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.

OVER THE EDGE

Maika Monroe stars in IT FOLLOWS.

It Follows

United States. Directed by Robert David Mitchell, 2014. Starring Maika Monroe, Lili Sepe, Jake Weary. 100 minutes.

It’s hard to believe, at first glance, that there might be anything particularly special about It Follows. Suburban teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) finds herself stalked by a malicious supernatural entity after having sex with her boyfriend (Jake Weary). Chuck in the pulsing, throbbing synth score, and you get nothing you haven’t already seen a thousand times, right?

Wrong. Despite a willingness to poke at and dissect the occasional trope here or there, writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore effort bears very little resemblance to its assumed slasher/teen-screamer forebears. What he aims for–and, for the most part achieves–is something a bit more thoughtful and less self-consciously clever.

From my point of view, the key to understanding what differentiates It Follows from its forebears is its take on the characters’ relationships, romantic, sexual and otherwise. You’re probably familiar with what I call the “Breakfast Club model” of how teens relate to each other, with each such character slotting comfortably into archetypes–jocks and cheerleaders, nerds, burnouts, snobby rich kids, prudish “good girls”–with the types largely defining the dynamics. The model works great in the teen-angst classics (the point of The Breakfast Club is that these types, while handy, fail to encompass the totality of the teen experience), but since the ’80s, numerous works have substituted these types for actual characterization.

As a result, we’ve reached the point where this model is the default for any film whose protagonists are of high-school or college age. Indeed, it’s a familiar enough element of the teen-scream formula that meta-deconstructive works such as The Cabin in the Woods and Thankskilling feel the need to directly comment on it.

To get back to It Follows, Mitchell isn’t interested in adopting this model to his characters. Jay and her friends don’t “comfortably” fit into stereotypes or cliques or…anything, really. At the risk of sounding cliché, they exist in that nebulous grey zone where they’re no longer “teenagers” in the strictest sense but don’t really qualify as “adults” either. Parents exist on the fringes of the story or are entirely absent, and the nostalgic, simplified existence of childhood is a consistent theme.

This is a more “realistic” take on characterization than is common for teen-screamers and this more relatable set of dramatis personae allows It Follows the chance to frighten the audience more extensively than the audience might expect, and the cast rises to the challenge, led by Monroe, who impressed me in The Guest and puts in an even better performance here.

Mitchell gives the titular “It” a Freudian dimension that really unsettles the bowels if you notice the subtle implications, but the scares work on an impulsive visual level as well–in particular, Mitchell largely eschews “jump scares” in favor of slow burns. I never thought a lone figure walking deliberately towards the camera could fuel so many nightmares. His deliberately retro visual sense–combining compact-shaped e-readers with ’70s and ’80s cars and typewriters–creates a “timeless” vibe. The awesome score by Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland, all Carpenteresque analog synths, feeds into the mood.

It Follows has been on the receiving end of a lot of praise and hype, all of which it well earned. It’s not perfect–I think the story comes apart a bit in the last ten minutes, and I’m not sure of the logic of everything that happens at the pool–but it is damn good. I hope it’s an omen of great things for the genre in 2015.

It Follows movie poster