In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1991 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2001. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.

Even in 1991, time-capsule tales of the 1960s tiptoed on tightropes high above hell-mouths of revisionist nostalgia. One false move and there you tumble, ass over teakettle into rose-colored reminiscence reserved for Peter Fonda hawking a 20-CD set of Flower Power favorites.

Dogfight is a film by director Nancy Savoca and screenwriter Bob Comfort about two people striking unexpected emotional connections on a generational eve of destruction in America. It’s often effervescent and sweet in the manner of Before Sunrise. How could it not be with actors like Lili Taylor and the late River Phoenix at its center and their performative peaks? (The dichotomy between Phoenix’s turn here and My Own Private Idaho, released within weeks of each other, offers no finer illustration of the gifts denied by his premature death.) 

However, Dogfight is effervescent and sweet not because it’s charming and cozy but because it’s complex and relatable. This isn’t simply the story of a military asshole absolved and redeemed by a magically tolerant wallflower. Eddie and Rose aren’t archetypes. They’re multifaceted souls that find each other on a night in which they subconsciously express their aches and anxieties about what’s next. But Dogfight never pretends that Eddie and Rose expel them. The film ends in an embrace fraught with as much uncertainty as Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court’s apprehensive wait for the ding in Say Anything … or Cosmo and Raphina literally pressing on against the current in Sing Street. The result is a film about the era in which it’s set but hardly above its harshest realities and one that’s analytical without falling into broad allegory to represent only that decade.

When Edward Baines Birdlace (Phoenix) limps off a bus behind some hippies in 1966, you immediately know: This is an old young man, petrified and hollowed. You can almost count the rings. Eddie gazes on his present surroundings and mentally transports himself back to a different bus in 1963, on which he embraced youthful exuberance rather than existential dread.

Back then, Eddie was one of the Four Bees along with Benjamin, Berzin and Buell. This foursome of Marines have foul mouths, filthy minds and a full day of R&R in San Francisco before they’re shipped off to Okinawa. Much like LBJ, Eddie already has his eye on Vietnam, where he figures America can “kick ass, take names and be back in a couple of months.” The Four Bees’ motto is to take no prisoners and not become one, which drips with depressing irony given their slavish encampment inside the military machine. “So you got to be friends from standing in line?” Rose eventually asks Eddie about their bond. It’s a nice zinger but also a sad truth, their friendship formed solely by alphabetical order and no more distinct in its depth than names on a sheet.

The Four Bees are also prime contestants in the latest installment of the titular contest, not unlike that in Dinner for Schmucks with the added knife twist of sizing up someone’s physical appearance. The wicked game goes like this: Each participant antes $50 for drinks and food at a private party. What’s left becomes prize money, most of it going to the Marine who brings the woman whom judges deem to be the ugliest. Berzin (Richard Panebianco) is riding a hot streak of three wins. But there are more than 20 contestants in this dogfight, and Benjamin, Buell and Eddie are determined to give Berzin a run for his money.

Eddie fears he’ll be resigned to runner-up status until he spots Rose Fenny (Taylor) strumming her guitar in the corner of the café where she’s waitressing. It’s Rose’s Café, but she’s not the owner. At least not yet. Her mother runs the place, and she is in fact a third-generation Rose. With her hair in a heightened, flyaway tangle and her face untouched by makeup or a smile, Rose becomes the target of Eddie’s faux-sincere schtick. This includes fabricating an antecedent of Bob Dylan to appeal to Rose’s appreciation for folk singers. Even those gentlemanly folded hands behind Eddie’s back are a prop.

And yet even here, there’s a sense Eddie is on the verge of realizing the hopelessness of his prospects — not for the dogfight but for his future. Rarely does Savoca’s camera or Comfort’s screenplay position Rose as the submissive sap. There’s certainly hunger with which Rose tears into her closet like a dusty pit of treasures that quickly turns to disgust and desperation as she tries to find anything that fits correctly. But Rose is also perceptive about Americans’ remarkable ability to bury their heads in the sand rather than confront a problem constructively or, worse yet, consider someone else’s point of view. So while she gets her hopes up about Eddie’s attention and his invitation to the party, she also pierces the bullshit quite early of someone who generally personifies those ideas.

“You look so angry,” Rose tells Eddie. “I’m not angry, I’m ready,” he retorts.”Ready for what?” she counters. “Anything,” he spits out as she laughs away that doltish response. Rose may not see the full picture of Eddie yet or is perhaps willfully obscuring it. But she knows his Brylcreemed bravado hides a man scared of something he can’t quite yet articulate. 

Of course, Rose doesn’t suspect the dogfight. Outside the club, Eddie tries to steer Rose somewhere else. The easy read is Eddie having second thoughts because he feels bad. That he has been listening to Rose as she speaks to him and developing care for her on their swift walk to the party. That for the first time in a long time, or maybe ever, Eddie is talking to someone interested who is interested in why he acts how he acts rather than how easily it hardens him to fight. This is part of it. But Phoenix is so expertly fidgety as a man at increasing odds with himself that Eddie’s competitive nature comes out, too: If Eddie knows he’s going to lose, he doesn’t even want to play. Phoenix gives it yet another layer, too, of Eddie starting to realize the folly behind that mindset. Regardless, when a buddy corners Eddie and Rose outside and whisks them indoors, the dogfight is on. 

Comfort and Savoca wisely devote very little of the film to the dogfight itself, exchanging cruel comedy for second and third acts that are more complex and compassionate. Having had a touch too much to drink, Rose retreats to the club’s bathroom floor. It’s cold enough before Marcie (E.G. Daily), a fellow occupant, hits her with the reality of what’s been happening. Marcie is an escort with whom Berzin has colluded to rig the dogfight and split the take. That’s a violation of a key dogfight rule, another of which (Marcie says) is that the men have to be polite. Savoca lets that one linger, the barest of attention and thinnest of conversation passing for politeness.

Rose then angrily confronts Eddie, striking him hard enough to leave a mark and storming off to retreat into her Joan Baez records. Eddie’s buddies decamp for debauchery; one of the film’s few missteps is cutting away too often to them and underscoring the banality of their last night in town. But Eddie follows Rose and attempts to reset the evening through a real dinner with no more tricks.

By this point, Phoenix has uncovered just enough humanity in Eddie to understand why Rose would even entertain his idea let alone accept it. Eddie is subconsciously aware of what awaits him even if he’s powerless to stop or understand it. So is Rose, even if she’s got a stronger sense of what it will be. This is the sort of imperceptible wheel-turning at which Phoenix and Taylor excel, and also a hook onto which both actors latch to interrogate the other character’s impulses. Rose calls out Eddie’s infant-like insistence on getting even with people — like a snooty mâitre d’ who denies them a table because Eddie lacks a collared jacket — and turns his incessant profanity upon him when ordering food. Meanwhile, Eddie understands that Rose’s much-vaunted folk-song heroes might overestimate the power of their guitar much as he might that of his gun.

These two spend more of the evening sassing than saving each other. But it’s also been a long time since they’ve found someone genuinely interested in what they have to say. Rose has gone ages without a conversation that isn’t transactional (with customers) or territorial (with her mother, who’d just as soon watch TV with Rose all night long). Just as Eddie is fated to fight in a terrible war, Rose is fated to fritter away at the café, inheriting loneliness and long hours along with the building. She’s also bound to suppress her own interest in performance, which she reveals by singing Malvina Reynolds’ “What Have They Done to the Rain” for Eddie at her favorite club.

“Just a little rain falling all around
The grass lifts its head to the heavenly sound
Just a little rain, just a little rain
What have they done to the rain?
Just a little boy, standing in the rain
The gentle rain that falls for years
And the grass is gone, the boy disappears
And the rain keeps falling like helpless tears
And what have they done to the rain?
Just a little breeze out of the sky
And the leaves pat their hands as the breeze blows by
Just a little breeze with some smoke in its eye
What have they done to the rain?”

Again, the superficial read (with cutaways to a smoking Phoenix as Taylor sings) is that Rose is singing about Eddie. But in a subsequent arcade scene, where Eddie drops dimes into a menagerie of music machines to create a cacophony of cascading melodies, Comfort and Savoca’s real intent becomes clear: This moment — for Eddie, for Rose, for everyone — is a beauty and a din all at once. Nature is beautiful. But a dark and corruptive change is creeping into its corners. We notice it but we can’t identify it … at least not until it’s too late to stop. That’s not just the 1960s. Really, that’s every current moment as we live it.

Dogfight is a film about affection for fermatas in time and the artifice of unreliable memory clouding the painful steps that led us there. The film ends with a reunion of sorts, but all that Eddie and Rose might truly have of their time together is their eventual fumble toward intimacy in a small bed. And maybe, a few years down the road, a half-hearted conversation over coffee. Dogfight’s detractors accuse it of romanticizing the Sixties. Perhaps it depends on how sentimental someone finds the idea of young people in stolen moments of happiness before tectonic shifts send them into futures where only trauma is certain. Here’s a film that knows the comforts and charades of romance are sometimes the same and doesn’t cheat its way into finding an easy resolution.