Dogfight is less a movie than an anecdote, the pleasantly detailed story of a one-night stand. That alone makes it a shade more original than most teen pics. Set in San Francisco in 1963, it’s about the brief coming together of two unformed souls. Eddie (River Phoenix) is a cocky 18-year-old Marine who’s spending his last night in the States before being shipped off to Vietnam. Rose (Lili Taylor, from Mystic Pizza), who runs a coffee shop with her mom, is an inexperienced girl who adores folk music and, beneath her frumpy exterior, displays a surprising amount of gumption. At first, she’s tricked into becoming part of a ”dogfight” — a contest set up by Eddie and his three buddies to see who can land the ugliest girl. But when she discovers that she’s been insulted, Eddie gallantly convinces her to spend the rest of the evening with him. By the time they go to bed, their all-night date has become a disarmingly practical romance (a last night of civilian freedom for him, a no-strings adventure for her). In the end, neither one has too many illusions about where it can lead.
Directed by Nancy Savoca, whose independent comedy True Love (1989) was a funny and perceptive tale of pre-marital jitters, Dogfight is the sort of movie that tends to get praised for all the things it’s not. It isn’t crude or exploitative or mired in fantasy. It never makes teenagers seem slicker than they are, and it doesn’t fall into the smug trap of reducing the early ’60s to a period of vapid innocence. Yet for all the pitfalls it scrupulously avoids, Dogfight isn’t finally very interesting. It’s not just the movie’s plot that’s diminutive. The emotions seem small too.
Most of the pleasure here is provided by Lili Taylor. Short and wide, her thick-featured, chipmunky cuteness betraying not a hint of glamour, she has the sort of physical equipment that practically screams ”character actress.” Yet Taylor has a gift — rare in a young actress — for making the ordinary magnetic. When Rose cries softly in her room while listening to Joan Baez, or when she hands Eddie her address, knowing he probably won’t write (but hoping he will anyway), Taylor instills the character with a no-frills dignity. It’s a gentle and touching performance.
River Phoenix remains one of the more accomplished of the post-Brat Pack stars, yet there’s a hollowness to his facility. Unlike Taylor, he doesn’t really connect with the other actors in a scene. He gives the foulmouthed Eddie a breezy, jockish confidence without really revealing anything about him. Savoca, perhaps sensing that her story didn’t feel complete, tacks on a hasty last section in which Eddie returns from Vietnam and finds Rose again, this time in the midst of the hippie ’60s. This hopelessly miscalculated finale seems engineered to milk a big-screen pathos the rest of Dogfight hasn’t earned. Maybe next time Savoca will work on a canvas that’s a bit larger to begin with. C