To say that movies of the 1980s were singlist would be a gross understatement. Vision Quest follows the formulas of movies like Rocky, The Karate Kid, and pretty much every sports movie ever made. The kid wants to win a competition, so he does it. And of course, there’s no exception.
There’s a romantic subplot but it doesn’t go the way most movies like this do. But we’ll get to that at the end. A quick summary: a very young Matthew Modine plays Louden Swain, a Spokane, WA high school wrestler who aspires to work his way down to the 168-pound division so he can wrestle an intense-looking dude named Shute, the baddest wrestler in the state of Washington. He has a supportive network, including his single father; pseudo-spiritual best friend (played by Michael Schoeffling, a markedly different role from the hunky Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles); a cook at the hotel where he works as a bellboy; a girl at school who crushes on him (Daphne Zuniga, also miles away from Spaceballs’s Princess Vespa)and even his coach, who vehemently opposes his goal until he doesn’t.
The romantic subplot (well, actually it’s part of the main plot) begins when a 20-year-old drifter named Carla appears with a broken-down car. After Mr. Swain, Sr. saves Carla from being ripped off by a shady mechanic, he invites her to stay with them until her car gets fixed; in the 80s, this was definitely not considered creepy (note sarcastic tone here).
Modine falls for this woman hard, and true to form, they bond and consummate. Where the romance becomes unconventional and lands in pro-single territory is this: Carla does not intend to stay in Spokane. Her goal is to do performance art in San Francisco, which hurts Louden. She does attend his wrestling meet, where of course he beats Shute (this isn’t a spoiler, because we know how these sports movies always turn out). However, they don’t kiss or embrace at the end; they give each other looks of understanding. As a viewer, I got the sense that she’d go to San Francisco, and they might keep in touch via snail mail or phone for a few months, but they’d gradually stop communicating. This ending is in line with Amy Gahran’s view of the “relationship escalator”: a romance can be brief without being a failure. Sometimes, relationships have a shelf life, and this one ended when it needed to.
This twist is doubled by the fact that Margie (Zuniga’s character) doesn’t get together with Swain either (in many movies, the Swain character would lock lips with her in the last shot). This flick ends on a freeze-frame of Swain being lifted in the air by this teammates, which is fitting. Vision Quest is more about his drive to step out of his athletic comfort zone, and I’m glad the filmmakers kept to that vision (no pun intended).