Director: Michael Ritchie
Writer: Jerry Belson
The Story: Teen girls from around California gather in Santa Rosa for the Young American Miss pageant, kicking the town’s boosterism into high gear. Eventually, the relentless cheerfulness of it all begins to grate on some, both within the spotlight and outside of it.
How it Came to be Underrated: This is a quiet movie and it’s always been a sleeper word-of-mouth favorite. It’s one of those movies that makes people happy when they find someone else who knows it and loves it.
Why It’s Great:
- Ritchie’s movies are about questions, not answers: What is the consequence of disingenuousness, versus the cost of sincerity? Is it worth doing what it takes to win? What will you be left with if you play it cynical and still lose?
- Satire and sympathy sometimes seem incompatible. It’s so hard to write something that’s barbed without being uncharitable. You’re standing outside and casting a harsh light on buffoonery, but in order to write it well, you simultaneously have to generate genuine feeling and understanding for the buffoons themselves. Woody Allen is great, but when he attacks someone, the audience doesn’t get to pick a side. It’s Woody and us together against the world. The fuzzy, empathetic, heartbreaking worldview shared by 70s directors like Altman, Mazursky and Ritchie is a lost art.
- Many actors shine in the ensemble case, including a flinty, nuanced performance from a beautiful young Annette O’Toole that makes you wonder why she didn’t have a bigger career. But the real stand out is Michael Kidd as a cynical big town choreographer stuck in Hicksville. He has the courage to be truly unlikable, right up until you realize with a shock that he’s become the heart of the movie. In a soulless town, the man with one spark of redemption is king.
- The takedown of pageant culture is acute and devastating. You suddenly realize that the meat market aspect is actually less grueling than the relentless enthusiasm of the question and answer period. It’s one thing to objectify these girls, it’s another to force them to insist that they love you for it.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Michael Ritchie had one persistent theme: competition. His first two movies both starred Robert Redford and they were probably his two best performances: Downhill Racer and The Candidate.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD.
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