Teenage Wasteland
(or a kid that tells on another kid is a dead kid!)
I first caught part of the movie Over the Edge on a weekend afternoon on regular T.V. I was intrigued at first by the soundtrack, which prominently featured Cheap Trick, the Ramones, the Cars and Van Halen.  Next I noticed that it starred a young Matt Dillon in his first movie role and finally, as I started to follow the story, I found myself sucked into one of the most honest, and haunting portrayals of late 70's youth culture that I had ever seen. Over the Edge is the apotheosis of the 'Teenage Wasteland' that the Who sang about.    

Filmed in Aurora, Colorado, the film tells the story of a group of alienated Jr. High School kids frustratingly awash in a bleak, planned community called New Granada.  This isolated and barren housing development is supposed to offer them a better future than the various Urban centers from which their parents have fled. But the kids find themselves instead, trapped in a false paradise bought by their parents' overprotective paranoia and dreams of upward mobility. They wander around on foot or on bikes, bored and intoxicated, with no outlet for their youthful energy besides a local rec. center run by a benevolent hippie chick, various drugs and rock music and awkward attempts at romance in a neighbor's basement.

Their parents know there's a problem, particularly those of Carl, the main character, who has started running with what his parents feel is the bad crowd, (including future star Matt Dillon as Ritchie White).  But these "bad kids" are really the same as Carl with just less of a structured home life and a few more personal problems thrown in the mix.  All of the parents in New Granada seem more concerned with property value and business deals than with raising their children.  What attention they do show their kids takes the form of punishment and berating, rather than genuine concern and communication.  These conflicts between the bored kids with no outlet for their energy (not even the promised bowling alley and mall) and their uncomprehending parents, teachers and local police comes to a head in an explosive and somewhat shocking ending.  An ending which at the time might have seemed exaggerated or unreal, but in light of more recent events in places like Littleton Colorado and elsewhere, seems more than a little prescient.

The movie was directed by Jonathan Kaplan and first released in 1979.   And it is very much a product of the cusp of the 70's as it prepares to roll over into 1980's.  It's there in the clothes, hairstyles, the rec. center, the new housing developments of the upwardly aspiring parents, and most of all in the music on the soundtrack. This is the period just prior to the advent of the video arcades and large shopping malls of the 1980s, which, though still culturally impoverished, at least gave suburban kids some outlet for something to do.  I know we are programmed to think and buy culture/life in decades, and it's basically an arbitrary delineation.  But by design or default much seems to conform to this drawing of cultural lines.  Still there is always that gray area where you see the two styles of two decades blending, one on the descent and one on the ascent, and it's at this point where a lot of the most interesting teen culture happens. That weird hangover as one decade collapses into another and for whatever reason, by media manipulation, unconscious and/or natural factors, the culture does seem to shift.  Over the Edge captures this zeitgeist perfectly while at the same time, with over 20 years of perspective, provides a telling warning of the end results of the debasement of the American Dream to simple greed and materialism.  Alienation in the extreme, from each other, our families, neighbors, even ourselves, our own emotions.

But it wasn't until just recently after a thorough and more attentive viewing that I recognized just how great a film this truly is.  There were several factors that drew me back for a repeat viewing.  First I had been thinking about the film because its soundtrack, more than any other document of the time, reflected a current obsession of mine; the last gasp of decent rock/pop music of the late 70's early 80's.  This would include bands like Cheap Trick, The Cars, Van Halen, AC/DC, the Ramones, and Van Halen (who all factor in one way or another into Over the Edge) among many others.  Often celebrated in the present as mere kitsch, much of the music of this period really stands up as interesting, fun and unpretentious pop music that captures this period of American youth perfectly.  This interest was reinforced by my continually growing collection of Creem magazines from roughly the years of 77-82, which documented this same music and culture and boasted a very strong group of writers under the skillful editorship of one Sue Whitall.  There was in those pages a winning combination of irreverence, fun and passion that also existed in the freshness of the music of the time.  One of those back issues also mentioned Over the Edge as an upcoming project that Cheap Trick would be contributing heavily too as a recompense for passing on involvement in what eventually became the starring vehicle and cult classic for the Ramones, Roger Corman's Rock n' Roll High School (another great film).   

The other factor pulling me back to Over the Edge was the praise heaped on it by Amy Heckerling the director of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, another youth culture film released two years after Over the Edge and though considerably more light-hearted, also accurately portrayed the world of American teenagers.  In her director's commentary to Fast Times, Heckerling singles out Over the Edge as the film that really inspired her to portray young people and their culture, which she perceptibly points out is a completely self contained world that adults are rarely aware of, in an honest and humane manner.  She says something to the effect of this is the world you don't see, that your children navigate through with each other.  A world with a completely different currency of interactions and exchanges, with its own code, that at the same time contains many of the adult situations/problems of the "real world".  At its most severe a world that revolves around codes like Matt Dillon's character's repeated mantra that "a kid that tells on another kid is a dead kid!"

My recent viewing of the film then, brought on by a number of interlocking interests, revealed a lot of subtle elements that I had missed in my first incomplete viewing.  For one the cinematography and editing is quite impressive, despite its low budget origin.   In fact large parts of the film are reminiscent in feel and tone to such Terrence Malick masterpieces as Badlands and Days of Heaven.  Specifically the long shots lingering on the desolate plains and horizons of the fictional housing development of New Granada and the use of haunting and at times downright creepy non-diegetic music. Also the film's realism is greatly enhanced because the group of, then unknown, actors who star are actually the age of the characters they portray.  Their natural and untrained acting really allows the viewer to sink into the time period and story almost as if watching a documentary.  This realism is furthered by dialogue so authentic and natural that I didn't notice at first just how well it was written.  Tellingly the film was co-written by Tim Hunter who in the mid 80's went on to direct the great River's Edge which documented further the alienation and break down and dulling of emotions in American teens.  An interesting bit of trivia is that, Michael Kramer who played the main character, Carl, in Over the Edge went on to earn a degree in psychology and now works with troubled teens. 

Ultimately my most recent viewing of the film also revealed how skillfully this film works on several different levels.  It can be seen; particularly with the perspective we have now, as a serious warning and indictment of the kind of unique alienation that American society was heading towards.  It can also be viewed simply as an accurate and for many who grew up around this period nostalgic (though again not at all lighthearted) look at the confusion, frustration, and nihilism of late 70's early 80's youth in America.   The house/basement parties, riding bikes, switchblades, the ever present danger of being jumped by other kids, underage drinking and drugs all to a soundtrack of the Ramones, Cheap Trick, The Cars, and Van Halen.  Yet at the same time the films detailing of young people's frustrations, confusion and at times destructive attempts at meaningful expression has a feeling of timelessness and universality to it.   When you look today you see the same phenomena writ large, drug use, vandalism, gunplay and a soundtrack of music that at least portends to mirror these rebellious impulses.

Unfortunately the movie is a little hard to get a hold of today and has yet to see a DVD release, most likely due to problems with licensing the music used on the soundtrack.  But it has an ever growing cult following, there's even an online petition to get it released on DVD. Hopefully someone with the wherewithal (read money) to get the details sorted will step in to give it a proper release on DVD.  Until that time try your local older video retailer or ebay where I've seen what I assume are bootleg DVD copies for sale. 

© 2004 William Crain 2004