Being bored and bad in the desert
Over the Edge is a pre-cursor to the flood of teen films in the 1980s. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan and written by Charlie Haas and Tim Hunter – loosely based on events reported in a 1973 San Francisco Examiner article titled “Mousepacks: Kids on a Crime Spree” – the film was completed with limited distribution in 1979, and earned a wide release in 1982 after a short run on cable television and at the Public Theater in New York. As such, it separates itself from the fanciful video game-laced teen flicks of the ’80s. Over the Edge is ’70s guts and bones. Hard and depressing.
The story concerns a bunch of adolescents in the planned community of New Granada somewhere in the desert. (The film was shot in western Colorado.) They’re in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do except mess around at a shitty recreational center that looks like half of a tin trash can stumped into the dirt. Most of the adults are jackasses and treat the teens as a nuisance, led by top cop Doberman (Harry Northrup). When one of the misfits named Mark (Vincent Spano) fires a BB into a cop car and causes a highway accident, the town enacts a 9:30 curfew and the cops are all hard to harass the kids. It starts with Carl (Michael Kramer) and Richie (Matt Dillon, in his film debut), friends from opposite sides of town, who won’t dare speak out against another kid, no matter how much of a bully Mark is. Fred (Andy Romano) is Carl’s dad and the local Cadillac dealer, trying to attract some outside investors to further develop New Granada, together with the community’s real estate hotshot, Cole (played by Richard Jamison). Carl’s parents are concerned about his wayward behavior, in as much as it affects their ability to promote their town, and are quick to blame Richie. Carl has none of it and strengthens his bond with Richie, while getting close with the punkish Cory (Pamela Ludwig). Neglected and nudged into drugs and beer can target practice with a stolen gun, Carl, Richie and the gang look to escape the grown-ups’ push to keep the peace and prosperity, by finding new ways to fuck things up. They fight off bullshit pat-downs and pull a gun on the local dealer Tip (Eric Lalich), whom they accuse of ratting out their druggie pal Claude (an excellent Tom Fergus). The final straw is when Doberman shoots and kills Richie, armed only with an empty-chamber revolver, after a chase in Richie’s mom’s Ford Bronco.
Carl and crew are genuinely torn up over the incident and this leads to the film’s finale, in which they lock all of the adults in the school during a community meeting and torch their cars in the parking lot, absolutely trashing the place. Police reinforcements arrive, springing Doberman, who arrests Carl and drives away from the scene. On the road, Mark shoots at Doberman’s squad car and it crashes into the rec center. The place goes up in flames and Carl manages to escape, leaving an unconscious Doberman behind to burn in the blast. The film ends with Carl being bussed to juvenile jail.
Aside from Dillon, Spano and Lane Smith (in a bit part as an out-of-town land developer), the cast is basically made up of a bunch of unknowns, including real-life kids and their parents, all adding to the film’s realism. Check out Claude’s stoned bits of dialogue and Carl’s touching phone call with the mute Johnny (Tiger Thompson) after Richie is killed. And the adults act and react much like those most of us knew growing up. From the bitchy principal to the dickhead teachers, and parents more concerned with passing the day quietly than giving their children something to look forward to, we understand Fred losing his cool and smacking Carl, and Cole steaming over his drink when the investors back out. The police are overdone, but they represent the enemy, fueled by insecurity in their ability to tame the teens, and offer little reason not to hate them. The line is clearly drawn early in the film when Carl and Richie refuse to cooperate in the BB gun investigation. Doberman demands they name the shooter, to which Richie responds, “Do we look like cops?” The other officer barks, “You look like jerks. Shut up!”
In a 2009 retrospective, Tim Hunter said that the film’s ending is more violent than the actual story reported in the Examiner. There’s no simple wrap-up here like ’80s bubble gum flicks, before teens were brought back into dark in films such as River’s Edge (1986) (directed by Tim Hunter) and Heathers (1988). The picture builds upon the teens’ increasingly sketchy behavior. They move from merely mouthing off to authority to running them out of their way. Emboldened by lack of supervision, they toss off any moral shackles, coursing through boredom with limitless energy in a dry wasteland. Their only goal seems to be passing the time with as much mischief as possible. It’s a take on the idle hands concept, and Kaplan and the writers aren’t concerned with creating likable young leads. The consequences to their actions are deadly and real. The movie doesn’t take sides and doesn’t disguise it. In a brilliant, but brief twist of treachery, Kaplan invites us to think that maybe the kids and grown-ups aren’t so different. During the lock-down, Julia (Julia Pomeroy), the rec center moderator and only adult ally the teens have, sweethearts her way into making Johnny hand her a phone from which she calls the cops.
In true ’70s style, Over the Edge hits it out of the yard with some beautiful shots in between the destruction. The most provocative images are when the boys and girls split up after hanging out in the frame house, converging towards the sunset, and Carl’s walk through the fields with Cory. I can’t help to think Kaplan and cinematographer Andrew Davis (who directed 1994’s The Fugitive) were influenced by Terrence Malick’s amazing Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), which also deal with youthful aggression and alienation. These scenes symbolize a splice of hope. A possible way out of New Granada’s stagnant nothingness.
Whether you argue the characters are misguided or misunderstood, escapism is always relatable. Kaplan further highlights this theme through the film’s killer soundtrack (which includes The Ramones, Valerie Carter and Little Feat, but it also has Van Halen, so it’s not perfect) and in little details, such as the Star Wars posters hanging in Carl’s room and the huge-ass headphones that he uses to drown out the world. Most of New Granada’s residents are city evacuees (I guess this explains the New York accents), searching for new beginnings on a desolate plateau. And Carl’s big smile at the end, in the calm and almost happy bus ride to jail, means to tell us that all the kids really want to do is get the fuck out of town.
Over the Edge
Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Screenplay: Charlie Haas and Tim Hunter
Producer: George Litto
Starring: Matt Dillon, Michael Kramer, Tom Fergus and Pamela Ludwig
Release Date: 1979 (limited), 1982 (wide)
Buy it here.