From the iconic Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to the disquieting Christiane F. (1981) or Tony Richardson’s tremendously austere Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), there is certainly no shortage of filmic portrayals concerning the latent indignation of wayward youth. These films – visually rich, compelling in both character and narrative – are some of the best of what can only be described as a multifarious bunch. Indeed, where brilliance abounds, so too does mediocrity, and many of the films in this genre fall prey to cheesy dialogue, limp storylines and gratuitous representations of sex, drugs and violence. In such cases, it’s easy to understand why films detailing teenage rebellion are often maligned as puerile and one-dimensional.
Naturally, my predilection for any film regarding teenage rebellion has meant that I have chewed my nails through hours of terrible cinema – hello there, Teenage Devil Dolls (1955) – but I’d also argue that some of the most poignant, and uncompromisingly human, films I’ve witnessed also fit into this category. It is not a nostalgic impulse that renders these films so evocative for me; on the contrary, they seem to grow all the more powerful in my adulthood as they are no longer shocking, my memories of youth thoroughly divorced from their allegories. The good ones remind me of some of the things I regrettably lost along the passage of adolescence and why it wouldn’t necessarily do any harm to reclaim them.
Here are three of my favourite teen rebellion films.
Dir. Dennis Hopper (1980)
Above merely being my favourite film of this genre, Out of the Blue is, quite frankly, one of the most spectacular films I have ever seen. An oblique nod to the teen musicals of the 1950s; Out of the Blue tells the story of Cebe (Linda Manz) an Elvis aficionado who, by way of a portable cassette player, supplies the film’s soundtrack of Heartbreak Hotel, Teddy Bear and the eponymous Neil Young anthem, My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), which lends the film its title.
With her father, Don (Dennis Hopper), imprisoned after drunkenly crashing his big rig into a school bus, and her mother, Kathy (Sharon Farrell), juggling a job at a perpetually vacant diner with her nasty heroin addiction, Cebe is left to raise herself, emulating her punk idols in the process. Kicking around the overgrown laneways and garishly lit bowling alleys of late ‘70s Vancouver, Cebe can be interpreted both as a literal and metaphorical lamentation for the rock-and-roll optimism and idealism of the 1960s, and its eventual obliteration by the ascendant nihilism of the coming era. Manz is nothing short of dazzling in the role: cigarette-smoking, denim-wearing and swaggering fearlessly through the gritty urban landscape to almost vertiginous effect.
Don’s release from prison serves as the harbinger for impending tragedy, which arrives with shocking effect, but while the undercurrent of malaise in Out of the Blue is memorable, it is not the source of the film’s potency. Running against the stereotypical teen rebellion narrative – its force arising out of moments of sanguineness rather than chaos – Out of the Blue haunts us with its tenderness just as effectively as it troubles us with its nihilism. The real heart of this film is in its vulnerability; the moments of unadulterated intimacy between characters, when they do occur, are as tragic as those scenes of utter discord. How close this family comes to redemption; it is the pendulum that swings throughout the entire narrative, and although we have a hunch as to where it will come to rest, it’s still mesmerising to watch it grind to an inevitable halt.
Dir. Jonathan Kaplan (1979)
It has been labelled as the quintessential teen rebellion film and it’s pretty easy to see why; Over the Edge is based on genuine events, populated by real teenage actors, and is unabashedly gritty, albeit in an understated way. While many films of this nature are often histrionic, creating caricatures of their protagonists, Over the Edge feels, instead, like a nod to cinéma vérité in its candid portrait of teenage exploits. Drugs, dirty talk, firecrackers, and pushbikes – Over the Edge has, in abundance, all of the necessary ingredients for a successful teen rebellion film.
Although at times it seems to be teetering perilously close to the edge of the telemovie abyss, it miraculously pulls itself back by way of some amazing – and often incongruous – inclusions. Sharp, witty dialogue. So much Cheap Trick. Generous, thoughtful cinematography. A pubescent Matt Dillon sporting a tank top. Indeed, it really is the characters who make this film, and Dillon is superb, cutting his teeth on the role of Richie White; he later went on to play other iconic delinquents, including Rusty James in Rumblefish (1983) and Dallas Winston in The Outsiders (1983). Michael Eric Kramer and Pamela Ludwig also offer up thoroughly convincing representations of the awkwardness and fervency of youth, as ill-fated lovers Carl and Cory.
Nevertheless, perhaps the most interesting, if not crucial, of Kaplan’s characters is that of New Granada, the planned suburban community where the action takes place. It brings to mind the sprawling deserts of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) or the vast plains of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). All dust and open skies, it looms large over the characters, seemingly dwarfing them and their prospect of escape.
It is this element that distinguishes the film from the Fast Times at Ridgemont Highs of the cultural landscape; Over the Edge isn’t a film about rebellion per se, although there is plenty of that, but is rather an examination of the kind of environments that serve to inspire recalcitrance. It takes a certain type of landscape to inculcate, and moreover justify, the fury that sets into motion the iconic rampage at the culmination of the film, and Over the Edge does a remarkable job of showing us exactly what those stark, ghettoised suburbs may look like.
I cannot imagine this film ever losing its charm – Hartley is masterful in his rendering of a supercilious Long Island teenager and her remarkable transformation into a pre-eminent ingénue. Adrienne Shelly is hypnotic as Maria, a high-school dropout with a penchant for gaudy outfits, impregnated by her local quarterback, and whose father dies of a heart attack upon hearing the news.
Martin Donovan proves her equal as the ferocious Matthew Slaughter, a local misfit who inspires trepidation amongst their small-minded community and who is waging a permanent war against mediocrity. It is difficult to imagine a more emblematic introduction to Matthew’s character than his first scene in the film – screwing his boss’s head into a table vice following an argument that arises from his reluctance to install inferior hardware in the computers he is employed to build.
This film has so much to offer: Hartley’s signature stilted, almost staccato, dialogue; the otherworldly, bleached high-key lighting; an iconic and mesmerising score.
Trust, while inarguably a tale of rebellion, is also very much a story of absolution. In a way, the narrative inverts the paradigm of the teenage rebellion film altogether, and where rebel protagonists have so often met with violent ends, this film closes with our characters better, happier people than they were when we first met them. Most encouraging is Maria’s progress, her journey – in many ways mimicking the arc of a Bildungsroman – from repellent, obnoxious and brazenly conceding to not ‘know[ing] anything’, she rebuilds herself upon the values of ‘respect, admiration and trust’.
At its core, Trust is a story about conquering ignorance. It is no accident that Maria matures exponentially the moment she begins asking questions; at the film’s conclusion, we find her stronger than Matthew, the man who awoke her interrogating spirit. While it offers a more positive rendition of rebellion than other films, Trust is relentless in its condemnation of an unexamined life and the subjugation of one’s unique values, favouring violence in the place of either such sacrifices.