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Shag; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

Originally released 21 Jul 1989
Written by Robin Swicord and Lanier Laney & Terry Sweeney from a story by Laney & Sweeney

Directed by Zelda Barron

Starring Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Annabeth Gish, Page Hannah, Scott Coffey, and Robert Rusler

My rating: ★★★ stars

Delightful teen movie where the girls go wild, like proper young ladies.

First, a word about about “shagging.” We all know now what “shag” means in British slang (thank you, Austin Powers). Thirty years ago, that meaning of the term wasn’t as well known in America as it is now. A nationally released film could get away with being called Shag and not have the title thought of in sexual terms. In fact, despite the film being preoccupied by sex, as most teen films are, the title doesn’t seem to be a double entendre at all. It really just refers to a dance, specifically the Carolina Shag, a regional swing dance popular along the Atlantic coast in, you guessed it, the Carolinas.

And that’s where our movie is set. In 1963, four South Carolina teens just out of high school head down to Myrtle Beach for one last weekend fling before one of them, Carson (Phoebe Cates), gets married. It’s a weekend of sun, fun, music, boys, parties, and dancing.

At the time of the film’s release, Cates was the biggest name, having made a big splash in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and other teen films of the 1980s. Thus, while each girl gets a story, Carson’s is the most significant. Having done everything expected of her, Carson has agreed to marry tobacco heir Harley Ralston (Tyrone Power, Jr.), not because she has any significant affection for him, but because she feels it’s something she’s supposed to do. During the weekend at Myrtle Beach, Carson must learn that she doesn’t always have to do the socially demanded thing. Carson has little agency at the beginning of the film. She makes no decisions for herself. She doesn’t even decide to go to Myrtle Beach; the other girls trick her into coming along. She’s so malleable that the aggressive pursuit of Yale-bound Buzz Ravenal (Robert Rusler) seems unfair, bordering on harassment—or it would be if she weren’t attracted to him. She rebuffs him throughout much of the movie, not necessarily because she’s not attracted to him, but because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do. When she chooses to begin a romance with Buzz, it’s not so much that she’s giving in as she’s embracing transgression. On some level, she’s using Buzz to break free from convention and from Harley. “Y’all, I’m wild. I guess I’ve been wild all along. I just didn’t know it ’til now,” she tells the other girls with relish.

The girl who seems most wild in the beginning is preacher’s daughter, Melaina (Bridget Fonda). She thrives on saying outrageous things to get a shocked reaction out of the other girls. For example, she states that she’d be willing to have an extramarital affair with President Kennedy and suggests that if Carson doesn’t like being married to Harley there’s always divorce. She dreams of going to Hollywood and becoming famous. In Myrtle Beach, she enters a beauty contest hoping to catch the eye of the judge, teen idol Jimmy Valentine (Jeff Yagher). One of the funnier moments in the middle of the film is her practicing her “talent,” a tacky dance in a polka-dot bikini that involves dry-humping the confederate battle flag (which appears at several points in the movie, including the title logo, without sensitivity to the racially charged nature of the symbol). Hardly a dumb blonde, Melaina proves inner cunning and earns a trip to Hollywood, even if it’s not in the way she initially expected. Fonda earned an Independent Spirit nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the film. The same year, she also received her first Golden Globe nomination, that time for Best Supporting Actress for Scandal.  

The least wild of the group is the hostess for the weekend Luanne (Page Hannah), the daughter of a U.S. senator. She’s uptight and overly concerned about decorum. She tells the girls that they can have fun in Myrtle Beach and still behave like ladies. Many of the comedy scenes in the film involve Luanne futilely trying to rein in the behavior of the other girls. Hannah gamey plays along with being the butt of the joke in many scenes, trying to maintain dignity in situations that increasingly spiral out of control.

The only girl who actually dances the Shag in the film is Pudge (Annabeth Gish). Gish is delightful as the affable, eager teen, whose self-esteem is scarred due to a struggle with weight. Although thin now, she still thinks of herself as a chubby girl no boy would look at twice. But, one does. Chip (Scott Coffey), Buzz’s sidekick, finds Pudge friendly and attractive and chooses to spend time with her and learn to shag because she likes it. Both Pudge and Chip are accustomed to being overlooked in favor of their more attractive friends, so each struggles to recognize that the other actually prefers him/her. Coffey, who appeared in a number of supporting roles in the 1980s, was also recognized for his performance here by an Independent Spirit nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The performances all around are very good. This is not a cheap, slapdash film starring vacuous, pretty young things of questionable talent. I’m surprised that, outside of Fonda, none of the performers went on to have star careers. Yet, like Cates and Hannah, Fonda retired early from acting to focus on family. Only Gish has continued acting with some success. She regularly appears in supporting roles on television, often in acclaimed dramas.

I was surprised to find out that only one of the three writers of the film, Robin Swicord, was female. The movie understands the concerns of being female—the pressure to behave in socially acceptable ways, the need to escape social boundaries, the competition for male attention, the question of being wanted only for one’s physical appearance, or, often worse, rejected because of it. The film was helmed by a female director, Zelda Barron, who seems to have real affection for the characters.

One of the treats of Shag is the soundtrack filled with classic Beach Music. To clarify, Beach Music was not the California surf music of The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. Instead, it was the soul music of the late 1950s-early 1960s that was popular in Myrtle Beach and the Atlantic Coast. Songs in the film include “Harlem Shuffle,” by Bob & Earl; “The Monkey Time,” by Major Lance; “Up on the Roof” and “Under the Boardwalk,” by The Drifters; and “Stagger Lee,” by Lloyd Price (bowdlerized version), to name a few of the approximately 25 songs. Due to music clearance problems, the currently available home video version does not include four of the songs in the theatrically released and first home video versions of the film—“Another Saturday Night,” by Sam Cooke; “He’s So Fine,” by The Chiffons; “Mama Said,” by The Shirelles; and “You Belong to Me,” by The Duprees. At least two songs have been added—The Tams’ classic “What Kind of Fool” and a forgettable contemporary song by k.d. lang. The soundtrack album, although much prized among collectors, is a disappointment. It features only five of the beach music classics in the film; the other five songs are new songs or re-recordings by contemporary artists. Some of these may be music replacements because the songs originally in the film could not be licensed for the soundtrack album.

Shag was made immediately after Dirty Dancing to capitalize on the apparent audience for teen-nostalgia-dancing movies, but it sat on the shelf for a year. Apparently, you can put teen girls, first love, sexual awakening, music, and dancing in a film and lightning won’t always strike. At the box office that is. Shag failed to repeat the success of the earlier film, earning only about $7 million on a $5 million budget. Yet, Shag is arguably the better film. It lacks the music video sensibility of Dirty Dancing, which probably accounted for much of the earlier film’s success, but, in doing so, is more tonally consistent.

Sensitive, gently humorous, insightful, and, most importantly, fun, Shag is one of the better films made about teenage girls.

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