Vision Quest is a strange little movie. Despite the structure that aims the film at a "big game"-type showdown, this isn't a sports movie. The tone and approach of the movie is more subtle than the average teen movie, not to mention it's rated R, which may have limited its audience in 1985. It's centered around a romance, which alternates between content that would be questioned today and surprisingly modern insight. The film lives and dies on the strength of its central performance by Matthew Modine, who exudes a pure and disarmingly clueless innocence that helps the movie skate past more than a few rough patches. It'd be easy to imagine the film's appeal is purely nostalgic, but it's unique enough that it's easy to imagine new viewers might like its' specific concoction of ingredients.
The core conflict in Vision Quest isn't Shute, or Louden achieving his goals, or even the romance, but a decidedly adult perspective on teenage dreams: high school is only temporary, and life moves on. Louden may fall for Carla, but Carla has dreams of her own, dreams which will take her thousands of miles away and have nothing to do with a gawky high schooler whose whole life is wrestling. The wrestling itself may lead to a scholarship, but unless it's what Louden wants to do with his life, that too is finite, a goal that will last him one summer. Around Louden, other characters struggle with the same passage of time: Kuch is trapped between an abusive father and a depressing career in the military, and Louden's chef co-worker at a swanky hotel, Elmo (J.C. Quinn) seems to be living vicariously through the potential ahead of Louden -- not even his specific accomplishments, but the fact that Louden still has time to choose who or what he's going to become.
This dynamic also plays out in Louden and Carla's courtship, with Carla a more wise 20-something to Louden's clueless 18. The strength of Fiorentino's performance lies in realizing that difference in experience, even when Louden's behavior is really kinda creepy. It's a testament to both performers that a scene where Carla catches Louden sniffing her underwear, or another where he confesses how many wet dreams he has end up being less awful than they sound on paper: his unwavering sweetness and her wry amusement go a long way. Unlike many teen films of the 1980s, the screenplay by Darryl Ponicsan seems to actually respect the idea of Carla as her own person, on a path that won't be detoured by a high school crush. There's some clash between the way the film dramatizes how Louden's obsessive training is taking a toll on him and the way Carla pushes him to stick to his goals and focus on more than her, but again, there's enough in Fiorentino's performance to make it work.
There are a couple of minor issues: it's hard to understand why Carla would stand for some of Louden's reaction when he briefly believes that she's slept with his favorite teacher, Tanneran (Harold Sylvester). In fact, the character of Tanneran, as good as he is, is one of no less than five father figures for Louden. The film doesn't actually feel bloated or weighed down by the inclusion of dad, grandpa (Roberts Blossom), Coach, Elmo, and Tanneran, but there is a sense that these could've been condensed these into fewer characters. There's also an awkward early scene where Louden flees an overly gropey male guest in the hotel that reeks of homophobia, but that too is defused by Modine's affable nature. Louden is upset in the moment, but recounting it to Kuch later, he seems to take it in stride. There is also Daphne Zuniga, as school paper editor Maggie, a character that feels as if she's being set up as a future romance for Louden, especially when he writes a paper on the clitoris that she raves about, only to end up fading into the background as the film draws to a climax.
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