For a directorial debut, "1969" is better than average, but for an overall coming-of-age movie, it misses its mark somewhat. Ernest Thompson tells the story of two college freshmen, Scott and Ralph, who are coming to terms with the grips of the world at present (Vietnam, family, patriotism, drugs) while their smalltown home, and their own parents, remain buried in the ideals of the flag-waving 50's. Scott is naive, idealistic and hopeful; Ralph is cynical, careless and wild. Although opposites, they complement each other. Scott wishes to become another human catalyst to help change a world he sees as having limitless possibilities. Ralph just wants to get high, ignore his studies and stay out of Vietnam. In between them is Beth, Ralph's younger sister whose also coming into age and also in conflict with the world at hand. Both guys have trouble with recognizing Beth as a new woman and not just a kid anymore.
Although the story centers on Ralph and Scott, all three of them are at odds - in different degrees - with their parents. Scott is in most turmoil. His brother has just been shipped off to Vietnam and their father begins projecting hostility towards Scott for objecting the war. Truthfully, Scott's father has deep fear about the fate of his son in Asia, but clumsily hides it under a blanket of patriotism. One misused character was Beth; whose personality was equal parts of her brother and his best friend; she had Ralph's sense of reality and Scott's optimism. I thought she would serve as the bridge between Scott and Ralph but she is used rather as the cause of a rift when Scott and Beth become romantically involved.
I liked this film just for the energetic performances by Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Bruce Dern, and most of all Kiefer Sutherland as the wide-eyed wishful. The film score is totally corny (especially in the finale), but Thompson puts good 60's tunes to fill in the scenery. The film does have a realistic vision of smalltown life and effectively creates those various hippie hangouts like angry college campuses, head shops, and nude beaches. Its not "The Doors", but it works.