Admittedly, I didn’t think much of the film’s first half. I thought it had a slow, meandering pace that didn’t have any narrative momentum – frankly, there wasn’t much of a narrative to speak of. But as the film developed, I understood what Bogdanovich was going for, and the pieces were falling into place. The sense of aimlessness that Bogdanovich realizes in the opening act of his film may have turned me off initially, but that served to accentuate the crumbling town that the kids of the film were living in. The setting of Anarene, Texas is the most vital component of the film, as its cultural and economic degradation is what stunts the growth of its central characters.
Taking place between two football seasons, Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) graduate high school with a lousy record. The townsfolk all suggest more tackling – Sonny and Duane seem ambivalent to their suggestions. It is only Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) who seems to have any faith in the kids of Anarene – he continuously loses money on bets for the team. Sam owns the town’s only modes of entertainment – the movie house, the restaurant, and the pool hall serve to bring life to the decaying town. But these venues are keeping the town on life support, as things seem to grow increasingly quiet. The kids all distract themselves with sexual relationships, though these relationships are less passionate and more exploratory. Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), for example, wants to lose her virginity to Duane only because she really wants another boy who refuses to have sex with a virgin.
The film is not emotionally muted though, as a relationship between Sonny and the middle-aged Ruth (Cloris Leachman) offers a glimpse into how the town forces a dependency between the two. Ruth is emotionally detached from her husband, perhaps due to his sexually questionable orientation. She seeks attention that goes beyond the sexual, but also one that comes from conversation. Sonny, at first, sees the relationship as just that – a sexual arrangement. But as the film develops, and the harsh lonely reality of Sonny’s position begins to shape, the sense that he found one meaningful bond in Anarene is something he longs to rekindle. The final scene between the two, offers a bittersweet moment, wherein a beaten Sonny is held by Ruth fades into a barren town. With the movie house closing, people moving away and dying, the two are all that’s left.