Vision Quest (1985)
Directed by Harold Becker
Produced by Joh Peters, Peter Guber
Screenplay by Darryl Ponicsan
Based on the novel Vision Quest by Terry Davis
Cinematography by Owen Roizman
Music by Tangerine Dream
Warner Bros. Blu-ray (1:47)
In 1985, I looked to fulfill my own vision quest, eager to realize a dream I’d had for the previous ten years, to become a great high school band director. Compared to other people my age who were pursing careers in banking, commerce, or entrepreneurship, my vision quest probably seemed pretty inconsequential. But it was mine. This initial process of learning the ropes and making mistakes seemed inevitable, but necessary. This was, after all, my first teaching job at a junior high school in Meridian, Mississippi. The plan was to teach junior high for a year, maybe two, then get a high school position. Such plans have a way of working themselves out without bothering to consult us.
I watched Vision Quest only because I watched almost every movie that came out in those days. At the time, it was just another movie. I had no interest in wrestling, had never heard of the stars Matthew Modine or Linda Fiorentino, but Vision Quest was a movie and watching movies was as natural to me as breathing. After the first few minutes, the film began to resonate with me. I understood Louden Swain and his quest to defeat the toughest wrestler in the state. His quest, sacrifice, and determination became mine. I understood his quest, and in a totally illogical way that seems to happen only in the movies, I felt that he would probably understand mine.
My greatest desire was not only to become a great teacher, but to become great early in my career, so great that people would think I’d been teaching somewhere else for several years. In my mind, Vision Quest transformed from a simple movie to a call for action, a roadmap for greatness.
Vision Quest is a coming-of-age story about a high school wrestler in Spokane, Washington named Louden Swain (Matthew Modine), a young man willing to drop down two weight classes (roughly 23 pounds) for a chance to wrestle Brian Shute (Frank Jasper), a powerhouse three-time state champion at a rival high school. Louden’s a smart, confident kid, writing term papers on medical topics (especially those explaining the function of the female anatomy) that sometimes get him in trouble with his teacher, and working as a bellboy in the kitchen of a local hotel. We learn that Louden lives alone with his dad (Ronny Cox) and that his mom at some point abandoned them both. Things begin to change (for better or worse? I won’t tell you) when a 20-year-old artist named Carla (Linda Fiorentino, in her film debut) comes to stay with them. How this happens isn’t really that believable or important. What is important is that Louden falls for Carla completely. The question is, however, will he fall so hard for her that he forgets his quest?
Vision Quest is a movie you either follow with your heart or you don’t. There’s no good reason for Carla to be the Swain household, yet she’s more than simply a plot device. Fiorentino brings something to the role of Carla that makes you forget the weaknesses of the story and focus simply on her character. You aren’t really interested in how or why she got there, but you care about her and how she’s going to affect Louden’s ultimate goal. Carla is confident without being arrogant, slightly distant without being an ice queen. Maybe there’s something in her past creating that distance or maybe she’s wary of becoming the object of a high school kid’s fantasy.
The characters in this film display depth and not just the two headliners. Michael Schoeffling (above right, the guy Molly Ringwald had the hots for in Sixteen Candles) plays Kuch, Louden’s teammate, friend, and “half-Indian spiritual adviser.” Without getting involved in a lot of backstory, the Darryl Ponicsan script shows us in just a few seconds everything we need to know about Kuch. The same goes for Louden’s wrestling coach Charles Hallahan (the actor who really got messed up in John Carpenter’s The Thing), his teacher Mr. Tanneran (Harold Sylvester) and Elmo (J.C. Quinn, below left), the short-order cook Louden works with at the hotel. (You'll also see a young Forest Whitaker, Daphne Zuniga, and Madonna in her first movie appearance.) All of these characters live and breathe, giving us the feeling that even if they couldn’t star in their own movies, they’re the kind of people you’d like to sit down with and have a drink, listening to their stories.
Until recently, I hadn’t seen the film in over 30 years, but there’s a scene near the end of the film that I’ve never forgotten. It’s a speech delivered by Louden’s co-worker Elmo after Louden tells him about his upcoming wrestling match with Shute, an event Elmo has told Louden he plans to attend. We know very little about Elmo, but although he’s older than Louden, he’s not old. Yet Louden (and maybe we, the audience) seems to think that the life of a short-order cook implies a limited life experience, or maybe a stagnant resignation to the ordinariness of life, something which would be anathema to Louden. Louden tells Elmo that there’s no need to get dressed up for the match, will last six minutes, tops. How Elmo responds to Louden is honest and open, simple and profound, revealing something of his character that surprises, elevates, and saddens us all at the same time. It’s one of those moments in movies that don’t come nearly often enough, moments that stick with you and make you try a little harder, reach a little higher, and dream a little bigger. You know it's just a fictional story, a few lines from a script, but it does something to you.
The film in general (and that scene in particular) made me try harder, reach higher, dream bigger. Even when reality hit me in the face in the form of a competition in which I utterly failed to properly prepare and lead my students, I kept trying, reaching, dreaming. The fault didn’t rest with them; it rested with me. It was a major disappointment. I felt I was a major disappointment. I wasn’t Louden Swain. I realized that Swain was a character in a movie; he wasn’t real. But I was. I wasn’t following a script, but I thought I was scripting my own destiny. I learned otherwise very quickly and very hard. But that lesson was crucial.
I’m not sure that I consciously thought about Louden Swain as my career began to develop and as I started experiencing success on a professional and personal level. As plans often do, mine changed. Instead of teaching at the junior high/middle school level for a couple of years, I did so for 13. (I also taught some high school, but primarily my teaching career was spent with junior high/middle school students and I wouldn't change that for a minute.) Perhaps Vision Quest played a part in that development. Seeing it now, I still feel that drive to excel, to compete, to win and succeed. I’m not 23 any longer, but there’s still some Louden Swain in my DNA. Maybe the same is true for you.
Vision Quest is far from a perfect film. You can find plenty of things wrong with it and I wouldn’t argue with you over any of them. Yet the film is something of a milestone in my life, measuring from where I was to where I am and just maybe where I'm headed. I wasn’t sure how I would react to the film over 30 years later. Not surprisingly I found that the film hadn’t changed at all, but maybe I have. Maybe…