Over The Edge
I can still vividly remember watching Over the Edge for the first time, probably a little over a decade after its original 1979 release. I was in the lower level of a family friend's split level home - my generation spent an awful lot of time split levels, after all. I was the only kid at the gathering that night; the adults were upstairs talking after dinner, so I retreated to the safety and security of the television room downstairs. Flipping channels, I came across this movie playing on HBO. It was just starting, and that opening caught my attention - the shot of a billboard reading “New Granada: Tomorrow’s city… today” and the anarchic sounds of Cheap Trick's "Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace" blasting out at me. For the rest of the film's running time I sat on the couch transfixed, hardly able to believe what I was watching. I was already a huge fan of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a perennial staple of cable TV in those days. Over the Edge had that same sort of raw, unvarnished reality in its portrayal of Generation X youth culture. Also like Fast Times, Over the Edge boasted a killer soundtrack, featuring four songs by Cheap Trick, plus several more from the Cars, Van Halen, the Ramones, and Hendrix. The music perfectly captured the mood and temperament of the simmering, late '70s youthful rebellion on display in the film.
There were differences between the films, though. While Fast Times offered quite possibly the first truly honest cinematic portrait of American teens at that time, it still laced its brutal truths with sly wit and was chock full of memorably funny moments. Over the Edge could be funny, too; it shared Fast Times' dark sense of humor, certainly. However, even amidst the uncertainty and heartache the kids face in Fast Times, that film still ends with a sense of well-earned hope for all, at least. Over the Edge, on the other hand, offered the same sort of truthful look into the drama-filled lives of teenagers, but provided little in the way of hope. The film's bleak tone is there from the start, and it grows bleaker along the way. It's like watching a train wreck about to happen in slow motion: the kids and the adults are on a collision course that will impact all of their lives moving forward. So while I sat on that couch as a teenager, glued to the screen, I was very much aware that this was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. And I loved it. It reflected things that every teenager could relate to in varying degrees.
Set in the fictional planned community of New Granada in Colorado, the film is a searing critique of how these sorts of suburban enclaves can breed a sort of miasma of discontent in both the parents and the kids. This was supposed to be their heaven on earth, safe and far away from the evils of the big cities or the larger suburbs. Instead, the kids in New Granada are miserable and resentful that they've been uprooted to live in this godforsaken place, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. There's an after school rec center, run by a teacher who truly cares, but outside of that there is literally nothing for these kids to do except roam around in packs looking for cheap thrills where they can find them. There's an unfinished house where the kids can hang out, smoke, and play around with a gun one of them procures. Rock music and drugs are their only salvation, as they drift aimlessly through a life none of them want but that their parents feel they should be grateful to have.
The teens were mostly played by non-actors, except for a few then-unknowns like Matt Dillon (making his screen debut) and Vincent Spano. For kids with little to no acting experience, the cast is uniformly terrific, probably because their roles hit so close to home - they were teenagers, after all, and could relate better to the material they were being asked to play than anyone else could. The parents, teachers, police officers, and other adults are presented as human beings with their own foibles and insecurities, instead of just cartoonishly evil. They're not bad people, at heart (well, a few of them are), but they consistently make selfish and poor decisions that impact their kids in ways they can't seem to grasp. There's a powerful moment late in the film where one father asks, incredulously, if any of them have ever really listened to their kids before? It's a pertinent question, and the first time in the film one of the parents seems to understand where their kids are coming from.
The tension builds until finally the kids need to do something cathartic to release all of that pent up aggression and anger. Then one teen is killed by a cop claiming self-defense. Then, finally, all of the kids' rage boils over. This was the part that really blew my mind back in the day: the kids lock the adults into the school during a parents-only meeting following the teen's shooting death. The kids proceed to systematically and gleefully destroy school property - scenes of library shelves being overturned with books flying everywhere, windows being smashed, and police cars ablaze were incredibly powerful images to witness as a teenager. What kid didn't want to break some stuff at his or her school at one time or another? It was exhilarating to see this as a teenager, even if I knew I was too docile to ever attempt something that brazen. Today, watching from the standpoint of an adult and a parent, the ending still packs a punch, but now that comes with a heavy dose of heartbreak also. The explosive release of the teenage angst is both terrifying and sad. The film never really offers any obvious signs of hope in the ongoing war between parents and their children. That final scene of the kids on the bus being shipped off to a detention center is oddly uplifting, scored to the tune of "Ooh Child," which might fool us into thinking everything is going to be okay. But then we remember these kids are in real trouble, their futures likely altered for good. All because they didn't feel they had anyone to listen to them.
I'm curious what today's youth would think of Over the Edge. The film was already a cult classic by the time I saw it, and it hasn't lost any of its luster in the years since then. My instincts are that today's youth would connect with it as much as previous generations did. It's not only an important document of teen culture in late twentieth-century American suburbia, but its themes are universal and will reach across generations. Everyone is a teenager at one point. We can all relate to the very real sense of disillusionment that occurs when you become old enough to realize that your parents and other authority figures aren't perfect like you though they were when you were just a child. In fact, they're deeply, complexly flawed, often in ways you won't understand until you reach adulthood. All that matters when you're a teenager is that they do not and cannot possibly understand you or your feelings. Over the Edge is one of the finest cinematic representations of that gulf, that ever-widening gyre of understanding between adults and teenagers. It's the ultimate teen cult classic, ready to be discovered by each successive generation that's in need of seeing themselves, and their feelings, represented thoughtfully on screen.