MOVIE REVIEW : 'Shag': Another Coming-of-Age Tale

Times Film Critic

"Shag: The Movie" (citywide) is an utterly pleasant surprise. Its dumbness is confined to its ads and its re-titling, from simply "Shag."

"Shag: The Movie"? Did they think we'd expect "Shag: The Carpet?" It's not what the ad campaign would have you fear. Not 7,000 beer-laced teen-agers let loose to wreak havoc on a stately Southern mansion. Not Myrtle Beach, full of wacky, sex-crazed teen-agers, looking for love in all the wrong places. Well, not just.

Named for a particularly Southern dance craze, "Shag" is an artfully directed, frequently funny and carefully observed story about a quartet of Southern girls in 1963. Brought up in the tradition of "friends till death," their lives will go in very different directions only weeks from now. Then Pudge (Annabeth Gish) and Luanne (Page Hannah) will, expectedly, go on to college, Carson (Phoebe Cates) will have "the wedding of her dreams" and Melaina (Bridget Fonda) will, expectedly, hit the pavement to look for a job.

In the hands of director Zelda Barron, "Shag's" cast is a true ensemble: The actresses not only convince us of the supportiveness/rivalries/loyalties of four dearest friends, but the actors playing the boys in their lives are experienced, innocent, hurtful and innocently hurtful by turns, just like life. And lurking a little at the side is Carrie Hamilton, contributing a killer turn as one of Myrtle Beach's certified baaaaaad girls, and proud of it.

The script manages in no time at all to bring back the innocence and the horrors that were 1963. "Pudggggge," her vigilant mother calls after her, "yew forgot your Metrecal." On the way to Myrtle Beach, Luanne stops her mother's Cadillac convertible at the Magnolia Arms motel so all four girls can observe a moment of scared silence on the very spot where a classmate got pregnant last year. (The nifty script is by Robin Swicord and Lanier Laney & Terry Sweeney, from a story by Laney and Sweeney. Someone remembers awfully well.)

The occasion for the weekend is to give the engaged Carson one last, chaste fling to remember. She's marrying Harley (Tyrone Power Jr.), who seems to have Future State Senator monogrammed on his cuffs and possibly on his boxer shorts. What Luanne, sweetly straight in her harlequin glasses, has forgotten--maybe--is that this is Sun Fun Festival weekend, and that Myrtle Beach will be full of the riffraff that all four have been raised to step decorously around.

That includes Chip (Scott Coffey), the sort who would drop a condom balloon on their windshield, and the dangerously assured Buzz (Robert Rusler), more experienced than all four girls together. No matter that one of these boys is headed for Annapolis and the other for Yale, here at Myrtle Beach they are simply Big Trouble.

The crowning of the Sun Fun queen, judged by major imported talent Jimmy Valentine (Jeff Yagher), the Fabian of his day, and the big shag contest are the weekend's highlights. To the wild rhythms of the Voltage Brothers, these shags are danced so fervently you can believe that there are still shag competitions and reunions all over the South, 25 years later.

There's a danger in overappreciating a film as sweet as this one (a terrible danger, actually, in simply calling it that, but sweet it truly is.) It's small scale; it won't cause riots or even, probably, sequels. But lordy, is it tenderly acted, with an unyielding spine of honesty to all its characters. Director Barron cannot be overpraised for her part in this. And fortunately, "Shag" is not all sweetness, although it's rightfully rated PG and makes for lovely family discussions about "the old days."

There is the matter of the Sun Fun queen competition, which bikini-clad Melaina has set her heart and her sights on. Luckily, we're allowed to be present for her private run-through of her routine, in which the Confederate flag becomes an intimate, personal prop. What she does with the Stars and Bars is enough to make George Bush start thinking about a whole new constitutional amendment.

Kenny Ortega, who has already given us "Dirty Dancing," was the choreographer here. It's wicked Ortega, wicked and lethally funny, particularly as "interpreted" by Bridget Fonda, pouts, kissy-lips, burlesque rasps and all.

(Since "Shag" was completed, audiences have had time to discover Fonda as Mandy Rice-Davies in "Scandal." Here she's a sort of Southern starlet-in-the-making.)

Then there are the Sun Queen barracudas, Nadine (Hamilton), an offsides coach to beware of, and Suzette (Leilani Sarelle), her personal protege. They're heaven on a stick.

While its conclusion may not entirely startle you, "Shag" at times has a nice way of working against expectation. Here (and especially in 1963), years of upbringing still prevail. When a shocked Luanne says "You cain't wear that" to Melaina, eyeing her dearest friend in a bikini with a push-up bra, Melaina doesn't. After all, this is an era where Southern girls have to hide their faces behind towels to tell a boy their answers to their own hand-written sex quiz. (Sample: Have you ever been Frenched in the ear?)

It's an impeccable production--with hair, clothes, music and production design that savor the period without camping it up. There is succinct editing and camera work and lovely performances: Page Hannah, giving definition to the lifelong burden of being a senator's upright daughter; Annabeth Gish's Pudge, blossoming out from under that lovingly patronizing nickname, in no small degree because of Scott Coffey's Chip, her equal in sensitivity . . . sort of. And there is the surprise of Phoebe Cates' evolving Carson, mistress of Southern wiles, who may or may not settle docilely for the career of wife and mother.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°