Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sweet 70's Cinema: Over the Edge

No, not Over the Hedge with the talking squirrel. This is a serious movie about juvenile delinquency in the 70's, a warning cry like other fine films such as Foxes, River's Edge, and Bad Boys (the Sean Penn one). It's a cautionary tale that leans toward exploitation film, but since it was directed by Jonathan Kaplan, a student of Marty Scorsese, the film has a very realistic feel, almost verité. It's still good viewing today, has Matt Dillon's first screen role, and would make a good double feature with any 70's nostalgia film such as Dazed and Confused.

Young Matt Dillon
The film itself has a sordid story of its own. Supposedly based on true events that occurred in the planned community of Foster City California, it leads in with a lurid disclaimer about how it is based on true events, and how many acts of criminal vandalism by juveniles occur in the U.S. each year. Still, the movie was so controversial that it never got a theatrical release, and instead played on HBO in 1980. The action was moved to the fictional city of New Granada, a planned community that has been demolishing its few youth centers to make way for more profitable businesses, in the wake of 70's stagflation. The script was written by Tim Hunter, who'd later go on to pen the bleaker and better-known River's Edge, and Charles Haas, a journalist who wrote about the original events in an article called "Mouse Packs: Kids on a Crime Spree."

The Mouse Pack
Our first introduction to the town's kids is at the Youth Center, a hangar-like building where they hang around. It's painfully obvious that there isn't much to do in this town, and everything seems spread out so you have to drive or bike everywhere. Two kids are on an overpass with a BB gun and they shoot the windshield of a passing police car, who nearly crashes, then gives chase. As the cruiser flies toward the Rec center, two other kids, Carl and Ritchie, hide in the bushes. The cop arrests them on suspicion, and finds a switchblade in Richie's pocket. Matt Dillon plays Richie as the standard rebellious youth; what he lacks in depth he fills with anarchic energy. I didn't even recognize him in this early role, and it shows the promise he'd later realize. Carl is the smaller kid who's always getting dumped on- reminiscent of Ratner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He's played well by Michael Eric Kramer, who never saw stardom after this. It's unfortunate, he plays this part naturally, and we follow him throughout the film.

Mommy's alright, Daddy's alright
Later on their parents pick them up and they get the usual lectures, even though technically they did nothing wrong. The parents are more concerned with the weekend of visit of some Texas millionaires who might invest in the town and solve their financial problems. Carl heads to his room and puts on his headphones, blaring Cheap Trick's classic teen lament, "Surrender." The film's soundtrack is excellent, mostly peppered with lesser known late 70's classics from Cheap Trick and The Cars, with a few others like "Teenage Lobotomy" by The Ramones and "You Really Got Me" covered by Van Halen. Anthems of the era, which really puts you back in the time. It's unfortunate when teen films like this use older songs or covers of them; years later, they'll lose any possible nostalgic value.

Note the leaf on the blackboard
Back at school they are forced to watch an educational film about vandalism, but the principal just yells at their implacable wall of adolescent apathy, and announced a 9:30pm curfew. Later that night the kids go to a party, make out, drink beer, smoke pot, and pass around other drugs; at first it's shocking, especially when you see the tow-headed youngster Tip smoking and dealing. They culled some of the actors and extras from the local town, and this gives the film a documentary feel. As Ebert stated in his 1980 review, it almost feels like we're eavesdropping, or a kid is lugging around a camcorder. (We had them back then, but they weighed 50 pounds). Sometimes there's a gritty, small-time mood like in Scorsese's Mean Streets, and you can see the mentor's touch here. At the party, Carl meets his girlfriend Cory, and they smoke a joint; as he leaves, he gets ambushed by Mark the BB gun kid, who thinks he snitched on him. He and some friends beat Carl up and take his money.

The 70's classic, Destruction: Fun or Dumb?

Carl just can't get a break; back at home his parents are more upset that he got in more trouble than why he's getting beaten up. The parents are clueless but aren't played as idiots; they are just too caught up in their own lives and dealings, and seem to think that kids raise themselves. The next day, Carl lashes out at his Dad by setting firecrackers off underneath the Texans' car, setting the engine on fire, and of course, torpedoing the business deal. The parents then announce that the Youth center will be shutting down a while, since a kid was caught with drugs there. This gives the kids even fewer options to stay out of trouble, and after an argument with his Dad, Carl runs out to hole up in one of the unfinished condos with his girlfriend.

Aimed right at you
One of the girls in their pack stole a gun from her parents bedroom, and they practice shooting cans out in "the fields." They use all the bullets, but later decide to play a prank on Tip, who ratted out Carl to Mark the other night. Richie echoes Dillon's later role in The Outsiders by running around pointing an empty gun at people; this leads where you expect it will, and forces the parents to confront the problems of the town at a big meeting at the school. Who's watching the children during the meeting, you might ask?

Echoes of a Nuremburg rally
From here the film follows a more predictable track, but thankfully we are spared any tearful or overly insightful monologues by Carl or any of the other kids. Kaplan is smart enough to let us draw our own conclusions from the performances, and realize that these kids are facing a profound emptiness from both their parents and the community; we don't need a rehash of James Dean's emotional outburst in Rebel Without a Cause; this film follows that classic's arc closely enough, with Dillon channeling Sal Mineo sans the not-so-latent homosexuality.

Burn it down
Of course with the parents all in one location, the kids decide to lock them in. I was hoping that the film would veer towards the surreal ending of Lindsay Anderson's If... with them burning the building down, but it never gets that bad. The kids do go all "Lord of the Flies" in a matter of minutes, blowing up police cars with stolen guns and fireworks, stealing cars and wreaking havoc. It seems out of place, and spirals far out of control, with a finale that seems more at home in something like Vanishing Point or Crazy Larry Dirty Mary.

Lord of the Flies
What detracts from an otherwise excellent 70's mood film is the ending, and expository dialogue such as the Texan stating, "Seems like you were in such a hopped-up hurry to get out of the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you wanted to get away from." It's deserving of its cult status and succeeds when we're hanging with the kids; it brought me back to my early youth in the 70's, when we often had nothing to do except romp in our "fields," smash up abandoned cars, and cut down trees with tools we lifted from unminded basements. But our little "mixed use" community was tightly knit; we had legions of old ladies sitting on porches to keep us from climbing on the rooftops of disused factories, or other shenanigans. This was a neighborhood so dull that everyone would come out and look when the old greenhorn found a garter snake in his garden and cut its head off with a shovel; the only one of us who went wrong was a kid named Travis whose parents were never around, leaving him to cruise the area on his Huffy, and steal from backyard gardens to eat some meals. One day he decided to throw a cinder block at another kid's head, probably because that kid didn't have to eat raw tomatoes for lunch that day. New Granada in Over the Edge was a whole comunity of little Travises, so perhaps the ending isn't too unreal.

If you want more detail on the film, it has an extensive fan site.


J.D. said...

A minor correction. Tim Hunter did not write RIVER'S EDGE. Neal Jimenez did. Hunter directed.

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