Less revered than 1980s teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or, really, any John Hughes production, Valley Girl nonetheless stands as a high point from the era. The movie wears its moment in time more obviously—“gag me” is one of its first lines of dialogue, while popped, pastel collars and feathered hair are its fashion hallmarks—but it also has a sweetness to it that’s timeless.
That sweetness, believe it or not, is mostly due to Nicolas Cage, moving on from a bit part in Fast Times the year before to the male lead here. He plays Randy, a leather-jacketed Hollywood kid who crashes a house party in the valley, where he falls hard for a mall girl named Julie (Deborah Foreman). Julie just happened to dump her boring, boorish boyfriend earlier that day, proclaiming, “I definitely need something new.” Randy is nothing if not that, so they ditch the party for a long night in which Randy introduces Julie to life on the other side of the hills.
Nobody looks like a high-schooler in Valley Girl, but Cage has a lanky goofiness that captures the sense of a body still trying to figure itself out. His soft voice and near-drawl are equally endearing. And those eyes! His general expression is that of Bambi after his mother died (until the occasional, sudden outbreak of a big smile). Cage is the definition of dreamy, and clearly the one in the cast who would go on to do big things.
Even as it captures universal experiences of adolescence—not just first love, but also that sense of exploring beyond your narrow world for the first time—Valley Girl is also rooted in a very specific cultural confrontation of the time: that of the punks vs the preps. As the opening helicopter shot drifts over the Hollywood Hills into the San Fernando Valley, the radio weather report we hear shifts from one location to the other (and there’s a distinct difference in temperature). Randy represents the wild multiculturalism of Hollywood, while Julie comes from the upper-class, consumerist valley. The soundtrack splits the difference, featuring new wave tracks like Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” and The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” (as well as actual appearances by The Plimsouls and Josie Cotton).
Cage is the definition of dreamy, and clearly the one in the cast who would go on to do big things.
Another number, Modern English’s “I Melt With You,” anchors a giddy montage of Randy and Julie getting to know each other over the course of a series of dates (mostly in Hollywood, but at one point she convinces him to come to the mall). Director Martha Coolidge and editor Eva Gardos end the montage with the lovely image of Randy, after bringing Julie home, doing a joyful dance in silhouette outside her front door. It’s a tiny touch that’s emblematic of Valley Girl’s signature sweetness.
Coolidge—who made her debut with Not a Pretty Picture, a personal documentary/drama about date rape—is likely also responsible for a small moment early on that is tangential but incredible moving. Elizabeth Daily (Dottie from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) plays Loryn, one of Julie’s close friends. During the party sequence at the start of the film, she slips into a bedroom with Julie’s recently dumped boyfriend, Tommy (Michael Bowen). After some interaction we’re not entirely privy to, he abruptly leaves, making it clear he has no intention of pursuing any kind of relationship despite what they’ve just done. As the door closes, Loryn whispers under her breath, “Get out.”
If Valley Girl seems almost too dreamy at times, this moment is a brief, bracing counter. These are all kids trying to figure out who they are, individually and with each other, in a subculture that emphasizes status and commodities (clearly Loryn is considered to be little more than that by Tommy). Randy isn’t perfect, but he offers something that’s at least more authentic than that.