If it wasn’t for Return of the Secaucus Seven there would be no The Big Chill, which came out 3 years after John Sayles’ movie did (Lawrence Kasdan, the writer/director of The Big Chill, claims he never saw Secaucus Seven before he made his film). Secaucus Seven marks Sayles’ directorial debut and he made the film for only $45,000. This film was very well received and it launched the “reunion” movie.

Secaucus Seven is about a reunion of friends who used to all be involved in 60’s radicalism during their college days. They reunite years later and reminisce about the good old days and what they’re up to now. Like many ensemble pictures, Secaucus Seven doesn’t contain one main plot, but rather a series of intersecting narratives for each character. Movies of this type run the danger of alienating their audience more than most other genres. Not only do you have to like the characters or at least find them interesting enough to watch for 2 hours, but you have to relate to their stories. Here, the characters are mostly Eastern college educated, white professionals, which are characters that don’t easily lend themselves to audience identification. Personally, I was able to identify with many of the characters and because of that I enjoyed the film more than I otherwise would have.

The cast is largely unknown and thats not a surprise given the film’s shoestring budget. This film is noteworthy for being David Strathairn’s debut (Strathairn was a close friend of Sayles at the time). Although not amateurish, its pretty obvious the actors were not highly experienced professionals either. The performances are adequate, but had the cast not been blessed with Sayles’ excellent dialogue, the acting would be no better than what you see in a community theater production. The dialogue, the characters’ stories, and their interrelationships drive the film, which in total mostly overcome the shortcomings in the performance.

I have written about John Sayles in 2 previous postings (The Secret of Roan Inish and Passion Fish) so I’m not going to delve too much into who the director is. However, Secaucus Seven demonstrates just how insightful of a writer Sayles was even in his first feature. He has a great ear for dialogue and this movie showcases his understated, meticulous, economical, and realistic style. Like all his other films, Secaucus Seven offers a slice of life and sticks up for ordinary people. Sayles’ deep understanding of character and his leftist politics are central to all his works and this is clearly seen in his debut film.

I did not see Return of the Secaucus Seven back during its initial theatrical release as I was only 5 and did not give a shit about movies like this. Unfortunately, I think I would have enjoyed the movie much more had I seen it then instead of now. Reunion movies had not become popular yet so the concept was still very fresh and unique when Secaucus Seven came out. Its like watching American Beauty now instead of 10 years ago. I think if I saw that film now for the first time, I would not enjoy it nearly as much as I did back in 1999. The type of storytelling American Beauty introduced became popularized and repeated throughout the decade and seeing it now makes it look tired and contrite.

I am clearly a fan of John Sayles’ work and because of this, I enjoy all his movies, including Return of the Secaucus Seven. The film does have its shortcomings, but if you consider the fact that this was a first feature and it cost almost nothing to make, its pretty amazing what Sayles pulled off. I would not recommend this movie for those who have not seen John Sayles’ films. This is strictly for people who are familiar with his work and would like to see everything he has done.

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