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.