Over the Edge (1979)

Can a movie affect a person’s behavior? This one did.

Even though Jonathan Kaplan’s story about an uprising of teenagers in a planned California suburb was quickly pulled from the theaters after a limited release, it was in heavy rotation on HBO in the early 1980s. One Sunday night, my brother and I watched it with our parents. After Richie White, Matt Dillon is his debut performance, was killed by a police officer, my brother was visibly upset. My father tried to justify the actions of the police. Richie White did have a gun. But my brother was having none of it. They got into a shouting match that almost came to blows.

It’s easy to see why Over the Edge was Kurt Cobain’s favorite movie. It liberated a rebellious urge in my brother I never knew he had. I used to hate it. I’ve never been a fan of Matt Dillon. From Animal House to The Warriors to a long procession of movies in the 1980s depicting sex, drugs, and rock and roll as liberation from suburban conformism, the 1970s and 1980s were also the golden age of movies about teenage rebellion. But they never did much for me. Hedonism and conformism in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s were not mutually exclusive.

Watching Over the Edge again after all these years, however, I have to admit my brother was onto something I wasn’t. There’s plenty of hedonism in Over the Edge, plenty of drinking, drug taking, and teenage sex, but it’s never the point. In fact, for Richie White, Carl Willat and their fellow teenagers, hedonism wasn’t rebellion. It was a reflection of the despair they felt at living in a sterile, planned suburb, over being bullied by policemen who had too much extra time on their hands, and at adults who cared for nothing but money and social status.

What made Over the Edge so explosive was not hedonism but solidarity and community. The teenagers in New Grenada aren’t defending their right to take drugs, drink, or have sex, but to gather together at a place called the “rec,” a community center run by the film’s only sympathetic adult, a young woman named Julia. Julia asks one of the kids to get rid of a can of beer, but she doesn’t punish him. She’s the symbol of intelligent authority. She talks to the kids but doesn’t lecture them. For the rest of New Grenada’s adults the point of exercising their authority over their kids isn’t to help them grow into self-disciplined adults, but merely to exercise authority for its own sake.

Modeled on Foster City, California, a planned “community” built on a landfill, New Grenada is looks a lot more like the ethnic banlieu in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine than it does like a posh suburb in a John Hughes film. New Grenada’s adults almost seem to see their own children as a foreign race, as a menace to be dealt with rather than the future. The kids, in turn, have a correspondingly nihilistic attitude towards the city government. Over the Edge opens with two kids on a freeway overpass. One of them, Mark Perry, Vincent Spano, has a BB gun. After they shoot out the window of a police car, they take off on their bikes. They meet Richie and Carl Willat, Michael Erick Kramer, and tell them to hide. Mark and his friend escape, but the policeman who had been driving the car, a Sgt. Doberman, a bland but effective Harry Northup, arrest Carl and Richie instead. Doberman knows he has the wrong kids, but it doesn’t matter. Any kid will do. So he trumps up some charges against Richie and take them both down to the station.

Carl, who’s from a higher social class than Richie, gets off more easily. Richie is the son of a single mother, but Carl’s father is a member of the local elite. He owns the local Cadillac dealer. When Richie returns home, his father is meeting with Jerry Cole, the president of the Homeowner’s Association. A rich Texas oilman is planning to visit New Grenada. Cole wants to close down the “rec” center on the day of the visit and Carl’s father agrees. They don’t want New Grenada’s youth “problems” to scare off potential investors. They put money over their own children. The next day, Sgt. Doberman comes to the rec center. Julia protests that he can’t come inside without a warrant. She defends the teenagers’ “safe space” but Doberman bullies his way in anyway. He arrests one kid over drugs and tells the rest he could arrest them too any time he wants. It’s not about the drugs, in other words. It’s about the exercise of arbitrary power. Carl, outraged over the way his father’s mercenary nature has led to the violation of their community, booby traps the Texans’ car with firecrackers. They decide not to invest. Carl and Richie meet two girls. One of them has robbed a house, taking nothing but a 38 caliber revolver.

The next day,  Richie brandishes the gun in front of Sgt. Doberman. Doberman shoots him dead.

The adults don’t care. Richie wasn’t important. Do they ever care in real life? Ask Ramarley Graham’s parents. But they do care about their property values. So they call a meeting at the high school. How do you deal with the youth “problem?” As they blather on about vandalism, about property values, about supporting the police, the kids outside are planning a rebellion. Whatever their differences, all of the kids in New Grenada get organized. They chain the doors shut. They set police cars on fire. Only Julia, who’s able to win the trust of one of the children she knows from the rec center to talk him into giving her a telephone, saves the adults of New Grenada from ending up like all the teenagers in Brian DePalma’s Carrie. The rebellion is broken up. Carl is sent to jail. But it ends on a happy note. Carl and his friends go to jail knowing that, for a brief time, they had organized a real community. They had overthrown their parents rotten, greed based social order. They’ll be out of juvenile detention in a few years, and, like my brother, they’ll all be better off for having stood up for themselves.

If Over the Edge lacks some of the poetic beauty, understanding of imperialism and racism, and uncompromising nihilism of La Haine, Over the Edge is still the American La Haine. Perhaps it would be better to call La Haine the French version of Over the Edge. In any event, it’s still worth seeing, if only to get a look at the kind of film that crap like Porky’s, Sixteen Candles and American Pie were made in order to co opt. Could Over the Edge be made today? Maybe a better question is why, in the age of stop and frisk, films like Over the Edge aren’t being made today. Now more than ever, we need another American La Haine.

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3 comments

  1. […] Guy 2: No. Not that. There are great American movies about teenage rebellion, but The Breakfast Club isn’t one of […]

  2. Sgt. Doberman – how apt. Great review.

    1. Fear of Dobermans was a big deal in the 1970s. I think Richard Pryor actually had a comedy routine on the subject.

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