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Over the Edge; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

over the edgeOriginally released in the U.S.A. 15 December 1981 (released abroad in 1979)
Written by Charlie Haas and Tim Hunter
Directed by Jonathan Kaplan

Starring Michael Kramer, Matt Dillon, Pamela Ludwig, and Vincent Spano

My rating: ★★★★ stars

Striking film about disaffected teens running wild.

In Jonathan Kaplan’s cult favorite Over the Edge, New Granada has a juvenile problem. The nice, middle-class community is plagued by kids run amok. They drink, do drugs, have sex, commit vandalism and petty burglary, play with guns, and have no respect for authority. Yet, they live in nice houses, come from good families, and go to a good school. Despite all this, they’re unhappy. They feel the need to defy the social order.

Carl Willat (Michael Kramer) is not a bad kid. In an opening scene, when Carl and his friend Richie (Matt Dillon) are harassed by the police, Carl shows deference and respect for authority, in sharp contrast to Richie’s sullen rebelliousness. Carl may be less attractive and charismatic than Richie, but he’s smarter, gentler, and more perceptive. That Carl becomes the leader of the rebellion of the town’s children should be surprising; he’s not an at-risk kid. He is the proverbial rebel without a cause.

Over the Edge owes a lot to the classic Rebel without a Cause. Both are about disaffected youth from middle-class backgrounds. Both films show the youths’ disgust with disingenuous adults; in both, the adults fail to live up to their children’s adolescent need for authenticity. In Over the Edge, Carl’s father (Andy Romano) tells little lies to appear better in the public eye, and the town developer does his best to hide New Granada’s flaws from potential investors.

Both Over the Edge and Rebel without a Cause show teens alienated from their families making substitute domestic arrangements in abandoned houses. Unlike Rebel without a Cause’s moldering Victorian manor, the kids in Over the Edge take refuge in an unfinished tract home. (This creation of an entirely adolescent community protected from larger society is common in teen dramas and can be seen in films as diverse as Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and The Breakfast Club (1985).)

The setting of Over the Edge, unlike Rebel without a Cause’s suburban Los Angeles, is a barren wasteland somewhere in the Southwest. Nothing grows there. The endless rows of tract homes give off a disturbing homogeneity. New Granada looks unnatural and unhealthy. It’s a desert topographically, culturally, and socially.

While Over the Edge is careful not to point fingers at a specific cause for the teenage anomie, the screenplay by Charlie Haas (Matinee) and Tim Hunter (River’s Edge, as director) suggests that this lack of anything nurturing or engaging in the setting is part of the problem.

What’s striking about this movie is the youth of the problem children. These are not high school students; they’re in junior high. The oldest kids among them are 14. Unlike other teen movies, these kids aren’t shown as being cool or the kind of people the viewers would want to emulate. They’re childish and a little ridiculous. They stumble around unassured, trying to make sense of the world.

The adults are not uncaring and unconcerned, but they have no idea how to deal with the growing problem. The initial response of placing more and more arbitrary restrictions on the kids makes the situation worse. Nothing the adults try results in any improvement. When the parents meet to discuss the problems of the town’s children, the meeting degenerates into a shouting match because no one has any solutions.

The climax of the movie may seem melodramatic to some because the orgy of wanton destruction is meaningless. It has no clear cause and no clear goals. But that’s the point. In this town where teens have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to look up to, the world doesn’t make sense to them, and nothing they do has any meaning that they understand.

With the violence that occurred after showings of The Warriors (1979), Orion Pictures scrapped plans to release Over the Edge in theaters. It eventually got a limited release two years later. Audiences discovered it on home video and cable television, and it developed a cult following.

The screenplay shows an excellent understanding of the rhythms of the teens’ speech at the time. Much of the dialogue comprises empty, overlapping chatter about parties and getting stoned. The cinematography by future director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, Holes) shows great, stark daylight shots contrasted with lyrical shots of twilight and dawn.

Director Kaplan wrangles above average performances out of the young people. While the film is probably best known as Dillon’s film debut, the movie centers on Kramer, and he provides a thoughtful and sensitive focus. He has a nice scene near the end with the town bully, Mark (Vincent Spano), where both struggle to express feelings and ideas they don’t really understand.

The film is not without flaws. The superimposed text at the beginning informing the viewers about vandalism and reminding them that the film is based on a true story (albeit very, very loosely) is a didactic oversimplification in a film that otherwise avoids such moves.

What makes this movie great is its ambivalence, its ambiguity, its sense of utter pointlessness. Ultimately, the film is about waste. The town is an empty waste, the future is wasted, and the only thing that these kids can think to do is to lay waste to their environment and themselves.

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