Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
When nationally-publicized gang fights erupted at theatrical screenings of Boulevard Nights and The Warriors in 1979, they created a public relations climate that got Jonathan Kaplan's excellent, non-exploitative teen problem movie Over the Edge shelved shortly after its completion. After showing only in some isolated bookings, it made its national appearance much later on cable television, when its teen star discovery Matt Dillon had already made his name in other films.
That's a real shame, for Over the Edge is easily the most intelligent movie about the problem of children in America's new upscale housing developments, suburban deserts lacking entertainments or gathering places for bored, neglected kids. The teens for once look their age. They're barely pubescent, baby-faced longhairs with bad attitudes and highly developed drug habits. All they know of the world is what they see on television. Their parents have no time for them.
The adults of the planned community New Granada seem happy in their new houses and cars, even if the township is experiencing a slight business slump. But the master plan has ignored a quarter of the population, kids under 18. With their parents more or less absent, the bored kids resent being treated like trespassers wherever they go. Juvenile crime, drug use and contempt for authority have become cultural givens. After the particularly antisocial Mark (Vincent Spano) shoots the windshield of Officer Doberman (Harry Northup) with an air rifle, young Carl and Richie (Michael Eric Kramer and Matt Dillon) are taken to police headquarters and threatened. Conditions worsen. Doberman is told to close the teen center for a day to keep the 'unsightly' kids away from out of town investors, but he fumbles the assignment when the social worker Julia (Julia Pomeroy) refuses to send the kids home. Becoming more alienated, Carl meets a girl named Cory (Pamela Ludwig) who shoplifts and burglarizes houses -- and the gun she steals goes right into Richie's irresponsible hands.
New Granada needs outside investment, and dormant plans for a skating rink and movie theater are being shelved in favor of a more profitable industrial park. Carl's mother has her group activities and his father has to hustle to keep selling Cadillacs. That leaves no time for Carl. Even when he's hauled downtown by the harassed local cop, Dad is eager to forget the whole problem. His only instruction for Carl is to stop associating with Richie, a local troublemaker who has already been arrested a number of times. At the impersonal, inexpensively built Junior High the teachers lecture the kids about recent crimes but can't even get them to stop talking during class time. They show an old
educational film to harangue the students about vandalism, and it only provokes shouted derision and defiance.
The only haven is the teen center, one tiny Quonset hut on an un-landscaped lot where Julia gives the restless kids a place to let off steam. She's young, single and doesn't interfere with their alarming posturing and talk of drugs. She stops Richie from drinking a beer but doesn't kick him out or enforce stricter rules. Julia knows that the damage has already been done. All that is left is to give the kids understanding and try to keep them out of worse problems.
Carl is beaten and humiliated by punks in a sequence effectively de-sensationalized by using only soft music for a soundtrack. But he's delighted when the really cool Cory takes an interest in him. They use an incomplete construction site as a meeting place.
Things get dicey when the kids play with the stolen pistol. Everyone wants to shoot it and it gets waved in every direction. Guns are on TV, guns are fun -- Cory playfully shoots at Carl as a joke. The gun is loaded and the shot is a near miss. With no experience in such things the kids are oblivious to the danger. "I'm sorry. It was empty a minute ago, honest."
New Granada's parents demand that 'somebody else' needs to do something about the growing crime rate. The head of the PTA is only a couple of sentences into his speech before he expresses his true concern: To keep a lid on the problem so as to not affect local investment conditions. Officer Doberman is furious that his authority is being challenged and takes the kids' constant abuse personally. Frustrated teachers say they can barely teach classes.
Over the Edge builds to a kids vs. parents situation that eventually ignites an orgy of vandalism. The kids lock the adults into the school's multipurpose 'cafetorium', set their cars on fire and steal weapons from the police cruiser. It's a holocaust comparable to the end of Lindsay Anderson's If..., without the high body count but just as violent in tone.
The young cast is directed with expert care - some dialogue is a bit stilted but the teen behaviors are completely convincing. A kid who comes to school on drugs every day freaks out in a test because he accidentally dropped acid instead of speed. Our hero Carl is too awkward and small to really assert himself, but his little pouting face tells us he's already decided on the major issues in life: Nothing's worthwhile, the world stinks and his parents don't give a damn about him. From his point of view, openly defying Officer Doberman and bombing the car of the Texas investors make perfect sense.
Matt Dillon's first movie finds him doing exceptionally well as a young hood with spirit but an insufficient grasp of reality. Running away in a stolen car is a guaranteed way to get caught, and brandishing a gun at a policeman has only one possible outcome, even if the gun isn't loaded. The adults are fine in their peripheral roles. By the time Andy Romano and Ellen Geer's confused parents take Carl's problem seriously, it's far too late.
Warners DVD of Over the Edge is presented at its correct 1:85 aspect ratio. The enhanced image looks fine, and the expertly chosen rock source soundtrack illustrates what the kids listen to (Van Halen, Hendrix) without turning the movie into a pop jukebox.
The chief extra is an exceptionally good audio commentary by director Jonathan Kaplan, producer George Litto and screenwriters Charlie Haas and Tim Hunter. We're given full details on the film's unfortunate release history and how the great kid cast was assembled -- young actor Dillon was quite a nervy young punk. Kaplan and his team got their sociology right -- Over the Edge has the still-unacknowledged answers behind social disasters like the Columbine killings. Columbine is a 'planned community' in Colorado, the same state as the mythical New Granada.
There is also an original theatrical trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Over the Edge rates:
Supplements: Commentary (see above), trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 16, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson