Vision Quest (1985)

Directed by Harold Becker

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In Vision Quest a young wrestler risks his own health and sanity to lose enough weight in order to wrestle the Nazi youth-looking wrestler from a rival high school.  This very, very 80s film is a blend of traditional 80s tropes and a subtextual message about seizing the day before it seizes you.

Louden Swain (Matthew Modine) weighs approximately 190 pounds and, tired of the poor competition in his weight class, has his eyes on dropping down to 168 so that he can wrestle Shute (Frank Jasper), the aforementioned antagonist who doesn’t factor much into the story outside of one moment of bathroom intimidation and his ultimate defeat at the hands of our hero.

This drive presents more of a challenge to Louden’s health as he is constantly starving, light-headed and enduring a series of nosebleeds that concern everyone around him.  They know that his goal is kind of insane, but he remains firm in his commitment.  When his coach points out that this won’t help him win state (which he was already well on his way to doing) or get a scholarship, Louden says he doesn’t care.  He just wants to be Shute, and it doesn’t much matter why.

Like with other 80s films such as Footloose, there is a loose canon type of character who at first seems set up to be the protagonist’s rival, only to instead quickly become his best friend.  Here it’s Kuch (Michael Schoeffling), a fellow wrestler weighing 174 pounds and coming from a broken home.  He claims to be part Native American, but this turns out to be some sort of false bravado, and it impressed no one.

Kuch turns out to be Louden’s biggest fan, along with the rest of the school I suppose, and he cheers him along the way.  In these 80s movies it’s not enough for the hero to have an almost cartoonishly antagonistic villain (who is just another teenage wrestler) or to defeat that villain.  Such a movie hero also needs to have a ton of people rooting for him.

Louden is driven, that’s for sure.  He faints one or more times and seems ready to fall into some kind of coma thanks to starving himself.  There is a clear dark side here, a danger to his mind, body and soul, but Vision Quest is a pretty positive movie, all things considered.

It’s the same type of damaging ambition, an urge to ‘win’ that is chronicled in a movie like 2014’s Whiplash.  That thrilling movie, about a Jazz drummer who wants nothing more than to be the best, keeps its hero in isolation.  We really feel the things he has forcibly given up to remain in studious exile.

That’s not the case for Louden, he gets to have his cake and eat it too.  Vision Quest is a coming of age movie, meaning that Louden has a love interest to go with his best friend and rival.  There is also a sensitive scene near the end with his father in which he learns something more about his dad, bridging a gap that had widened since Louden’s mother ran away with another man.

Our young hero learns a few lessons about the world and himself, and despite his intense commitment to only his athletics, he somehow finds time to have a pretty well-rounded life.  In the end this movie says nothing about what it takes to succeed, just that if you’re determined then good things will happen.

Carla (Linda Fiorentino) is that love interest.  She’s a few years older than Louden and only stopping through town on her way down the coast to San Francisco.  She’s an aspiring artist whose sensitivity and perception contrast nicely with Louden’s stubbornness and more jock-ish ways.  They make for a funny pair, and their relationship works best before he makes a (truly unfortunate) pass at her and then before they ultimately, kind of absurdly, get together.

Throughout the film characters make reference to the idea of a “vision quest.”  It seems tacked onto the movie, but it does thematically resonate with this story and many like it, where the protagonist has a very single-minded goal and wills it into existence.  Because of the nature of this movie (high school athletics, Nazi-looking bad guy), we know the hero will triumph in the end.  There is an almost cosmic force working in his favor, ensuring that he gets with the girl, defeats the villain and charms everyone else along the way.

Outside of a movie such good fortune feels highly improbable, but narrative cinema makes this kind of a success a given.  Calling back to the idea of a vision quest, it makes Louden’s mission and triumph feel mystical or even hallucinatory.

What if this is just the movie he had in his own head of his own success?  Maybe you step out of Louden’s own dream, where everything worked so well, and you see where his life really is.  He’s a stubborn, unhealthy, basement-dwelling scrawny, starving, lustful wrestler who can only dream a certain success rather than manifest it.  Vision Quest feels like a fever dream, just as many of these 80s movies do (like Footloose and The Karate Kid).

In these movies the hero learns a few lessons about life but only really because they’ve come out on top.  Would Louden and company learn such lessons were they to fail?  Whether intentionally or not, these movies suggest that the journey only matters if the end result is a success.

Up Next: Il Bidone (1955), With Honors (1994), Ordinary People (1980)

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