Cooley High has the same youth-movie energy that defines some of the genre’s greats: American Graffiti, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. All of these films run on the mischievous, unfounded optimism that characterizes our teenage years. They make you nostalgic for naivete.
Filmed in the mid-’70s but set in 1964, Cooley High follows a pair of high-school friends who spend their days avoiding school and chasing girls in a neighborhood of Chicago housing projects. Preach (a funny and touching Glynn Turman) has dreams of being a Hollywood screenwriter, while Cochise (a cocksure Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) has just landed a college basketball scholarship. Though surrounded by poverty – dilapidated buildings, garbage-strewn streets and homes supported by single mothers working multiple jobs – Preach and Cochise persevere with the unbridled exuberance of youth. A big part of the joy of the movie is watching them and their friends combat their grim reality with good humor and camaraderie.
Not that the movie is a fantasy (at heart, none of the aforementioned youth pictures are either). Director Michael Schultz and screenwriter Eric Monte – the latter of whom grew up in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green housing project – are purposeful about letting us soak in those dismal surroundings. It’s part of the reason the movie opens with a panoramic shot of the city’s beautiful lakefront and gradually proceeds inward to this far less picturesque community. It’s also why we get a seemingly throwaway moment in which Preach’s mother – just home from the night shift – means to whip him for being out late but falls asleep at the table while waiting for him to bring her the belt. He gives her a gentle kiss instead.
With such touches – and especially in a scene in which Preach and Cochise take a joyride in a stolen car and are chased by police – the movie emphasizes the thin line that exists between a life of promise and a life of prison (or worse, death) for kids growing up in a neighborhood like this. Cooley High balances youthful optimism and adult reality in a way that makes it a precursor to the likes of Boyz N the Hood and Stand By Me. Like those films, tragedy plays a part, but this is a movie too full of youthful vigor to let tragedy have the last word.