Release date: April 23, 1981 (UK); May 26, 1982 (US)
Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth
Starring John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Clare Grogan, Allison Forster, Robert Buchanan
Did you ever flip through the channels and stumble on a movie that just makes your night? Monday November 18th brought about an unexpected surprise when Turner Classic Movies played Bill Forsyth’s coming of age classic Gregory’s Girl in the 8PM timeslot (which is absolutely deserved – the film, produced in Scotland, ranks # 30 on the British Film Institutes list of the top 100 British films, and a clip from the film was included in the opening ceremony video of the London 2012 Olympics). Gregory’s Girl has a special place in my cinematic heart and I remember watching (repeatedly) when when it premiered on cable TV around 1983. We didn’t have a VCR at that time, so it must have been on the schedule at least 20 times over the course of one month. I lost count of how many times I’d seen it back then.
High school student Gregory (played by John Gordon Sinclair) has his complacent life as a high school student and soccer player upended when Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) earns a spot on the boys soccer team. He’s immediately smitten with her, and doesn’t even mind that she’s taken over his position at center forward and he’s been moved to goalie (at the expense of his best friend Alan losing his place on the team). He polishes the ball before handing it to her instead of kicking it to her during the games and practice, and feels the pangs of jealousy (and a little left out from the other side of the pitch) when their teammates and the opposing team each kiss her after she scores her first goal. His attraction to her reaches a fever pitch but he can’t muster the courage to ask her on a date.
At first Gregory’s cavalier attitude on life is charming and brings the audience back to their carefree teenage days (he calls his father “Mike,” arrives at school as he pleases, isn’t phased by losing a soccer game and doesn’t take his soccer coach seriously when told he may be kicked off the team), but it makes you wonder how he’ll take on life as he gets older if he simply lives his life as “just happy to be there.” Despite the toll his unrequited love takes on Gregory emotionally, it’s what he needs to begin taking stock of himself and breaking the mold of complacency. His ten year old sister Madeline is his voice of reason (“If you don’t pay attention to yourself, how do you expect people to pay attention to you?”) as well as his stylist when he finally musters the courage to ask Dorothy on a date.
The tag line of the film says it best: “There’s a little of bit him in all of us.” Forsyth allows the audience to feel Gregory’s ups and downs with all of the angst in between. But what I appreciate the most about Gregory’s Girl is how it doesn’t over dramatize Gregory’s situation or the every day lives of him and his friends. The opening scene may give the mistaken impression that the film will take a sophomoric approach a la Porky’s, but there are no pacts to lose their virginity, no plans for revenge on their teachers, or pranks that will make them legends. Forsyth didn’t need to go down that road. He’s crafted a beloved story and film that only needs to be about a young man trying to get a date with the girl that has his heart.
Compared to American teen films of the 80’s like The Breakfast Club (a great movie in its own right), Gregory’s Girl keeps it simple, and this simplicity keeps the characters and plot grounded in a way that each of us can pick a character and substitute ourselves. Gregory’s Girl succeeds as a film because we can relate to the themes of the awkward teen years, unrequited love, etc. and cheer Gregory on. Forsyth’s style of directing is understated and charming, and he is a master at making a subtle gesture pop out of nowhere and turning it into a funny moment (see his 1983 classic film Local Hero). Several of the scenes that bring out the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the supporting characters may leave the audience guessing as to Forsyth’s motivations for including them, but each of these scenes adds a new layer to the film by showing us what Gregory has around him and how he is shaped by his friends and surroundings.
As a teenager watching Gregory’s Girl, I simply enjoyed the ending without interpreting it too deeply (no spoilers here!). But watching it again in my 40’s, as the closing credits rolled I couldn’t help but wonder how life would have turned out for Gregory, which of his high school friends he would still be in touch with, and how he coped with the loves that would eventually pass in and out of his life (I guess I’ll have to screen Forsyth’s 1999 sequel Gregory’s Two Girls to find out). I looked back almost 25 years since my high school days and reflected on the course my life took, and I’m still fortunate to have two of my close friends from high school in my life. As awkward as my friends and I were back in the 80’s (okay, and maybe through the 90’s too), and with all of the ups and downs of the subsequent years, I think Gregory’s Girl’s normally silent character Charlie summed it up best in a scene where one of Andy’s dreams is crushed: “I think everything’s going to be alright.”