director Jonathan Kaplan
Over the Edge is a naturalist, if not exactly Cinéma vérité teen film, that really captures the tone, vantage, and sensibility of teen life in ways that few American films ever do. That said, they seemed to get it closer to right in the 1970’s than they have for many years, and this film is truly exemplary in that vibe, made even more essential by a great contemporary rock’n’roll soundtrack including Cheap Trick, The Cars, The Ramones, Van Halen and a little Jimi Hendrix.
I stumbled on this film after watching Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015), which quoted Cobain as to how much this film hit home with him when he was a kid. However much that film got right or wrong, it’s easy to see why Over the Edge would have had that potential. I’m not sure why it’s as obscure as it is, being the first film to feature a young Matt Dillon. Maybe it’s the chaos and anarchy at the heart of the story that helped it to some level of obscurity. I don’t know. I was largely unaware of it.
The story is based on real events that occurred in Foster City, CA in the 1970’s. A planned community with hopeful if not Utopian goals, a suburbia is laid out but with a real lack of anything except a clubhouse for kids, and a result of the culture of the time and teens with angst and no outlets, they suffered a upshot in delinquency that far outpaced the average small town America.
Writers Charles S. Haas and Tim Hunter went to Foster City and met the kids and based their story on their research and interviews. Doubtlessly, some of the film’s verity comes through there. But what you see here too that you see all too rarely is a teen film with actual teen actors (Dillon was 14 when the film was shot) and there is a far greater truth in the reality of actual teenagers playing teenagers because…well…they are teenagers.
Teenagers in ’70’s movies could smoke cigarettes and pot, take drugs, drink beer, and curse up a storm. There is something in the sanitization of media since the 1980’s that has utterly curtailed the willingness to portray kids as less than shiny, perfectly coifed and clad bastions of teenagehood. And so this film is all the more shocking in its realism and naturalism.
That the film evolves into a massive revolt of youth against society, lunging into anarchy and escape is all the more polemical for a message to youth and society.
Frankly, it’s a great film. For all the great contemporary music in it, the other soundtrack music is actually awful. And while at times the film seems like it might be a simple “after school special” of its day (it’s a more workmanlike film than an art film), its soul and thrust are true and real and quite radical. It’s really something special.