Thursday, May 8, 2014

Our Time (1974, Peter Hyams)

Coming out in 1974, a year after the monumental Roe v. Wade decision, Peter Hyams' Our Time, with its 1950s boarding-school girls grappling with teen pregnancy and illicit abortion, may as well have been set on a different planet.  There was criticism (here and here, and surely in other places) rooted in the idea that the film was cheaply nostalgic and overly maudlin; looking at the film 40 years later, I didn't get the sense that the filmmakers were looking back whimsically at the '50s nor that they used exploitative tactics to elicit tears or other such strong emotions.  While Hyams, writer Jane C. Stanton, and producer Richard A. Roth (the producer behind the massively successful Summer of '42, a key antecedent for Our Time, and Hyams' later film Outland) were for the most part excoriated by contemporary critics, my view is that time has been kind to the film and it stands as a dramatically potent and sensitive coming-of-age tragedy. 

Just a few years after making her screen debut in To Find a Man, which dealt with an unwanted teen pregnancy and abortion, Pamela Sue Martin returned to this subject matter in Our Time.  Martin is top-billed as Abby, a senior at a strict, upscale all-girls boarding school in Massachusetts in love with Parker Stevenson (a student at a neighboring boarding school).  Martin is excellent, but it's her co-star Betsy Slade, as Abby's roommate and best pal Muffy, who really blew me away and whose performance continues to haunt me.  That Slade (who was De Palma's original choice for the title role in Carrie) disappeared from big and small screens less than a decade after Our Time, probably contributes to this "haunting" quality.  She is the sister of Mink Stole, a key member of the John Waters stock company, but other than that bit of trivia and the Carrie footnote, there is very little about Slade in the public sphere.  It's a shame her career ended so soon because she's a unique and mesmerizing onscreen presence and imbues her character with a mixture of wisdom, naiveté, sweetness, and nerdiness that I found quite beguiling and, ultimately, heartbreaking.  

The scenes of beautiful couple Stevenson and Martin making plans to consummate their love don't break much new ground and are not especially interesting, but Slade's scenes with the gawky boy (George O'Hanlon Jr.) who loves her and, later, with a well-intentioned and empathetic med student / abortionist (Robert Walden) are special; they are painfully real moments, beautifully realized by Slade and her co-stars.  And, although they apparently did not get along at all in real life (check out this interview with Martin, Stevenson, and Larry Karaszewski), the "friends till the end" bond between Martin and Slade is touchingly and convincingly portrayed, and the shattering final scenes are well-earned by the players and filmmakers.  Our Time ranks highly, for me, with other superb coming-of-age tales from the period such as the aforementioned To Find a Man and Jeremy, which manage to strike a delicate balance between earnestness, sentimentality, "realness," charm, and provocativeness; they each contain certain transcendent moments that never fail to move me to some combination of tears and reflection.

Michel Legrand was the go-to guy when it came to lush, delicate scores for romantic teen dramas in this period, such as Summer of '42, Ode to Billy Joe, and Breezy, and the maestro adds to his illustrious discography with his gorgeous main theme for Our Time.

In the supporting cast, are the late Debralee Scott and Nora Heflin as schoolmates of the two leads and Jerry Hardin as a chaperone at the school dance.  Heflin and Hardin would appear together a few years later in Obscure One-Sheet all-time favorite Chilly Scenes of Winter.

No comments: