#572) Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980)

#572) Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980)

OR “OK Boomer: The Motion Picture”

Directed & Written by John Sayles

Class of 1997

The Plot: More than 10 years after their college activist days, seven friends reunite for a weekend in New Hampshire. Teachers Mike and Katie (Bruce MacDonald and Maggie Renzi) serve as hosts for the weekend, coping with several shifting arrangements. J.T. (Adam LeFevre) is an aspiring folk singer aware that his window of opportunity is closing. Med student Frances (Maggie Cousineau) reunites with local gas station clerk Ron (David Strathairn). Political speechwriter Irene (Jean Passanante) brings along her somewhat square boyfriend Chip (Gordon Clapp). But the real drama comes from Maura (Karen Trott), who arrives without her longtime boyfriend Jeff (Mark Arnott), having just broken up. Jeff eventually shows up, after Maura has already rebounded with J.T. It’s a long weekend with these Baby Boomers coming to terms with what their lives have become.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “insightful script”, “naturalistic acting”, and “Altman-like editing and overlapping dialog”.

But Does It Really?: Sure. There’s no shortage of movies in which boomers face the realities of adulthood, but Sayles did it first, and “Secaucus” perfectly captures time and generation. Like many a low-budget indie, “Secaucus” has a clear point of view and delivers it through a well structured script and an impeccably cast ensemble. While John Sayles may not be as well remembered or revered today as his contemporary filmmakers, he is more than worthy of NFR recognition, and “Secaucus” is a natural choice.

Shout Outs: Quick allusions to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs“, “Bambi“, “The Hustler“, and a real odd passing mention of “Salt of the Earth“.

Everybody Gets One: John Sayles started off as a novelist, eventually pivoting to screenwriting. Sayles used the money he earned writing scripts for Roger Corman to fund “Secaucus 7”. Fun Fact: John Sayles also worked on the screenplay for “Night Skies”, the proposed “Close Encounters” sequel that eventually became “E.T.“.

Wow, That’s Dated: Filmed in the fall of 1978, “Secaucus” makes references to then-President Jimmy Carter, the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977, and Michael Dukakis, who was Governor of Massachusetts during filming, but had lost his re-election bid by the time the film was released.

Title Track: As explained in the movie, the title is an in-joke between the seven main characters when they were arrested in Secaucus, New Jersey on the way to a Vietnam protest in D.C.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar nominations for “Secaucus”, though the film did win the Los Angeles Film Critics award for its screenplay. John Sayles would eventually receive Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay for his later films “Passion Fish” and “Lone Star”.

Other notes 

  • John Sayles wanted to make an “audition film” he could show studios to get more directing gigs, and allotted himself a budget of $40,000 (about $163,000 today). Sayles shot “Secaucus” in 25 days, primarily at a rented ski lodge which doubled as cast and crew accommodations. The actors were all unknowns from local theaters, and Sayles wrote several subplots so that the movement between scenes would help make up for the lack of movement in the scenes.
  • This movie suggests that there was a time when Boomers were young and not blaming all of society’s ills on Millennials and Gen Z. I don’t know…sounds like pure fantasy if you ask me.
  • I’m used to David Strathairn’s more recent filmography of straight-laced business types, so it’s fun watching him pull a 180 as Ron, the guy who didn’t leave his hometown after high school. Seeing Strathairn in a jumpsuit being awkward and shooting the shit is a delight. Plus this is his film debut!
  • I will try my best not to make the inevitable comparisons between this film and “The Big Chill”, but if forced to choose between Gordon Clapp or Meg Tilly as my movie’s audience surrogate, I think we all know who wins that round.
  • There really isn’t a weak link in this ensemble. I particularly enjoyed Maggie Renzi as Katie, who gets several great one-liners, and Karen Trott, emitting some serious Lauren Bacall vibes as Maura.
  • Side note: Maggie Renzi is the real-life partner of John Sayles. In addition to her performance, Renzi served as the film’s unit manager, location manager, and assistant editor.
  • Despite the NFR’s praise of Altman-esque overlapping dialogue, very little of this film is improvised. The actors stuck to Sayles’ script for the most part.
  • Longtime readers know I’m a sucker for scenes that are covered in a single take, and many of the film’s more intimate conversations are presented this way. As much as I like to write these off as a purely artistic choice, I also recognize that single-take scenes are a great time and money-saver for your low-budget indie.
  • As well-made as this movie is, it does drag in a few places, at least through my modern lens. At one point I thought I was watching this weekend happen in real time.
  • Just as I say this movie is dragging, along comes some full-frontal nudity from the male cast, including David Strathairn! It’s brief, but does give us the best line in the movie: Katie, upon seeing the men in the buff from a distance, “Jesus, now we know what Irene sees in Chip.”
  • In true low-budget fashion, John Sayles cast himself in the small role of local friend Howie. Didn’t realize it was him until the credits, which says a lot about how well he blends in with his cast.
  • While watching this, it occurred to me how many NFR movies center around groups of seven: this, “The Magnificent Seven“, the aforementioned Seven Dwarfs. Heck, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” does it twice! This bodes well for “The Trial of the Chicago 7”, less so for “Se7en”, but that’s for other reasons.

Legacy 

  • “Return of the Secaucus 7” was never intended to get a theatrical release. John Sayles entered it into the Los Angeles Filmex festival in the hopes of getting a TV distribution deal, but the film ended up being the surprise hit of the festival, and got a theatrical release from Libra Films. “Secaucus” was a critical success, and earned $2 million at the box office.
  • Since “Secaucus”, John Sayles has directed several films, his most recent being 2013’s “Go for Sisters”. Many of his films feature appearances by his “Secaucus” ensemble.
  • Despite their great work in this movie, most of the cast didn’t appear in too many films after “Secaucus”, and for some this was their first and only movie. Major exception David Strathairn aside, Gordon Clapp would go on to be a regular on “NYPD Blue” (winning a Primetime Emmy), and Jean Passanante has written for every major network soap opera (winning 5 Daytime Emmys).
  • “Secaucus” inspired the “Reunion movie” sub-genre of the 1980s, in which a bunch of Baby Boomers, now in their early 30s, reunite and discuss what happened to then between the idyllic ’60s of their youth and the more conservative ’80s of their adulthood. The most famous of these is 1983’s “The Big Chill”, whose director/screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan has gone on record saying he had never heard of or seen “Secaucus” before writing his movie.

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