Few movies capture the climate of an era successfully. Even more rare is a film that resists making made-for-TV style montages full of tattered vignettes that supposedly represent the age. Rather than follow that path, “The Wanderers” (1979) chooses to look at the ’60s through a magnifying glass and focus on just one story and one place: the coming-of-age of the members of a gang in the Bronx, NY.
Based on the cult-classic book of the same title by Richard Price, “The Wanderers” is also based on the old Dion song “The Wanderer.” The reference is appropriate, as the kids in the story are wanderers; they move around without any definite course or purpose, finding their routes along the way. The movie is at once dramatic, funny, tense, exciting, violent, romantic, corny and, in its own contorted way, uplifting, with director Paul Kaufman’s camera always in motion, following action that never seems to slow down.
With their greased-back hair, their deep and rich Italian accents and their signature gold and brown member’s jackets, the Wanderers are the hottest gang in Tully High School in 1963. During the days just prior to the assassination of President Kennedy, senior Richie (Ken Wahl) gets caught cheating on his girlfriend, the daughter of the local mob boss, Despie (Toni Kalem). Joey, Richie’s best friend and fellow gang member, decides to ostracize Richie for his infidelity with his date, Nina (Karen Allen, “The Perfect Storm”). Meanwhile at home, Perry (Tony Ganios), the newest member of the gang, has to chaperon his drunken mother and stop Joey’s drunken father from sneaking her alcohol in return for sex. Despite all these tragedies, the gang comes together for one last football game against the African-American gang, and for Richie’s engagement party.
Besides Karen Allen, who inexplicably gets third billing in the film and pops up only briefly as Nina, almost all the actors in the film are debuts or one-hit wonders. To a viewer, however, the eclectic range of actors in this film would more likely appear as kids rounded up from the very streets they inhabit in the story. The performances can only be described as real — but it is real to the point that every gesture, even every breath, seems motivated and essential. Perhaps it has to do with the profound simplicity of the characters, but the acting in this movie is absolutely phenomenal.
The brilliance in this timepiece is that the plot does not occur in some imaginary movie-world vacuum. The assassination of President Kennedy is not just a turning point in the story, but marks the end of a more conservative, restrained, timid, and, in many ways, more hypocritical era in America’s history. These changing values are mirrored excellently in a history class where the teacher tries to shatter racism by confronting the students with slurs. Various gangs and their actions in the film also serve to suggest the existence of a much larger world with much larger issues. A local Army recruiter misleads The Baldies, a skinhead gang, into joining the war effort with a binding three-year contract. By magnifying the comic camaraderie of the gangs in the Bronx, Kaufman successfully clues the viewer in on the bigger picture of the ’60s.