Vision Quest (1985)
Directed by Harold Becker
Produced by Joh Peters, Peter Guber
Screenplay by Darryl Ponicsan
Based on the novel Vision Quest by Terry Davis
Cinematography by Owen Roizman
Music by Tangerine Dream
Warner Bros. DVD (1:47)
I first saw Vision Quest shortly after it appeared on cable TV, probably in late 1985 or early 1986. The film resonated with me for several reasons, primarily because I believed I was on my own vision quest. It was my first year of teaching and I found my own drive mirrored in Louden Swain’s quest to defeat the toughest wrestler in the state. I wanted not only to be a great teacher, a great band director, but I wanted to be great early in my career, so great that people would think I’d been teaching somewhere else for years. In my mind, Vision Quest was nothing short of a call to action. How did that turn out for me? Keep reading.
Vision Quest is a coming-of-age story about a high school wrestler in Spokane, Washington named Louden Swain (Matthew Modine) who’s willing to drop down two weight classes (roughly 23 pounds) for a chance to wrestle Brian Shute (Frank Jasper), a powerhouse 3-time state champion at a nearby high school. Louden’s a smart kid, writing advanced term papers on medical topics that sometimes get him in trouble and working as a bellboy in the kitchen of a local hotel. We learn that he lives alone with his dad (Ronny Cox) and that his mom at some point left them both. Things begin to change (for better or worse? I won’t tell you) when a 20-year-old artist named Carla (Linda Fiorentino, in her film debut) comes to stay with them. How this happens isn’t really that believable or important. What is important is that Louden falls for Carla completely. The question is, however, will he fall so hard for her that he forgets his vision quest?
Vision Quest is a film that you either follow with your heart or you don’t. There’s no good reason for Carla to be the Swain household but she’s more than simply a plot device. Fiorentino brings something to the role that makes you forget the weaknesses of the story and focus just on the character. You don’t really care how or why she got there, but you care about her character and how she’s going to affect Louden’s ultimate goal. Carla is confident without being arrogant, slightly distant without being an ice queen. Maybe there’s something in her past keeping her distant or maybe she’s wary of becoming the object of a high school kid’s fantasy.
These characters have depth and not just the two headliners. Michael Schoeffling (above right, the guy Molly Ringwald had the hots for in Sixteen Candles) plays Kuch, Louden’s teammate, friend, and “half-Indian spiritual adviser.” Without getting involved in a lot of backstory, the Darryl Ponicsan script shows us in just a few seconds everything we need to know about Kuch. The same goes for Louden’s wrestling coach Charles Hallahan (the actor who really got messed up in John Carpenter’s The Thing), his teacher Mr. Tanneran (Harold Sylvester) and Elmo (J.C. Quinn, below left), the short-order cook Louden works with at the hotel. (You’ll also find a young Forest Whitaker, Daphne Zuniga, and Madonna in her first movie appearance.) All of these characters live and breathe, giving us the feeling that even if they couldn’t star in their own movies, they’re the kind of people you’d like to sit down with and have a drink, listening to their stories.
Until yesterday, I hadn’t seen the film in over 30 years, but there’s a scene near the end of the film that I’ve remembered almost word-for-word. It’s a speech delivered by Louden’s co-worker Elmo after Louden tells him about his upcoming wrestling match with Shute, an event Elmo has told Louden he plans to attend. Louden tells Elmo that there’s no need to get dressed up, the match will last six minutes, tops. What Elmo tells Louden is honest and open, simple and profound. It’s one of those moments in movies that don’t come nearly often enough, moments that stick with you and make you try and little harder, reach a little higher, and dream a little bigger. You know it’s just a few lines from a script, but it does something to you.
The film in general (and that scene in particular) made me try harder, reach higher, dream bigger. Even when reality hit me in the face in the form of a competition in which I utterly failed with my band, I kept trying, reaching, dreaming. The fault didn’t rest with my students; it rested with me. It was a major disappointment. I felt I was a major disappointment. I wasn’t Louden Swain. I soon realized that Swain was a character in a movie; he wasn’t real. But I was. I wasn’t following a script, but I thought I was driving my own destiny. I learned otherwise very quickly and very hard. But that lesson was crucial.
I’m not sure that I consciously thought about Louden Swain as my career began to develop and as I started experiencing success on a professional and personal level. But I’m convinced that the film played a part in that development. Seeing it now, I still feel that drive to excel, to compete, to win and succeed. I’m not 23 any longer, but there’s still some Louden Swain in my DNA. Maybe the same is true for you.
Vision Quest is far from a perfect film. You can find plenty of things wrong with it and I wouldn’t argue with you about any of them. Yet the film is something of a milestone in my life, measuring from where I was to where I am and just maybe where I’m headed. I wasn’t sure how I would react to the film over 30 years later. Not surprisingly I found that the film hadn’t changed at all, but maybe I have. Then again, maybe I haven’t…
Warner Archive has just released Vision Quest on Blu-ray. Although this is not the edition I watched, I hope to own it soon. You can check out a review of the disc here.