Forgotten Films: Over The Edge

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Before Fast Times at Ridgemont High, before The Outsiders, before Dazed and Confused, and before Kids, there was Over The Edge.

Throughout the U.S. in the 1970’s, planned surburban communities began springing up across the country, attracting middle-class families who wanted to get away from the overcrowding and crime of big cities. The environment they ended up creating, however, was not as idyllic as they thought it was, because it left their kids isolated and bored out of their minds. Over The Edge is based on real events that took place in Foster City, California, where at one point it had a higher percentage of juvenile crime than anywhere else in the country.

In a community called New Grenada, the teenage kids are restless and living on the verge of total anarchy. The only place they have to hang out is the local rec center, which closes at 6 pm, so they spend their evenings getting high, breaking and entering, and vandalizing city property. When a wealthy real estate tycoon comes to town, city officials realize they need to do something drastic, so they close down the rec center and try to impose a curfew. Unfortunately, this sets off a series of violent encounters with the police, and while concerned parents in the community are trying to figure things out, the kids are busy plotting their revenge.

Basically it’s a story of disenfranchised youth, teenage rebellion and clashes with authority. It certainly isn’t the first movie to tackle this subject (Rebel Without A Cause predates it by over 20 years, and I assume there are still others that came before that), but there is a gritty realism to the film, an element of authenticity not often seen in these kinds of movies. This is thanks in part to the brilliant casting, which included many non-actors and real kids who actually looked the same age as their characters (that is, under 16). The movie also served as the first on screen performance of a young Matt Dillon. Legend has it that a casting agent discovered him at his high school after he was kicked out for smoking in the bathroom.

The movie was released in 1979, the same year as both Rock n Roll High School and The Warriors, two movies that it has much in common with. The controversy surrounding The Warriors and its portrayal of gang violence resulted in Over The Edge foregeoing a theatrical release, and quite honestly I’m not surprised. Even by today’s standards the movie is pretty raw and daring, with its depiction of 15 year old kids doing drugs, abusing cops, shooting guns and just generally kicking the crap out of each other. Even if it’s not presented in a completely believable way, this flick certainly doesn’t pull any punches.

Over The Edge did eventually make its way to HBO where it was supposedly a mainstay of their programming line-up throughout the 80’s. This is where the movie developed its rabid cult following, including numerous bands and musicians from the early 90’s (which makes sense, when you consider that the soundtrack included Cheap Trick, The Ramones and The Cars). In particular, Kurt Cobain had said in interviews that this was his favourite film, and the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is inspired by Over The Edge.

There are some things about the movie that are pretty laughable, including the cartoony portrayal of the police officers and parents, and the massive explosions that occur in the film’s climax. There is certainly an element of exploitation at work here (director Jonathan Kaplan had previously done a few Roger Corman flicks; afterwards he went on to direct The Accused), and at times the low budget aesthetic makes it feel like an episode of Degrassi or something. That said, Over The Edge addresses many of the issues in a surprisingly honest and intelligent way, and still holds up quite well today.

I’m not sure if it necessary qualifies as a “forgotten” film, since it continues to have many fans and its influence is still felt today (the 2006 animated film Over The Hedge quite obviously references it). Either way it makes for an entertaining watch, and it’s a movie that I think more people should know about.

Over The Edge is currently available on DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video.

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  • RJ

    I am going to give this a rent.

  • Nemesis

    Superb movie. Matt Dillon steals the show in his pre-Rusty James role.

  • p0rnst0rm

    just saw the movie … really great. where can i read about the foster city incident?

  • I remember having a low quality bootleg of this movie for many years before it finally got an official DVD release. This is definitely a forgotten gem, even though it has had a huge influence on modern music and films. I would bet less than 5% of Americans have ever even heard of it, but those who have tend to love it, especially if they grew up in the late 70’s/early 80’s.

  • kerry

    i remember seeing this movie with my bestfriend and her older brothers. i was young at the time but the movie stuck with me and i always wanted to see it again. can’t wait to rent it!

  • Buzzy

    I keep reading on sites that this didn’t get a theatrical release, but that’s not true. I saw it in the theatre when it was first released (here in North Carolina). It was a short engagement that did poor business, but was riveting nonetheless. And the posters in the display case looked like the soundtrack album, not the weird sci-fi looking posters seen all over the web. Also, in the 70’s, cops and parents were often as cartoony in real life as this movie depicts them. I was a teen when I saw this in the theatre, and was amazed at how accurately the film captured my generation, which Hollywood had never done before.

  • Cheri Clay

    One of the best movies of all time! Remembered watching several times on tv as a kid finally got a VHS copy and got the DVD once released. Actually this is my number 1 movie of all time!

  • AB

    Awsome movie. My husband and I just watched it again a few weeks ago. We’ve been fans of it since the 80’s….

  • a very truly “unsung flick” of the Late 70,s……in my Top 10 list and a flick that will stick with me FOREVER!!

  • Colleen B

    I remember seeing this for the first time in one of those low budge indie theaters back in the mid 80s. Though parts were corny, it stuck with me, the main characters were something I could relate to. They were the kids in my neighborhood my friends. I can’t Wait to get it on dvd, far to few of my friends know of it when I bring it up in conversation and the few who do would love to see it again.

  • Arnold Layne

    The greatest and most honest film made about teen angst in my lifetime, hands-down. I first saw this when I was 13, and totally identified with the kids. And they WERE actual kids… which was unheard of in these kinds of movies back then. The soundtrack was perfect too. Totally nailed the sound of the American suburbs at that time. Everything about this movie was so true to how it really was if you were a teenager in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Okay, maybe not the part where they lock their parents in a PTA meeting and blow up their cars (which is something I definitely WANTED to do back then)… but everything else was right on the money.

  • pogo nyc

    I had the original (ALBUM) soundtrack cannot find the original art cover on the internet from the album cover.I was like 13 yrs old in 79 when I found it in a album bin
    at the record store and saw the cars and 1 song from the ramons etc on it I use to stare at the album cover the cast was on it ..

  • I just watched this for the first time last night (how I missed this in the early 80s is mystifying as I certainly watched plenty of HBO at the time). A very powerful film that, IMHO, hasn’t really aged at all. Truly interesting subject matter as well as fantastic acting (by several young unknowns) and excellent direction & cinematography. Moreover, this film really gets at the feelings of alienation and frustration experienced by many young Americans.