Thursday, September 17, 2015

I wish we didn't live somewhere so new

Note: If you're interested in this movie at all, go read Vice’s feature on the movie, in which they interviewed much of the cast and filmmakers and describe a lot of the production. It’s a pretty in-depth look at the movie with commentary from cast and crew. If you want to know what my particular feelings on the movie are, keep reading.

A few weeks ago, I saw that Cinefamily was airing a 35mm print of Over the Edge and I was ecstatic for about eleven seconds before I remembered that my chances of being able to find a babysitter so that I can go see a midnight movie 45 minutes way were pretty much nil. It was kind of a bummer, but it also sparked me to go out and rent it. It’d felt like ages since I’d seen it last, and I thought it might be a fun thing to write about here.

So far, it hasn’t been. Not due to the film itself or anything, but more due to the countless reviews (both from when it opened and more recently) and features I’ve read about it in the last week. So many people have tied this movie to so many issues, and it has sort of blurred my perception of the film and what I’ve always loved about it. My first attempt at writing this up turned into a whole screed about city planning and the shift in parenting ideals over the past 30 years. It was as boring as it sounds. My second attempt turned into a whole thing about Kurt Cobain1. My third attempt came after way too much research into juvenile crime trends. But since making the mistake of announcing my intentions here, I will continue to clatter away until I get something usable.

On its face, Over the Edge is a movie about teenagers in the newly constructed prefab town of New Granada. Tired of having little to do and being pushed out of sight by their parents, the kids revolt. The filmmakers based it on a growing trend in the mid-70s of juvenile crime spiraling out of control in planned communities, mostly on the West Coast2. The text that opens the movie states as much:

In 1978 110,000 kids under 18 were arrested for crimes of vandalism in the United States.

This story is based on true incidents occurring during the 70s in a planned suburban community of condominiums and townhomes where city planners ignored the fact that a quarter of the population was 15 years old or younger.

This is slightly misleading, since while there was certainly a spike in juvenile crime in the mid-70s, it was on par with the rest of the country3. What is prompted concern was mostly the fact that these communities were suburban and largely white. Furthermore, while many of the city planners were shortsighted in failing to consider the youth populations of the towns they were creating, these kids at least had nominal parents4, right?

In spite of the dated clothing5 and soundtrack6, the film holds up incredibly well as one of the best snapshots of adolescence ever put to film. As a quasi-juvenile delinquent who was somewhat of a latchkey kid growing up about a decade later, a lot of this film resonates with me, as I’m sure it does with many who see it. I can’t think of another movie that identifies the struggles of being a teenager so succinctly7. Much of it is in the bravado you see these kids8 carry themselves with, especially when there are no parents around. It’s in the drunken swagger of the kid hosting a party while his parents are in Reno, aping I don’t know, the Festrunk Brothers? It’s in Matt Dillon’s character saying, for the second time in the movie, “a kid who rats is a dead kid” to a squealing drug dealer before throwing him into a pond (and not killing him)9. It’s the bullshit posturing that shows a kid standing defiantly on a cop car just minutes after you see him riding around on a bike that literally bears a flag with his name on it.

They also do a fantastic job of reminding the adult viewer just how dramatic and insane teenage love is. When the protagonist Carl sees the girl he likes making out with another guy and he stares daggers at her before leaving the party in an exaggerated huff. That feeling of being hopelessly in love and over-reading every little smile and gesture. It’s the same thing that shows up later when the two spend a clumsy night together and you know that they aren’t even considering that they won’t spend the rest of their lives together.

In the film’s climax, the kids finally get what they want (thanks largely to Carl’s plan): total freedom. Kids are quite literally running amok and wreaking all sorts of havoc. Carl looks around and quickly realizes that, as the scene rapidly spirals out of control, that he wanted something else. He decides to leave soon after.

I could write about this movie for days. I sort of already have. But there in this movie to inspect in detail, both literally and thematically. There are facial cues, and a physicality. There’s the dirtbike scene! I didn’t even get to the fact that the main character has a black eye through most of the movie! Or that all of the kids have New York accents!

In spite of my numerous lengthy footnotes, there’s so much more I could go into about the effects of suburban sprawl or parenting trends or whatever, but the fact is I don’t think I could go into that rabbit hole of research right now and still finish this thing before October.

Instead I will remind you that this is a simple teen movie, about kids that feel like a town’s afterthought. And their parents, who try everything but having an honest discussion with their kids. And about the America of almost 40 years ago. In spite of the film’s shortcomings, and there are many, I can link my own adolescence directly to several specific moments of this movie (excepting much of the third act, of course). It’s a story wrought with exaggeration and melodrama, but it is a movie that can show me a group of adolescents and forcibly remind me exactly what it was like to be that age. After all, what defines the teenage years more than exaggeration and melodrama?
Yeah, it’s just a teen movie, but it might be the best one ever made.

  [1] It would seem that Cobain frequently cited this movie as one of his favorites, and claimed to have identified with the Claude character in particular. None of this surprises me in the slightest, but I’ve never really liked Nirvana all that much and tend to loathe Cobain’s status as the John Lennon of my generation (whatever that means). While hyperbolic angst and self-loathing are certainly notions that I have held, it’s just a little too much for me most of the time.

[2] They based it specifically on an article from the San Francisco Examiner called “Mousepacks: Kids on a Crime Spree” that has seemingly been scrubbed completely from the internet.

[3] The scary thing here is that it wasn’t so much as a spike as it was the beginning of a plateau. On a national level, juvenile crime held pretty steadfast from the mid-70s to the early 90s. Within that window, property and drug crimes seem to taper off, however the scary trend of juvenile murder (and violent crime) begins to soar. I got much of this information browsing the Uniform Crime Report, as well as articles like and this, this/

[4] Which is another contributing factor. The 70s featured that special form of post-hippie parenting, which relied on parents allowing kids unprecedented freedom while still expecting them to remain kids. In hindsight, this is a spectacularly flawed logic.

[5] Aside from Matt Dillon’s half-tees, the coonskin cap, and maybe Johnny's sunglasses, most of the clothing in this movie seems pretty tame. Even the girls are dressed sensibly. I can’t help but wonder if this was most of the cast were actual teenagers or if the studio requested it. In any case, it’s notable that the person who shows the most skin in this movie by far is Matt Dillon.

[6] The soundtrack for this movie is a straight up coup. It’s aged incredibly and while it seems out of place, the Hendrix song makes sense within the context of the movie. The only outlier here is the closing number, Valerie Carter’s “Ooh Child”. Reportedly, the producers wanted to use the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” with it’s “teenage wasteland” theme, but it was too expensive and/or depressing. In any case, in spite of the overexposure, in spite of the lyrical content, these songs still feel to me like the battle hymns of a forgotten struggle documented only in things like this movie, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Freaks and Geeks. It’s music for the teenagers circa 1980 whose parents didn’t get it at all. It’s the music of the neglected or misunderstood. Of course, now most of these songs are entering grandparent country and all the kids listen to Skirlix.

[7] That isn’t to say there aren’t any. Fast Times in particular did a great job. But it’s far from the norm.

[8] and there is no mistaking the bulk of this cast for actors masquerading as teenagers. They were straight-up kids. This ads such a huge weight to the movie. The difference between watching a stubbly 26 year0old brag about taking speed in school and a scrawny 13 year-old doing the same is both palpable and terrifying.

[9]This spurs my favorite line in the whole movie, when the drug dealer exclaims that he can’t swim, Matt Dillon’s character tells him to “grow fins, turkey.” This, and his exchange with the police officer in the first five minutes of the movie NEVER fail to make me laugh.

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