In a northern California town, circa 1962, four high school buddies spend a last night together before two of them are to travel east to college the next day. Clean-cut Steve (Ron Howard) and his steady, a high school cheerleader, are forced to come to grips with the future of their relationship. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), bored by the town, is nevertheless apprehensive about going away to school and spends the evening in pursuit of his own feelings about leaving. He sees "a beautiful blonde in a T-Bird" who symbolizes the perfect date; he is harassed by the Pharoahs, a gang of hoods who eventually decide to initiate him into their ranks when he performs a humorous prank upon the town's nasty cop; and he meets the legendary Wolfman Jack, a local DJ who through his music and rapping reigns as king in the lives of the young crowd.
Big John (Paul Le Mat), the local drag champion, cruises up and down the neon-lit streets, picks up a spunky 13-year-old girl, and takes on a challenge in a race that almost turns out to be a tragedy. And socially incompetent Terry (Charles Martin Smith) meets a cute girl who introduces him to the pleasures of coke 'n bourbon and making out. Throughout the long night and into the dawn, these kids discover, to varying degrees, something about growing up and discerning the difference between illusion and reality.
Although American Graffiti is set in 1962, the attitudes of these characters are from the 1950s. That was a time when the world revolved around the car — a status symbol, a way of putting wheels on restlessness, a means of looking over the action on main street, a place to neck without interruption. It was a time when having a partner, either a steady or an interesting pick-up, meant everything. Tribal acceptance or rejection oftentimes hinged upon success or failure in that department. And it was also a time when rock 'n roll was the bond that linked youth together and separated them from their parents. The airwaves provided kids with all the stuff out of which dreams and dramas are made. Cars, mates or dates, and good old rock 'n roll gave youth the culture out of which they would fashion their lives.
Director George Lucas, who co-authored the screenplay with Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, has evoked the 50s era in a most authentic, moving, and aesthetically pleasing way. He has caught in American Graffiti the impulses and confusions of growing up in a time before John Kennedy's assassination, before Vietnam, before the national splits and polarities of the 1960s. This was one of the best films of 1973.