Friday, May 8, 2015

Over the Edge

As I recently re-watched 1979's OVER THE EDGE, which is based on actual events,  I kept wondering if the entire mess would even happen these days. That is not to say that mobs no longer form, and violence doesn't erupt.  But among the demographic featured in this movie: white, suburban kids of at least moderate privilege, I bet that these days such thoughts of destruction would never gel because everyone is too busy being hypnotized by their smartphones.

Of course, you could argue that such connectivity would just get the word out faster. But in an insular community such as New Grenada, back in a much simpler time, everyone knew everyone, saw them at the rec center. If you and your similarly disaffected and bored friends (many of them "latchkey kids") wanted to torch the whole damned community because your parents were more interested in building shopping centers and selling Cadillacs than in quality time with you, well....
I've already more or less summarized what occurs in OVER THE EDGE, one of the best illustrations of disillusioned youth culture I've seen.  It shares the same frustrations, concerns, and energy as earlier films like BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, LOS OLVIDADOS, if...., and many others.  Director Jonathan Kaplan curbs the exploitation elements seen in many of his any other '70s low budgeters but nonetheless provides a vivid, disturbing essay on what happens when this age old problem is ignored and left to its own natural, and cyclical, progression of destruction.

Matt Dillon makes his screen debut as Richie, barely supervised by his single, hippie mother who keeps joints in the ashtray of her jeep. He's a real troublemaker, eager to agitate teachers and the police at every opportunity.  Richie hangs with Carl (Michael Kramer), essentially a good kid whose willingness to please completely disintegrates by the final frame.  Perhaps because his parents are the ones hypnotized. By their furniture and an idea of a utopia in the middle of nowhere.  A flight from the urban scene to an hermetic locale where of course the children will similarly be content and fall in line.   A recipe for disaster.
Screenwriters Tim Hunter, who would later write and direct RIVER'S EDGE, and Charlie S. Haas know the territory.  The attitudes, the generation gap, ever widening.  The planned communities that did not quite plan for restless spirits requiring an outlet.  Somehow, rec centers that resemble Army barracks aren't enough. The dialogue in OVER THE EDGE reflects the frustration perfectly, and is polished yet realistic, much like the performances.  Stereotypes are minimal in this unusually perceptive, influential movie.  Richard Linklater and several others owe quite a debt to OVER THE EDGE, especially its natural, improvisational vibe, like we're just hanging with these kids.  Not a lot may happen for awhile, but the scenario is ripe for an apocalypse, and it comes.
This movie was popular with youngsters (though mostly after its theatrical release) for its electricity and soundtrack (lots of Cheap Trick), but also its honesty. These look and sound like real teens. There were kids like this in my neighborhood, including one who got suspended from elementary school for having cocaine in his shoe.  That same bad seed crashed one of my birthday parties.  He loved to raise hell.  Was it innate?  Was he merely a product of his sketchy home environment? Nature vs. nurture gets some examination here.  But even if the parents spent more time with and took a greater interest in their children, who's to say this scenario wouldn't still happen? I don't know if this movie offers any answers.

As with any feature that showcases bad behavior, some who see the movie may cheer the punkish behavior, just like the kids do in this film as they watch an anti-vandalism movie in one of their classes.  OVER THE EDGE does not endorse but also does not entire condemn the choices the kids make.  The finger is pointed squarely at the adults, the ones too transfixed by their TVs to attend important community meetings,  perhaps the ones truly responsible for the chaos to follow.

In the end, viewers will deem OVER THE EDGE as either a wake up call or the ultimate endorsement for birth control. 
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