Over the Edge (1979)

“It just shows how much culture has completely changed,” Over the Edge director Jonathan Kaplan comments for the new DVD. “When we showed this movie to the studio, they were absolutely horrified and shocked at the culture of the teenage kids, [but] if you look at what teenage culture is today, this movie seems so sweet and so mild and so naïve.”

Over the Edge is all of those things. Centered on a group of teenagers in New Granada, where every detail is planned to create wealth and traditional family living, it looks at teenage frustration from the inside. Famously, in the real life version of this experiment, Foster City, this frustration boiled into rage and the kids stormed into a town meeting and demanded attention. In Over the Edge, the kids lock the adults inside the meeting hall and proceed to smash and burn buildings and cars outside.

They make this stand following bad boy Ritchie’s (Matt Dillon) murder by a bully cop. Though their extreme reaction is quite different from the events that inspired the film, it emerges from Kaplan’s focus on the kids as “authentic,” pained and earnest. Carl (Michael Kramer) provides the film’s primary point of view. Angry over Ritchie’s death, he leads the melee. At one point he and his new girlfriend, Cory (Pamela Ludwig), stand by a blazing drum, his arm around her shoulder and his face showing a mix of satisfaction and disappointment.

The Carl we see in this moment is not the Carl from the start of the film. As the situation forcing the kids to violence builds, so does his command of his time and place. The point here is the connection between the structured, planned environment in which Carl and the other kids live and the fleeting decisions they make in the film’s final moments. Carl and his friends are acting on impulse, they’re stuck in this cornered-off, boring landscape and, at 14, they don’t especially see anything beyond it. Their homes and boring, their families are boring, school offers them little, and so they act without forethought.

For the commentary, Kaplan discusses the kids’ impulsiveness with writers Charlie Haas and Tim Hunter and producer George Litto. Of particular interest is the cluster of scenes leading to Ritchie’s death, during a car chase involving Carl and Ritchie as they attempt to flee New Granada (there’s small subplot involving their attack on a drug snitch that pushes them to this decision). Before they take off, Ritchie says a brief goodbye to his little brother.

“The studio asked me why I didn’t shoot a close up of Matt Dillon holding up his brother and explaining to his brother that he had to go,” Kaplan says, noting that “the studio” thought the moment could draw sympathy for Ritchie. Kaplan explains that the point was the rush: the brothers share nothing, and act on impulse.

Hass explains,

We went up there and looked at this place [Foster City] and talked to the kids and the things that jumped out at you because this was a place that had sort of been built overnight all this condo housing and developments… that were built on these manmade lagoons. These kids, in addition to whatever other problems there, were growing up in an environment where they never saw anything any older than they were. It was a place totally outside of history and I think that contributed to the feeling that they had that the place was disposable. And that there was nothing to look back to or look forward to because the thing existed outside of time in a way.

Revisiting Over the Edge is always an education, especially if you grew up watching it repeatedly, as I did. I first saw it at 12 and, along with my friends, identified with the kids’ sense of isolation. We lived in small towns, some with populations as low as 200, with very little in the way of entertainment for people under 18. We were bored, too, looking for anything to do, legal or not. Fourteen years on, after hearing the filmmakers emphasize their respect for their young leads, I find I’m relating to it in a new way. Before, the film was all about angst and rebelliousness. Now, it’s about simpler times. How innocent we were as kids before iPods, Eminem, and the internet. Our consequent self-reliance and free-spiritedness have ended up, at least for me, as blessings we had no way of measuring at the time.