1980s Documentary About High School Is Out of Storage, Back On the Screen

By Mark Walsh — September 15, 2015 4 min read
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Like an old yearbook that has been tucked away for decades, a documentary about one year at a California high school in the 1980s has literally come out of storage.

“All American High” was the name of the original film by director Keva Rosenfeld. It focused on the Class of 1984 at Torrance High School in Torrance, Calif., just south of Los Angeles and close enough to the beach to support a surfing team.

“All American High Revisited,” which made the film festival circuit over the last year, is being released Tuesday on iTunes, Amazon, and other platforms. Rosenfeld wraps the original film between a short introduction and a slightly longer coda that shows us how several of the featured students turned out. The original film is presented in its entirety, and it is a treat.

Some elements of the film will remind viewers of Hollywood’s take on high school during those years—including Amy Heckerling’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and such John Hughes films as “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “Pretty in Pink.”

Those feature films, however, have received wide exposure over the years, and are staples of cable channels to this day. “All American High” was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in the mid-1980s and appeared once on public television, and then its original print and other film spools went into a storage unit.

“Back then, there was no demand to keep seeing a documentary like that,” Rosenfeld said in an interview.

He had been an editor on news documentaries about topics such as teen pregnancy and police shootings. He had a stash of leftover film stock and set out to make a film about one year at a high school in the Los Angeles area. This was largely before the classic high school feature films of the 1980s had appeared and become their own genre.

Rosenfeld scouted out locations, not wanting anything too close to communities such as Beverly Hills or Hollywood. Torrance High School offered not only its own versions of the surfer dude from “Fast Times,” but some unusual curriculum options (which I’ll get to in a bit). And, importantly, the administration welcomed Rosenfeld and his camera crew.

“When I remastered the film and watched it again, my first thought was they would never allow me to be in there that way these days,” he said. “We were allowed 100 percent access on and off campus.”

The result was an in-depth look at a middle-class, mostly white, very California high school in the mid-1980s. And the viewers’ prism for examining this culture was a young exchange student from Finland named Rikki Rauhala.

“Rikki was such a fresh take on Americana,” Rosenfeld said. “She was the perfect voice for the film.”

Thus, early in the film and the school year, Rauhala observes that she is somewhat mystified that “the guys wake up early to blow dry their hair. In Finland, I don’t know anybody who does that.”

She learns about such rites as American football, the homecoming dance, and shopping at the local mall. In fact, Torrance High’s homecoming dance is held at the food court of the mall.

Rauhala notes that high school in America seems to be “much more sociable than educational.” The curriculum is not as rigorous as what she is used to in Finland, she says, and “here the school is built around popular people and non-popular people.”

She attends a “10-keg” beer bash put on by a few enterprising seniors, who charge $5 for admission but lament that much of their profits are eaten up by what they have to pay out to compensate for property damage.

Torrance High’s curriculum offers much that has probably hasn’t changed in 30 years. An English teacher explains that the class will tackle Heart of Darkness, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Madame Bovary, and The Stranger. The biology class dissects frogs, and a government class debates gun control and nuclear disarmament.

But the school also has some unusual offerings (besides surfing). The electronics club operates a pinball and electronic game arcade in the school, netting $200 in a good week, one student says. A life skills or home economics class of some sort has students making shoebox designs of their desired home decor. And most bizarre of all is the “marriage class,” where boys and girls pair up for mock weddings and marriages. (No same-sex “weddings” in 1984, though one boy-girl couple ended up married in real life.)

Next to Rauhala, the most eloquent observer is a long-haired student in an Ozzy Osbourne shirt, who says high school is made up of “the punkers, the meddlers, and the preppies.”

“The punkers want nothing to do with society,” he says. “The preppies are working for it. And the meddlers just want to party.”

As many of us have learned at our high school reunions, students of various cliques and definitions in their school years can end up in some surprising careers, and that turns out to be the case for the student in the Ozzy Osbourne shirt. He is now a Califorinia Highway Patrol officer.

The “Revisited” segment of the remastered film is not a class reunion of the students, but it is a chance for Rosenfeld and his cameras to reconnect with several of them. This includes a trip to Finland to catch up with Rauhala, who like her classmates is now approaching 50 years old. We see her watching the film with her own family, including a daughter who is on the cusp of high school graduation.

I won’t reveal all the “Revisited” material, but by and large, the students that Rosenfeld catches up with have turned out OK.

“I think I was surprised there was no real downside to having fun as a youth,” Rosenfeld said in the interview. “It does seem to endorse the idea that being a little bit silly and social in high school, and expressing the exuberance of youth, that there’s no downside to that.”

“High school is one of the great common denominators that we share in our culture,” he said. “It’s not about the education so much as about the exuberance of youth. That’s timeless.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.