Santa Cruz intent on nabbing themselves some California surfer dudes, but instead become mixed up with Marty (Jason Blicker) and Spider (Troy Mallory), two freedom riders with their sites set on Mexico in order to dodge the draft for the ongoing Vietnam war. Sandy is game to continue this sojourn into her newfound liberty until a personal tragedy strikes that will force her to re-consider the choices she has made in her young adult life.
The original film had written itself into a corner by having Sandy state via closing narration that she “didn’t recall ever seeing her american cousin after that”. I suppose Sandy Wilson could be forgiven for that oversight given the rarity of Canadian sequels at that time. One does wish that she had at least delivered a stronger follow up however. The story has a strong enough start with Sandy and co roaming the fabled California related in the first film, but seems rather puzzled what to do once it gets there. It seems content to throw in a series of beatnik, hippie and surfer cliches, hit puree and send it all back to the starting line.
Theres also the callous decision of the screenplay to needlessly kill off Butch via a “car accident” in the film’s final act. This comes off as a desperate attempt by the script to get Sandy to return home and gives the viewer emotional whiplash as we swiftly transition from funeral to wedding as the credits roll. Surely there was a more tone-appropriate way to cap this story off.
Margaret Langrick capably picks the Sandy character back up as a young woman, though she is somewhat shifted to the background at times in this ensemble piece. Jason Blicker admittedly stands out as a shiftless, Bob Dylan-wannabee and I will give Sandy Wilson credit for defying cliche with Glider, Gordon Currie’s alpha-male surfer. What could have easily been a knock-off “Karate Kid” bully is given a surprisingly nuanced portrayal. Its almost a shame that this plot thread is abandoned for a more standard draft dodger yarn.
I praised the cinematography of the first film and while this entry is harder to grade with the worn-out VHS screener, I couldn’t help but notice that the scale seems smaller this time around despite taking place in several cities across two different countries. The soundtrack is brimming with original recordings and covers of 60s billboard hits, although the decision to include some decidedly 80s-sounding tracks (Restless Dreamersby Barney Bentall, for instance) is rather puzzling to say the least.
Sandy Wilson continued the theme of growing pains begun in the first film with a promising road trip saga than seems to run out of gas before it ever really gets going. It rewards the audience with new adventures for familiar characters only to summarily punish them with a cheap plot twist. Despite the film’s attempt to inject faux-joy at the end, it becomes clear why we never got an American Husbands.