Pontiac, IL was a place I stopped in often during my college years. It was about halfway between my hometown and where I was attending school in Peoria, IL. It was a convenient place to stop and take a break from driving when making a trip back home. I didn’t realize at the time that a few years earlier the town had been the primary filming location for an often forgotten film from 1984…Grandview U.S.A.
Our story begins on prom night in the small town of Grandview. Tim Pearson (C. Thomas Howell),the class valedictorian, plans on borrowing his father’s (Raymond Bieri) prized Cadillac for the big event. However, when he and his girlfriend head down to the lake after the dance, he gets the car stuck in the swampy mud. The young couple end up walking in their muddy formal wear all the way to the local demolition derby. The derby is having a hard time financially and is run by Michelle “Mike” Cody (Jamie Lee Curtis). She sends regular derby driver Slam Webster (Patrick Swayze) to fish the Cady out.
All of these folks have a variety of problems they’re dealing with. Tim is trying to figure out how to tell his father that he wants to go to Florida to study oceanography rather than go to college in Iowa. Slam is dealing with a wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is cheating on him, plus the fact that he is actually in love with Mike. Meanwhile, Mike is about $10,000 short of being able to fix up the demolition derby to meet the city codes. It doesn’t help that the city council, including Tim’s father, are trying to force her to sell so that a housing development and golf course can be built on the land. Oh yeah, and Tim starts falling in love with Mike while she teaches him how to drive in the derby.
One night at a city council meeting, Tim discovers his father’s plans and exposes them. Afterward, he and Mike end up spending the night in her trailer…she’s about 9 years older than the high school grad is. This does not go over well with Slam, who ends up taking it out on Tim during the kid’s demolition derby debut.
Grandview U.S.A. is another case where we have several storylines that the film keeps hoping back and forth between. So we have a somewhat disjointed feel. At times the film focuses primarily on Tim…at other times it’s Mike…and other times dwell on Slam. The film really needed one primary character to be the focus, I think it would’ve smoothed the whole thing out a bit better.
The film does hold the viewers’ interest, though, primarily through having some interesting characters and a unique setting. Sure we’ve seen plenty of films set in small town America, but often Hollywood ends up resorting to hicktown stereotypes written by people who never so much as set a foot further east than Malibu. The demolition derby on the outskirts of town helps add an original element to the proceedings. The film could’ve benefited from spending a little more time there. Plus, who can blame C. Thomas Howell’s character for taking an interest in smashing up cars, what with hot young Jamie Lee Curtis running the joint. That aside, Curtis plays Mike as a strong and complex character. The moments of the film that center on her and her struggles are the film’s strongest. At the same time, I enjoyed the simplicity of Swayze’s character, a guy who is not beneath trashing his own house with a bulldozer when he catches his wife inside with another man.
There are also a bunch of purely 80’s moments throughout Grandview U.S.A. that will be fun for those who lived through the decade. A scene where Howell imagines himself and Curtis in an MTV music video reminds us of everything that is cringe-worthy about what we wore and listened to in the 80’s. It’s also fun to catch some other up-and-coming teen stars in small parts sprinkled throughout. John Cusack has a small part as Howell’s best friend. His sister Joan Cusack shows up in a bit part too, as does Elizabeth Daily (she’s not even credited…but I’m pretty sure it’s her). Michael Winslow, the sound effects guy from Police Academy (also out in 84) even shows up as the announcer at the derby.
As a teen focused film from the 80’s, this one is unique in that it does not give us the John Hughes style suburban characters and setting. Though, Grandview U.S.A. does lack focus, its solid performances make it satisfying.