Review – Dogfight (dir. Nancy Savoca, 1991)
Dogfight might just be the most heartwarming, feminist leaning movie about young love you’ve never heard of. Despite being a great example of 1990s independent cinema, it seems to have fallen off the radar somewhat. I happened to find it on a surprisingly comprehensive list of feminist films on Flavorwire, which included a few of my favorites, and even had a number of movies I’d never seen or heard of before. Somewhere in the middle of the list was this little gem. It stars Lili Taylor and River Phoenix as a couple of late high school age kids in the early 1960s, when Vietnam had yet to completely take over the public consciousness. It’s one of the most touching coming of age films I’ve ever seen, as well as a tender perspective on early sexual desire. Having a woman behind the camera and two immensely talented performers makes all the difference in transforming both characters into deeply realized human beings rather than tropes.
River Phoenix plays Eddie Birdlace, a young marine about to be shipped off to Vietnam, and Lili Taylor plays Rose, a somewhat bashful nerd he finds strumming a guitar in a diner. Though this sounds as though it could be the start of a proto-Juno teen romance, there is a twist. When Rose catches his eye, it’s not because he sees a unique girl who can save him from his ennui and teach him a new way to live, but because he hopes to score big at the titular dogfight, an annual competition held by Birdlace and a few of his jughead friends. Each man must bring a date to the party. However, the goal is to bag the ugliest girl you can find. Whoever brings the least attractive woman wins the dogfight and takes home a pocket full of cash.
Indeed, when we first meet Taylor’s Rose she’s not exactly an A-list stunner. She has acne and bushy bangs, and in all respects looks like an average American teenager. She is bashful and obviously surprised to the be the object of anyone’s attention, let alone anyone as dashing as Phoenix. However, Birdlace hardly appears comfortable in his own skin either and seems to be equally nervous when attempting to pick up Rose, though she’s ostensibly his social inferior. As in his other roles, Phoenix has an uncanny way of being a strong emotional presence and part of the scenery at the same time, and Lili Taylor provides a great counterbalance for his internalized energy.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Rose discovers the truth behind the gathering as she witnesses a confrontation between two of the other guests. Birdlace’s friend, Berzin (Richard Panebianco), has paid a prostitute to be his date with the promise they would split the earnings, and he’s trying to hold out on her – inevitably without success. She explains the situation to Rose, stating, quite matter of factly, “I’m the ugliest, so I win.”
This scene immediately undermines the whole premise of the dogfight, a dehumanizing display that reduces women to their appearances and deems the unattractive inhuman. The prostitute exploits the game for her own purposes by being willing to bargain her appearance against the much more important task of staying alive for another day.
This is also, I think, the turning point, and the moment where the movie reveals its true point of view. While many films start out with an ugly woman who transforms into a swan (you could mistakingly compare this movie to other teen flicks like She’s All That, The Princess Diaries, Never Been Kissed and others), this movie discards that setup in favor of something more subversive. Once Rose has been labeled ugly, her appearance ceases to matter. Rather than being an object, unattractive or otherwise, she’s free to be a person, making the love story that follows all the more engrossing.
Still, Rose isn’t quite so blasé as the prostitute, and after hearing the true nature of the gathering, promptly storms out of the bar. Birdlace follows her home in an attempt to apologize, and the film continues to document the remainder of their night together as they drift from restaurants to bars, steadily becoming more interested in one another.
Finally, they end up in an arcade, where they play whack-a-mole and dance to the tinny music of the mechanical games. Against the backdrop of dissonant chords and moving parts, they end up kissing awkwardly, as teenagers do when they’re young, excited and afraid. It’s a very interesting scene, and the camera seems to pay equal attention to the arcade mechanisms as it does to the two people. It’s an idiosyncratic sequence that perfectly captures an awkward transition between youth and adulthood. At the same time it captures the giddy, childlike magic of falling in love with someone new, which rings true no matter how old you are.
Enjoy the scene here:
The film has additional layers to it. The narrative is framed by Birdlace’s experience in the Vietnam war – a plot device that lends new meaning to the film’s title. But the most powerful parts of the story are the ones that follow Eddie and Rose as they fall in love over the course of the night, as the circumstances of their introduction cease to matter at all.
This movie is unbelievably charming and moving and deserves a place on every young adult’s shelf right next to, say, Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Dazed and Confused. It has the same youthful authenticity that highlights how the teenage years are simultaneously wonderful, awful and – especially in retrospect – fascinating. What makes the film so refreshing is how great the two primary characters are, and the charisma with which they play off of one another. Both performers accomplish the admirable feat of wearing their characters like a second skin, and there’s not a moment when you doubt these are real people with very real feelings of pain, confusion and joy.