Thursday, January 5, 2023



Year of Release: 1980

Director: John Sayles

Genre: Drama

Synopsis: Seven college friends, and some newcomers to the fray, reunite for the weekend at a New Hampshire summer house.

Within a film history context: There have not been many films made about the reunion of college friends before the release of RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN. The first was Busby Berkeley's FORTY LITTLE MOTHERS (1940). An unemployed professor finds work in an all-girls school thanks to an old college friend, and finds an abandoned child which he takes under his wing despite the school's rule for teaching staff to be without a family. One of the stories in TALES OF MANHATTAN (1942), directed by Julien Duvivier, focused upon a man who attends his college reunion. He tries his best to disguise his past to the other attendees, the truth emerging about him which may, or may not, hamper his future job prospects. In Joshua Logan's PICNIC (1955), drifter Hal looks up Alan, his old college friend in Kansas, and they reignite their friendship. When Hal falls for Alan's fiancée, this sets the stage for much drama in this memorable movie set during a Labour Day picnic. With THE SPORTING CLUB (1971), directed by Larry Peerce, two college friends meet after many years at the titular club, the one causing mayhem in the life of the other. RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN was one of the best of the movies about a reunion of college friends.

It was the most in-depth of all the movies about a college reunion, with the entire movie consumed with the subject. Unlike FORTY LITTLE MOTHERS, where a meeting of college friends takes up only a fraction of screen time, RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN contained a number of reunions within the story. These occur gradually, in an organic manner, and provide valuable information on the characters, especially with the contracting natures of the people in the movie. The drama, and comic episodes are borne out of the differences in opinion which the characters bring to the plate. The film was akin to an extended version of the segment from TALES OF MANHATTAN, allowing for a fuller representation of the people in the reunion in feature length, instead of just a half hour duration. People laugh, cry, fight, and compete with each other in RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN, to name just a few emotions and actions depicted in the movie. Other aspects of RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN also merit discussion.

The relationship between Hal and Alan in PICNIC is deepened considerably in the presentation of the interactions of the male protagonists in RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN. In PICNIC, the men discuss their past adventures and memories of these, but the present intrudes upon the sanctity of the past, with regard to the two men battling over the one woman. Romance, male-female, and male-male relationships are something which RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN treats intensively. Having several male characters instead of only two makes for interesting drama, especially with their connections to the female characters. This is another area where RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN differs from others. The presence of female characters brings out other sides to the men which is also apparent in PICNIC, but with more complexity in RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN. It is not just a matter of men fighting for women, but more about the little things which constitute male-male, and male-female dealings. A compelling movie about a college reunion, RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN is a thorough picture on an emotional level.

Overview: John Sayles is a prolific American director who has made eighteen motion pictures over a thirty-three year time frame. His works are generally character-driven pieces which explore relationships in both contemporary, and past societal eras. Mr Sayles' second movie, LIANNA (1983), was about a sexually-confused married woman who has an affair with another woman, this causing her to reassess her life, and gender identity. BABY IT'S YOU (1983) charted the high school romance between two young people, a Jewish girl and an Italian-American boy, following their fraught union in the New Jersey of the late 1960s. More humorous in tone was THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1984). A mute alien who in appearance resembles a human being, lands by his ship on Ellis Island, taking on a job as a technician, but two men in black are hot on his trail to force him to return to his planet. MATEWAN (1987) shone a light on the coal miner's strike of 1920 in the West Virginian town of Matewan, and the efforts of a union organizer to bring balance in the face of vocal opposition from the mining company, and other participants. Another movie set in a past time, EIGHT MEN OUT (1987) spotlighted the 1919 Black Sox baseball scandal in which members of the team attempted to lose the game for money in light of their low pay. Into the 1990s, John Sayles continued with further thoughtful movies.

CITY OF HOPE (1991) focused on a dilapidated apartment block slated for demolition, presenting the viewpoints of all those involved with this predicament. Female relationships, in contrast, were at the core of PASSION FISH (1992). A soap opera actress falls victim to an accident which leaves her paralyzed, and relies on nurses, finding compatibility with them difficult. She finally finds a nurse where a meeting of the minds takes place, both their lives enriched in the process. THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH (1994), was a fantasy movie with a family orientation. A young woman in 1940s Ireland fascinated by life in a small fishing village seeks to find her brother, who was believed to have become a selkie. Mystery of a more adult nature pervaded LONE STAR (1996). When the human skeleton of a former sheriff is discovered, this opens the door to unlocking many secrets in a Texas town. MEN WITH GUNS (1997), was a change of pace for John Sayles. A widowed doctor who trained a group of students who work in poverty-stricken Mexican villages seeks to find out what happened to these people, as he discovers one of them was killed by military forces. Mr Sayles rounded out the 1990s with LIMBO (1999). A former fisherman in an Alaskan town begins to date a woman whose daughter dislikes her mother's lifestyle, and they become embroiled in his brother's murder. John Sayles made six more movies in the 2000s and beyond.

SUNSHINE STATE (2002), contrasted the personal lives of two very different women who both reside in Delrona Beach, Florida. One story thread is concerned with a black woman, and her relationship with her daughter, and her offspring's mixed-up life. The second is about a woman running a family-owned motel and cafe, her romance with her boyfriend, and tenuous union with her former husband. CASA DE LOS BABYS (2003), revolved around six American women who seek to adopt babies in South America, highlighting the immense difficulties they endure during this experience. SILVER CITY (2004), was a political satire of a man seeking to become Governor of Colorado, and how his discovery of a corpse one day while fishing both triggers, and subsequently unearths a great number of problems. HONEYDRIPPER (2007), was another John Sayles film set in the past. In the Alabama of 1950, a young guitarist is recruited by a blues club owner to save it in the face of competition from a rival club. Yet another period film, AMIGO (2010), was set in 1900s Philippines during the Philippine-American war raging at the time, concentrating upon the lead character, the chairman of an administrative area. Mr Sayles' final film to date is GO FOR SISTERS (2013). An incident throws together two former high school friends, one a parole officer, the other her parolee, with the officer seeking the other's help to save her son from drug kingpins. RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN marked John Sayles' directorial debut, and is one of his most fluent motion pictures.

John Sayles has crafted an illuminating movie in RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN. It takes as its starting point a reunion of college friends at the home of couple Mike and Katie. At the reunion, both old and new faces become reacquainted, and acquainted, with friendships rekindled, and some enmities reactivated along the way. The beauty of the movie is how it intimately tracks the minutiae of human interactions which is fascinating indeed to watch. Events progress at a steady pace, are never rushed, and the spectator is able to identify with a number of different viewpoints. The film takes its time with everything, and one feels as if they are watching real events transpire on the screen. In terms of emotional delicacy and accuracy, RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN is a winner. It is not a picture for those who need violence and car accidents in every second scene, which is admirable. In saying this, though, it does have a flaw which sidetracks the movie somewhat.

RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN comes from a place of truth, and is thoughtful as a motion picture. Other films can only dream of its honesty in their execution. There is one segment of the movie, though, which does not work as well as the others. The group of college friends is apprehended for the death of a roadside deer, for which they are eventually released when the true culprit is uncovered. It seems to have been included as a comic aside to the mostly dramatic nature of the movie, but is forced. After much compelling drama for the majority of the film, it stands out for its incongruousness. It is a movie in which gimmicks would not, and do not, work. The movie, though, does make up for this in the final stretches with a return to Mike and Katie's home, and the memorable scene of Jeff chopping wood. These are the types of moments which sum up the picture, being the little things which express meaning in volumes. A satisfying look into a reunion of college friends, RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN is a great movie, and an above-average cinematic achievement from John Sayles.

ActingRETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN boasts a distinctive cast who make the movie a convincing experience. As Mike, one half of the couple staging the college reunion at his home, Bruce MacDonald is excellent. An actor who unfortunately only appeared in this movie, his friendly, inclusive manner works as the open-minded, gregarious Mike. Mike's girlfriend Katie is played with irony and humor by Maggie Renzi. As the suspicious Katie, Miss Renzi brings notes of real-world sensibilities, and some craftiness, to her role. Wandering musician J.T. is given gusto and style by Adam LeFevre. A performer of energy and enthusiasm, Mr LeFevre does a great interpretation of the aspiring guitarist. The well-grounded doctor in the house, Frances, is made sympathetic by Maggie Cousineau. As with several actors in the cast this was her sole film credit, which is unfortunate, given Miss Cousineau's spirited, philosophical obstetrician. Chip, the only participant who was not a member of the college, is made memorable by Gordon Clapp. While not treated as the odd man out in the movie, he makes his presence felt with his insistent voice, and challenge to the other characters in terms of their mindsets. Five other performers deliver individual performances in RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN.

As Chip's girlfriend Irene, speechwriter for a politician, Jean Passanante has a soothing manner, and nice comic timing, which meshes well with Chip's slightly nervy demeanour. The deep-voiced, vulnerable Maura is given careful shading by Karen Trott. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, it is pleasing that she ends the movie in a better state that when she first appears, her scenes with Jeff some of the best moments in the film. Maura's erstwhile boyfriend is in the highly compelling presence of Mark Arnott. With his spurts of anger, volatility, and non-verbal modes of expression, Mr Arnott makes Jeff a fully intoxicating, fascinating personality. The lively man at the gas station, Ron, is one of the movie's most colorful people. David Strathairn injects his Ron with a fast-talking, contagious way of doing things, with a physical presence that makes an impact. The final performance of note in RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN was by John Sayles as Howie. Aside from helming the picture, he delivers a laid-back, realistic interpretation of a family man given to being just one of the boys, but more than holding his own in the basketball sequence.

Soundtrack: The soundtrack for RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN is one of its most intriguing aspects. The score by Mason Daring works in a graceful, understated way which accentuates what appears onscreen. Two main examples stand out in this respect. The opening credits feature photographs of all the movie's characters which are accompanied by a guitar theme which musically relays the film's lively, thoughtful aura. The wood chopping sequence with Jeff is also highly effective, making light of his anger musically, and providing a non-verbal perspective to the scene. Aside from this, the closing credits are in contrast to the opening credits, utilizing the song 'Mean to Me' which partners a visual mash up of sequences from the movie. Diegetic music is also interesting, especially the barroom scene with J.T. singing his tunes functioning in a lifelike manner. 

Mise-en-scene: What appears in front of the camera is one of RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN's many virtues. Cinematography by Austin de Besche is lovely, with the outdoor sequences particularly noteworthy. The lush leafy outdoor scenery is expertly shot, making the viewer wish that they could also be present to bask in its beauty. In terms of indoor settings, the home of Mike and Katie is also well utilized, with the use of the living room, kitchen, and their bedroom making sense to the story, and the people who inhabit these areas. Costuming is unobtrusive, and functions as a neutral palate to allow the personalities of the characters to be highlighted by their individuality.

Notable Acting Performances: Bruce MacDonald, Maggie Renzi, Adam LeFevre, Maggie Cousineau, Gordon Clapp, Jean Passanante, Karen Trott, Mark Arnott, David Strathairn, John Sayles.

Suitability for young viewers: No. Infrequent coarse language, male nudity, adult themes.

Overall GradeB

LinkIMDB Page

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