Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
After making a splash with several smart genre scripts for Roger Corman movies, John Sayles showed
further ambition by making what some have called the first modern independent film, an
character-driven personal movie. Return of the Secaucus 7 re-ignited the regional talent film
and gave Sayles a good start as a director.
MGM's DVD features the first decent-looking version I've seen of this 16mm show, coupled with a
don't-miss John Sayles commentary and an interview short subject.
A Vermont town is the site of a reunion of some good friends who were 60s activists
and now, ten years later, are doing okay but haven't set the world on fire. Mike Dawnly (Bruce MacDonald)
and Katie Sipriano (Maggie Renzi) are high school teachers; J.T. (Adam LeFevre) is a guitar-playing
quasi-vagrant, Frances Carlson (Maggie Cousineau) an intern, and Irene Rosenblue (Jean Passanante) a
sentator's speechwriter. Just busted-up but arrived anyway are Maura (Karen Trott) and Jeff (Mark
Arnott), and locals Ron Desjardins (David Strathairn) and Howie (John Sayles) get into the act
as well. The weekend in Dawnly's tiny house is a forum for discussions on the past, present and future,
and a game of Who's Sleeping with Whom?
Return of the Secaucus 7 was a grainy mess on theater screens in 1980, when we were more interested
in a reasonable film about characters we identified with, than technical perfection. It's
an unembellished job of direction for the first-time-out Sayles, straightforward and never clumsy.
Sayles calls the film an outgrowth of his Little Theater experience, and the performances are also
a bit on the uneven side. Sometimes the characters seem a bit forced, but more often than not we
believe them completely. Sayles' script, a 90-minute talkathon, shows his gift for natural gab and
is the strongest part of the show ... Sayles-as-director hasn't yet achieved the self-assurance that
distinguishes his later work, but his movie is still an impressive achievement.
Sayles manages to sketch characters that come off as approximations of real people even as they
examine each other's ideas and dreams. The host couple attempt to figure out where everyone will
sleep when they can't remember who the old and new couples are. The speechwriter hopes her friends
will accept her boyfriend, who is rather square compared to the others. An aimless
singer-songwriter beds a newly broken-up friend, not knowing her partner of five years will soon
And the locals provide a lifestyle contrast - children and responsibility - that the unmarried
couples regard with awe and fear.
Sayles has a great sense of humor but he keeps his couples' adventures down to Earth - nothing
sensational happens, really, and even when two competing guys clash over a girl, there's no
fistfight or anything. The gang plays at charades, attend a bad local comedy, play basketball and go skinny
dipping, without anything 'dramatic' to intrude on their self-examination. The highlight, of
course, is when they're run into the hoosegow for suspicion of shooting a deer. When asked
for their police records, they rattle off an impressive string of anti-war arrests in the years
'69 - '71 that show what they used to be.
The best thing about this group is that they're like people we might know. Unlike the oft-compared
The Big Chill, none have become Yuppified, nor movie stars, nor are into complicated
wife swapping, backed up by top-40 hits of the past. The Secaucus 7 are too close, and too
realistically ordinary for such nonsense.
The cast is good, and if some of the performances are uneven, it's probably because of Sayles'
inexperience or lack of time, because nobody sticks out as a consistent bad actor. Maggi Renzi is
frequently hilarious, even if her nasty remarks at the play don't ring true. Adam LeFevre is
excellent as the wandering singer who knows darn well how poor his chances will be in the California
music industry. Maggie Cousineau's doctor gets it on with the local gas pump boy David Strathairn,
and after all her talk about the shallow medics she meets, we believe it. The director saves himself
a few good moments as a guy who appreciates his family even though it is a heavy responsibility.
MGM's DVD of Return of the Secaucus 7 is a slightly grainy transfer of a 1:37 original
negative, with good color. The rather 'flat' visuals of the film don't hinder our appreciation of
Sayles' tyro effort ... hey, it's all in focus and there's a good stab at continuity, so back off.
The audio is good, suggesting a remix of some kind, although it's not in stereo.
Sayles is an excellent raconteur, and his commentary regales us with new information and
insights about every scene, actor and character. MGM's in-house unit has put together a pleasant
illustrated interview with Sayles and the delightful Maggie Renzi. She talks about the atmosphere
of making a no-budget labor of love like Secaucus, and points out the dubious benefit of
having no art director or designer: she shows us the scene where she sits on a bed amid three
clashing patterns on the wallpaper, bedspread, and her skirt.
This is a Sayles re-evaluation year, with his new film Casa de Los Babys (a good one, I saw
it last month) coming out and many older Sayles films resurfacing on DVD, especially at MGM. The
Babys trailer is included; MGM has it for later DVD release.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Return of the Secaucus 7 rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: commentary, interview short subject
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 18, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson