I would go further into the details of the story, but really there isn’t much. This is simply a story of young people doing what young people so often do, and because of that it has a very authentic feel that is not often found. In this way alone it reminds me of Clerks (1994).
Happy Days, which premiered the following year, was not based on or directly inspired by American Graffiti as many people think. A year and a half earlier there was an episode of Love, American Style with a segment called “Love and Happy Days” which featured the Cunningham family and included Ron Howard, Marion Ross, and Anson Williams (Potsie). Fonzie didn’t exist yet. It was a failed TV pilot that nobody wanted to take a chance on, until this nostalgic piece of yesteryear became a box office smash. I remember seeing that rerun of that Love, American Style while Happy Days was still on the air (I’m very old, but you should have known that) and was completely confused by what I was watching.
Likely because of the Happy Days link this film was associated with the 1950’s but it was in fact set in 1962, ten years (or so) before it was released. The Wolfman got a huge career boost from his appearance and I have a memory of hearing his syndicated radio show circa 1980. My dad said it sounded like Wolfman Jack. I said it was, and he replied it couldn’t be. He was on the radio when he was a kid. In fact both my dad and he were born in the same year.
American Graffiti succeeds because it didn’t try to do, or to be too much. It was what it was, and the chord it struck was pitch perfect. It was a moment in time and comes across very sincere. That sounds easy to do, but it is not. The ash bins of Hollywood are filled with cliched and contrived teen comedies. Very watchable, very enjoyable, and worthwhile, even if you weren’t around in the 1960’s. Or 1990’s. AMRU 4.
I leave not with a quote but a YouTube video. It's creator later dismissed it as little more than the rantings of a fanboy, but I felt it summed up the film and it's success very well. Besides, that's more than I even aspire to do.