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February 7-13, 2007

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Cult Leader

Wild in the Streets: True teen crime, from 'Over the Edge' to 'Alpha Dog'

By Steve Palopoli

ONE MURDER. Several teenagers. Zero parents. Those are the necessary ingredients for a modern juvenile delinquent movie. Now, the "JD" movie has a remarkable history stretching back to the bug-eyed camp of Reefer Madness and Marihuana, the Weed With Roots In Hell (both 1936) and probably even earlier. Those over-the-top preach-fests gave way to the first great teen angst film, 1955's Rebel Without a Cause. Here was a troubled kid who wasn't a biker (as in 1953's The Wild One and the dozens of movies it inspired in the '60s) or a gang member (a JD subgenre that's produced iconic cult films like 1979's The Warriors and 1991's Boyz in the Hood).

James Dean's Jim wasn't on the fringe. His "antisocial" behavior was in defiance of a social order that had ceased to function. The modern world had figuratively taken away his family, by creating a generational rift that isolated him from them, and then literally taken away the symbolic family he created to replace them, when Sal Mineo's Plato was killed by a policeman. Wasted youth had gone middle class.

But if the '50s and '60s were a teenage wasteland, the '70s gave way to a teenage apocalypse. Like Rebel had two decades before it, one 1979 film redefined the JD genre: Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge.

Kaplan's movie introduced two themes that have become a staple of kid-trouble movies ever since. First, it took the generational showdown deep into suburbia. Second, it added the sensational "based on true incidents" element that made it seem all the more urgent and important. I've had difficulty tracking down the original article about youth crime in Foster City ("Mouse Packs: Kids on a Crime Spree") upon which the screenplay was based, but the reporter who wrote it, Charlie Haas, also co-wrote the movie's script (with Tim Hunter), so I assume there was some degree of faithfulness. Considering how over the edge things get in Over the Edge, I hope it's not that true-to-life.

In the film, the setting is New Granada, a planned community where the parents are more worried about "high property resale value" than their children's quality of life. The kids, bitter and medicating themselves with pot and LSD, are practically roaming in packs. The police have declared an unofficial war on them, and a series of worst-case scenarios leads to the most outrageous teen riot ever filmed.

Even with its modern shocks and true-crime angle, Over the Edge is very much modeled on Rebel Without a Cause. For instance, as in Rebel, the kids naively fool with a gun, which eventually leads to tragedy when, once again, a policeman shoots a friend of the hero, Carl (played by Michael Eric Kramer).

In his debut film, Matt Dillon plays the most cynical and unpredictable of the kids, Richie White. Dillon is the closest thing Generation X got to James Dean; he was born to play the angry adolescent outsider. In fact, 25 years later he was basically playing Richie White all grown up and drunk in the 2005 Bukowski film Factotum.

Several true teen crime films have followed in the footsteps of Over the Edge; the two best are 1986's River's Edge (directed by Hunter and based on a murder in Milpitas) and 2001's Bully, from Kids director Larry Clark.

The most recent was last year's Alpha Dog, director Nick Cassavetes' adaptation of the real-life kidnapping and murder allegedly set in motion by a two-bit drug-dealer with an incredible name, Jesse James Hollywood. Despite a surprisingly good performance from Justin Timberlake as the chipper accomplice, Alpha Dog fails because Cassavetes is so heavy-handed; it's as if he's desperate to make sure the audience gets the right message at every moment. Everything is oversimplified for easy digestion: the victim is absurdly doe-eyed and innocent, while the villains (other than Timberlake's character) are badly acted cartoons of banal evil.

Cassavetes would have been smart to study the complex shades of gray in Over the Edge. Perhaps the greatest irony in Kaplan's film is that the Texas land baron the kids despise turns out to understand what's going on in New Granada better than anyone. What he tells the parents rings true in all of these cinematic suburban nightmares: "Seems to me like you all were in such a hopped-up hurry to get out of the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you were trying to get away from."

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback and your favorite Matt Dillon movie here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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