Sunday, August 25, 2013

Suburbia is Burning in OVER THE EDGE

Over the Edge (1979)
Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Rating: 9 / 10

Who would have thought the suburban idyll of a planned community could be so... apocalyptic? The spacious countryside might appear tranquil to the outsider with its orderly rows of houses, each with a big lawn, all far from the city and all its troubles. Well, in theory, anyway. There's a fire burning below the surface of New Grenada, and it's fueled by violence, drugs, and teenage hormones.

Over the Edge is a unique film in that it features delinquent kids who aren't urban, neglected, abused, or otherwise mistreated. These are the children of predominantly white upper-middle class suburban families in the 1970s. The kids have everything at their disposal except a sense of purpose. Lost amidst the grids of identical homes, is it any wonder they begin resort to theft and vandalism to keep themselves occupied? Their only true refuge is the bunker-like youth center desperately holding out against the uptight local police officers who believe it's enabling the kids' bad behavior.

I initially had a tough time believing that a gang of middle schoolers could get in to this much trouble, but the movie was inspired by actual events in Foster City, California, so it contains at least some measure of truth. More convincing than a "based on a true story" title card are the film's young leads. The kids are so genuine that nearly all of my skepticism evaporated within the first act of the film.

Added realism is introduced by the fact this film plays for keeps. When Carl, the too-smart-for-his-own-good main character, is jumped by a couple of other kids, the bruises he suffers linger on his face for the rest of the film. It's a subtle way to let us know that actions have very real consequences in this story. As the violence escalates, it's that much more powerful because we know it's having a profound effect on the characters.

All of this is captured beautifully by director of photography Andrew Davis. The spacious, barren landscapes that the kids wander reflect the interior emptiness that they're trying desperately to fill. The characters are frequently seen as shadows wandering against towering clouds, trapped between crushing layers of earth and sky. Juxtaposing these foreboding vistas with the familiar interiors and backyards of suburbia makes them that much more ominous.

The few things I wish were a little different in Over the Edge are minor. I felt Harry Northup's portrayal as the overzealous cop Doberman was a little too one-note, particularly in how relentlessly he targeted the kids. Although to be fair, in such a boring community what else did he have to do? More importantly, I found myself wishing the film went a little further at the end. It flirts with a truly devastating conclusion, but reins things in and returns to reality. It's not the ending I would have chosen, but it's a good one. However long the final conflagration rages, it dies off quickly, as tantrums do. Youthful rebellion is by nature a transient thing.

Over the Edge is simply fantastic. It's a must-see for fans of films about delinquency, rebellion, and growing up in a suburban wasteland.

No comments:

Post a Comment