It’s odd when a nearly forty year old film comes with high expectations, but such is the case with Jonathan Kaplan’s 1979 film OVER THE EDGE. For years I’d heard this was one of the best representations of teenage life/angst to be put on film. Such bold statements always leave me weary but seeing as it was co-written by Tim Hunter, who would go on to direct RIVER’S EDGE (1986) which is one of the best such movies, I was willing to trust the cult status of this film.
The cult got it half right. The first portion of this film does indeed create a realistic depiction of teenage malaise. Stuck in the newly developed suburb of New Granada the listless teens spend most of their time in the “rec center” or out performing a series of misdemeanors that range from mostly innocuous to might get someone killed. Wisely the film does not attempt to turn these Junior High students (remember when there were Junior Highs?!) into monsters but simply bored teens, desperate to find something worthwhile to occupy their time. For the majority of the film anyway. The “worst” among them is Richie White (Matt Dillon in his film debut) whose petty criminal record puts him on the radar of the Doberman (Harry Northup), the local sheriff (I assume, the never really specify), who of course sees him as a major threat to the community, as he does all the teens. He uses any infraction to harass and intimidate the teens, eventually shutting down the one place the have, the teen rec center. Run by Julia (Julia Pomeroy), the center consists of a pool table, a Foosball table, a ping pong table, some chairs and a playground. In other words, about 30 minutes of fun before boredom sets in again. As ineffective as the center is, Julia is the only adult presented who is willing to listen to the teens and try to understand them.
This type of film insists that a “good” kid be caught up in the wake of the trouble maker, and in this case that good kid is Carl (Michael Kramer). Smart and resourceful, Carl gravitates toward Richie because of his confidence and humor, and their relationship creates a balance that helps us sympathize with the disenchanted youth. But just as that sympathy is reaching its peak and we think the film is going one way (to a greater understanding between the adults and children), the film creates an incident that changes the tone of the film and leads to a finale that while nicely shot and edited, seems reductive to the purpose of the film. The chaos and violence of these final moments are so extreme and exaggerated that it belies not only the emotional realism of the early portions of the film but also what we’ve come to believe about the main character. We watch Carl grow and come close to bridging the generation gap, only to see him (and EVERYONE else) become exactly what their parents and the law feared. It is a truly demoralizing end.
I imagine if I had seen this as a teenager I probably would have championed it as a huge success and window into the frustrations of confined youth. As an adult, far removed from the angst and rebellion of youth, the film seems more interested in confirming the fears of adults than looking seriously at the causes of juvenile crime. A real shame considering how great it started. An interesting, frustrating, and ultimately disappointing “cult classic.”
by Jason Callen