Cooley High August 31, 2021
1 Hr., 47 Mins.
ooley High (1975), Michael Schultz’s second directing effort, is a hopeful and funny, then profoundly tragic, coming-of-age comedy that has a well-worn quality — a decisive feel for its setting and characters. It’s set in 1964, on Chicago’s Near-North Side, and stars Glynn Turman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as high-school seniors Preach and Cochise. These best friends are impatient for their lives to
get started. Preach plans to move to California post-graduation to try his hand at screenwriting, and at the beginning of the movie Cochise receives a basketball scholarship.
The first stretch of Cooley High is a high-spirited chronicle of the youthful adventures had by Preach, Cochise, and their tight-knit circle of friends, backed often by affable, perfectly deployed Motown songs. We get party-crashing, class-cutting, a goofy disruption at a movie screening, an inadvertent car chase through the Chicagoan streets. There is a climactic moment of pitch-perfectly awkward tenderness when Preach loses his virginity to the one girl in school, Brenda (Cynthia Davis), who shares his affinity for poetry and literature; the scene feels so true in its ungainliness that it’s touching. But in Cooley High,
bright-eyed, nostalgic comedy is slowly eclipsed by earned seriousness. A mix-up produces tragedy, which entails a good portion of the film’s coming-of-age slant be informed with the reality that part of adulthood is understanding that living without a constant awareness of potentially negative consequences gets harder the older you get.
While the movie’s core lies collectively in Preach and Cochise, part of what makes Cooley High feel so lived-in, as noted by the Dissolve’s Craig J. Clark, is that every character in their periphery feels like they have their own story to tell. You detect the worlds they contain; it gives the movie an added richness. The cast of majority-unknowns does persuasive work that makes you want to better get to know them. Screenwriter Eric Monte provides enough glimmers of detail (without resorting to unhandy exposition) about even the most minor of characters to give them real dimension. I felt this especially with Brenda — introverted, content alone with a book, and clearly longing to grow up and be taken seriously — and Preach’s mother, who works three jobs to support her kids and at one point falls asleep while reprimanding her son.
Cooley High was a big success upon release — it made $13 million on a $750,000 budget — though is consistently overshadowed in the mainstream memory by 1973’s American Graffiti, whose similar conceit and concluding shift into tragedy have long led to comparison: a sort of “if you liked American Graffiti, you’ll like Cooley High” sort of thing. But that the film is often outshone shouldn’t suggest inferiority. Cooley High is an essential coming-of-age movie — a rare breed able to unaffectedly capture the joys and disappointments of growing up without feeling unduly moon-eyed or heavy-handed. B+