A scene from OVER THE EDGE.

Retro Review: Over the Edge

United States. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, 1979. Starring Michael Kramer, Matt Dillon, Pamela Ludwig. 95 minutes.

Welcome to New Granada, the planned community of the future, bringing twentieth-century European living to the southwestern desert. It’s a great place to live, if you’re an adult. However, one-quarter of New Granada’s residents are aged 15 or younger, and they’re bored off their asses. They live in the middle of nowhere. The project to build a bowling alley, roller rink, and drive-in theater was canceled, and the primary meeting-place for the local youth is a prefab aluminum building laughingly called a recreation center.

Over the Edge lays out its central thesis early: when 25% of a community’s population has no freedom, nothing to occupy its time, and doesn’t even want to be there, you have a recipe for disaster. Deprived of anything constructive to do, the kids turn to vandalism, drug abuse, rebellion and violence. The film starts with two teenagers shooting out the window of a passing police cruiser and ends with a riot during a PTA meeting.

Yet while the kids aren’t the heroes of the piece, they’re not exactly villains, either. It’s very clear that the Powers that Be are more interested in property values and real-estate development than in making sure their community is a great place for all its residents to live, and not just the ones who belong to demographic minorities. This is best demonstrated about halfway through the film, where an out-of-state developer tells New Granada’s de facto leader, “You were in such a hopped-up hurry to leave the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you were trying to get away from.”

In addition, the kids are extremely likable, given that they’re a bunch of snot-nosed punks. Hidden inside Over the Edge is a deft and poignant coming-of-age story, as protagonist Carl Willet (Michael Kramer) navigates the treacherous and sometimes violent waters of adolescence: fitting in, his first crush, and so forth. His best friend is Richie White (an impossibly young-seeming Matt Dillon), a shady character who boasts about being labeled “incorrigible” by the authorities and whose motto (also the film’s signature line) is “A kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid.” It’s an overt threat but also an implied promise of loyalty: all the kids have is each other, so they need to stick together.

Director Jonathan Kaplan takes a no-frills approach that borders on documentary or verité, a feeling reinforced by a lack of big names in the adult ensemble and experienced actors amongst the teens. (Not only does Dillon make his screen début here, he also apparently made his acting début as well.) Far from hurting the performances, it actually helps them by stripping away the façade of character, as if the kids are playing themselves.

Over the Edge is a seminal teen drama, less romanticized and idealistic than the subgenre tends to produce but more realistic and relatable. And if you don’t think the film’s themes have application outside its cast of privileged white youth, then you haven’t been paying attention to the news coming out of Baltimore recently.