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‘Valley Girl’ Review: Clever Jukebox Musical Pays Cute Homage to ’80s Cult Classic

Rachel Lee Goldenberg's musical retelling of the 1983 film uses some of the era's most popular jams to update a radical rom-com.

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“Valley Girl”

Tony Rivetti Jr.

Everyone knows the beats of the original “Valley Girl,” a neon-colored gem of teen-centric ’80s moviemaking that should be remembered in the same breath as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Sixteen Candles” and yet has remained oddly hard to come by in the nearly four decades since it was released. Like most great high school-set love stories, it’s a Romeo and Juliet tale, this time configured around a pair of decidedly period-appropriate lovers: a high-ponytailed Valley Girl and a tattooed Hollywood punk. Martha Coolidge’s original film, which starred Deborah Foreman and a young Nicolas Cage, might not seem like the most obvious choice for a remake, but Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s clever homage finds a new way into the material, by turning it into a lively jukebox musical.

Anyone prone to snarking at this material from the outset will be turned from the start, and the anachronistic nature of the material doesn’t help matters. However, Goldenberg’s film manages to evoke the spirit of coming of age during a singular cultural moment. Alongside screenwriter Amy Talkington, she has even devised a smart way to telegraph that concept early on, imagining this “Valley Girl” as something of a fairy tale retelling from a contemporary vantage point.

As part of a wraparound story conceit, Alicia Silverstone (herself a teen queen of “Clueless” lore) appears as the adult version of leading lady Julie (played as a teen by the winning Jessica Rothe), who’s sharing her high school history with her own angsty daughter (Camila Morrone in a minor role). As adult Julie begins to narrate her own fraught teenage experience, the film quickly dissolves into upbeat musical, introducing the world of San Fernando Valley circa 1983 through a “We Got the Beat” singalong that is, of course, set in a mall. It’s the same “Valley Girl” story, suddenly rendered in glossy Technicolor.

That doesn’t mean that Julie’s own kid vibes to it (cue one seriously annoyed teenager, baffled by the wacky life her staid old mom used to lead), but our grownup heroine has an answer for that: “That’s how I remember it! That’s what it felt like!” Such is the ethos of the new “Valley Girl,” and one that very much works within the confines of homage. A delightful mash-up of everything ’80s, from E.T. to Madonna, Princess Diana to Roxy Music, the Jackson family to Ronald Reagan, this anachronistic retelling is faithful to Coolidge’s original film, but with its own flashy new touches.

Quickly moving away from the current day and straight back into the totally tubular ’80s, Goldenberg’s film offers much to appeal to both fans of the 1983 film and audiences eager for light-hearted entertainment filled with some of the era’s best songs. The loose timeline allows for plenty of the decade’s most treasured hits to make the cut. Gussied up with new productions of classic songs, all performed by the film’s stars (with a generous dash of post-production magic), “Valley Girl” finds new dimensions for its well-trod story.

“Valley Girl”

MGM / UAR

In Goldenberg’s hands, the requisite “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” musical montage unfolds fresh wrinkles in the story, imagining Julie (as played by the charming Rothe, best known for the “Happy Death Day” series) as someone not just looking for romance, but seeking out a fuller life beyond the confines of the nearest mall. (A later sequence set to “Under Pressure” similarly takes a familiar song and finds smart ways to suit the narrative, and it all builds to a zippy prom sequence packed with musicality.)

As is often the case with the young and hormonal, Julie finds her world blown apart by an unexpected new love interest, and Randy (Josh Whitehouse) makes for an appealing match, one that opens up her eyes to a much bigger world. While lacking in the dark sexiness and chemistry of the original (Foreman and Cage made for a formidable pair), Rothe and Whitehouse are an amiable enough duo, even as the film hinges on an understanding that first love might not always last. Other timely touches are also welcome, from amping up Julie’s latent sense of feminism to a gender-swap for Randy’s best pal (here played by Mae Whitman) that hints at different sorts of rivalries among the Valley elite.

An affection for the original is certainly not a requirement for enjoying this new “Valley Girl,” which finds plenty of appeal in a classic love story template and a litany of ’80s hits to keep the energy up. That energy only flags when Goldenberg’s film forgets its musical heart and slides back into less inspired territory, dipping into more traditional teen rom-com tropes. Fortunately, these slip-ups are few and far between, and the film builds to a bombastic conclusion that the ’80s, and some of its best pop cultural output, still have the beat.

Grade: B+

“Valley Girl,” an Orion Classics release, will be available on VOD on Friday, May 8.

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