Return of the Secaucus Seven'

Return of the Secaucus Seven, John Sayles' first film, provides a poignant look at a reunion of 1960s activists. It's Sayles' going away party for the angry idealism of the Johnson-Nixon years. Shot in four weeks, at the mere cost of $40,000, this talking-heads film used few sets, sparse camera movement and little action.

The movie became influential, launching a cycle of “reunion” films, which included The Big Chill and the TV series Thirtysomething. As a portrait of disenchantment, Return was more authentic and honest than Lawrence Kasdan's star-studded Big Chill.

Back in the 1960s, seven restless friends, the children of Kennedy and Abbie Hoffman, were burning with worthy causes like the War on Poverty and Vietnam. They smoked dope, engaged in affairs–and talked politics. They took off for Washington to march on the Pentagon, but only got as far as Secaucus where they were arrested on a phony charge and spent a night in the local cooler. Dubbing themselves “The Secaucus Seven,” they missed the big event in the capitol, but the experience strengthened their bonds.

Now, a decade later, they come together for a reunion weekend in New England, hosted by Mike and Kate, both teachers. T.J., who still dreams of becoming a folk-singer, arrives with his guitar. Irene, who once had an affair with T.J., brings her new preppie lover, Chipp. Maura, having left Jeff, is also alone. Jeff, a former Vista volunteer who now works with drug addicts, is almost tempted to try drugs himself.

Not much happens: Some songs are sung, a few partners change, and the group is falsely arrested for murdering a deer–bambicide as they describe the charge. Their weekend of nostalgia and soul-searching shows that, though only thirtysomething, they are beginning to experience the compromises of middle age.

A rueful movie about unexceptional lives that have prematurely grown stale, Secaucus is a bit commonplace, lacking genuine drama. But Sayles uses effectively a discursive, episodic format; he constructs strong scenes with resonant dialogue. The characters are complex and individually distinguished by speech, gesture, and manner.