It’s hard to imagine a cryptic, downbeat, pretentious character study like The All-American Boy receiving a major-studio release during any time other than the New Hollywood era of the late ’60s and early ’70s, because everything about this strange picture epitomizes what was wonderful—and frustrating—about that glorious period. Viewed charitably, writer-director Charles Eastman’s movie is like an enigmatic song by, say, Bob Dylan or Paul Simon, inasmuch as the film contains beautiful flashes of humanity and insight, even though the overall meaning is elusive. Eastman divides the film into sequences, even subtitling the picture “The Manly Art in Six Rounds,” and the story unfolds impressionistically. In each “round,” the main character occupies a slightly different stage of life, and the recurring theme seems to be that he’s boxing with existence itself—sometimes he struggles to break free of small-town claustrophobia, and sometimes he acts out against the expectations associated with success. (Central to The All-American Boy is that quintessentially ’70s archetype, the I-gotta-be-me protagonist whose self-involved caprice vexes everyone he meets.)
Jon Voight, working hard to transform Eastman’s sketch of a protagonist into a fully rendered portrait, stars as Vic Bealer, a thirtysomething guy from a rural community who dreams of becoming a champion boxer. Throughout the movie, Vic moves back and forth between his boxing life, where he achieves success under the tutelage of vulgar trainer Arty Bale (Ned Glass), and his domestic life, where he romances both Drenna (Anne Archer) and Janelle (E.J. Peaker). Vic wins championships and steadily proceeds toward a spot on the Olympic team, then inexplicably walks away from sports. He also builds a life with Janelle, even fathering a son, before destroying that situation, as well. Yet Eastman tries to show Vic manifesting something akin to moral authority, as when he rebuffs a pathetic business overture from his brother-in-law (Art Metrano).
One assumes the gist of the piece reveals itself in the final sequence, during which someone tells Vic that freedom is an illusion—shades of the famous line from “Me and Bobby McGee”—so it’s possible Eastman was after something about ’60s/’70s wanderers playing a dangerous game by naïvely pursuing individualism. He might also have been after something about masculinity, paralleling the brutality of boxing with the way Vic inflicts pain on the people in his life.
The All-American Boy is maddeningly vague, but many individual scenes are potent. The edgy surrogate-father stuff with the manager is vivid, as is an uncomfortable sequence of Vic visiting Janelle in a recording studio while she lays down vocals for a pop song. Every so often, The All-American Boy edges into pure grandiosity, particularly during the climax, which involves a helicopter, a marching band, and rolling fields of tall yellow grass, all photographed in glorious long-lens widescreen by cinematographer Philip Lathrop. Since Eastman never directed another movie, The All-American Boy recalls another arty 1973 picture from a one-and-done filmmaker, James William Guercio’s dark Electra Glide in Blue. Although Electra Glide is infinitely more grounded, both are beguilingly offbeat.
The All-American Boy: FUNKY