I was still a pre-teen when the wrestling film Vision Quest was released in 1985, and even though I was already predisposed against sports movies when it came out I remember being won over not by its sweaty story of tenacity and romance, but by the official film soundtrack.
I’ll get to the music later, but upon rewatching Matthew Modine in this story of a high school wrestler trying to drop 22 pounds to achieve a personal triumph and simultaneously win the girl of his dreams in the process I became a zealous fan once again.
The story is a simple one at first glance, but two decades later I view it as one that even with some awkward technical faults leaves the audience still cheering.
Modine plays Louden Swain, a gangly protagonist living with his divorced father in Spokane, Wash., who aspires to be both an astronaut and a clinical physician.
As a way of dealing with his lower middle class family life and self-imposed alienation in high school, Louden undertakes a personal self-improvement regime he hopes will culminate in improving his wrestling ability in a face-off with the infamous state wresting champ Chute, who trains by carrying telephone poles on his back up stadium steps (and resembles a chiseled high school version of one-time UFC champ Brock Lesnar).
Louden’s path to glory becomes complicated when he meets Carla (Linda Fiorientino), a hot 21-year old artist from New Jersey whose newly purchased used car breaks down at Louden’s father’s garage, stranding her in town. Louden and his father (Ronny Cox) graciously offer Carla a room at their home until her car can be repaired, and she becomes the new object of Louden’s passion while he goes on what his half-Indian workout buddy Kuch (Michael Schoeffling) describes as “a vision quest – trying to find your place in the circle” of life.
Louden is also befriended by a cantankerous short-order cook at the hotel where he works named Elmo (J.C. Quinn) and his prescient English teacher (Harold Sylvester), who both offer the teen ample opportunities for introspection and insight between training montages.
Eagle-eyed viewers can spot both a young Daphne Zuniga and Forest Whitaker in the cast, and Schoeffling’s only other big screen role outside of John Hughes’ teen comedy Sixteen Candles is sandwiched in between funny discussions of the clitoris and Louden’s encyclopedic discussion of erections and nocturnal emissions.
Viewing the film more three decades later and separated from my own teen angst, what really resonates now is not the crowd-pleasing crescendo of the final face-off (though it is still satisfying), but how director Harold Becker (who later went on to make turkeys Mercury Rising and Domestic Disturbance) offers something for everyone with this film.
For the intellectual, Becker posits a well-positioned explication of the Victorian poem “Spring and Fall to a Young Child” by Gerald Manley Hopkins in a way that mirrors Louden’s internal drive without seeming forced. In a movie populated by the sweat-stained sect, the prose is well-handled and not used heavy-handedly.
Another oddity in this sports-themed film is how the subject of homosexuality is addressed. Louden gets hit upon by a hotel guest, who gets a little handsy while showing the young jock the rudiments of Tai Chi, but in a throwaway line much later we learn the guest is a traveling salesman hawking athletic gear and Louden befriends him to receive wrestling shoes he otherwise could not afford.
A little online research suggests this was included to dissuade broader audiences from thinking that men wrestling in singlets was gay, but whatever the reason it serves a subtle purpose in a story often containing homophobic slurs.
The delicate relationship between Louden and Carla is awkwardly fraught with an initial misstep when our protagonist, rummaging through his laundry, is caught sniffing her underwear. The potential coupling becomes even more complicated when Louden believes his teacher is seducing Carla, and it all gets further strained when a testosterone-fueled Louden confronts his crush and attempts to force himself on her in a tense altercation which cannot be viewed as anything other than attempted date rape before Carla bloodies his nose and informs the wrestling Romeo she decides with whom she will share herself. The scene is very similar to Prince’s prissy physical abuse of Apollonia in Purple Rain, but at least the issue is raised and settled rather than being left ambiguous.
Then there is the music. I still have a worn-out cassette copy of the soundtrack (courtesy of Columbia House Record and Tape Club) which contains not only two Madonna songs (“Crazy for You” and “Gambler”) but ’80s classics from Dio, John Waite, Don Henley, REO Speedwagon, and Journey’s inspirational arena rock anthem “Only the Young.” The actual music in the film is even better, as it includes hits from Quarterflash and a score from synth wizards Tangerine Dream. It all is very much what I remember playing at various junior high dances as I, too, tried to woo a young woman with my sweaty charms, though mine were clearly not from any athletic endeavors.
(Fun fact: This was Madonna’s first appearance in a movie, and her inclusion was enough for the film to be renamed “Crazy For You” when it was distributed in some countries overseas. Some audiences even bought tickets expecting the screwball comedy “Desperately Seeking Susan” only to be shown a sportsball movie)
However, sports fans, what is probably the most touching part of the film doesn’t involve ’80s music or even wrestling at all. Instead, it is a beautiful, brief monologue by Elmo about the magic of sport:
Even with its faults, Vision Quest is an endearing sports movie for people who do not like sports as it has something for everyone who has ever chased a goal, a girl, or a dream. Vision Quest really is a celebration of taking a path everyone else says will only hurt you and loving the inevitable sweet pain that is part of the process if you are tenacious enough to undertake the journey.
Vision Quest (1985)
- Directed by Harold Becker
- Starring Matthew Modine, Linda Fioroentino, Ronny Cox, Micheal Schoeffling, and J.C. Quinn
- Rated R for profanity and sex.
- Grade: A+ for offering a mid-80s time capsule about tenacity.