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Before the 1980s’ onslaught of teen flick escapism via R-rated high school sex comedies and John Hughes’ slapstick suburban fantasias, writer Tim Hunter and director Jonathan Kaplan tore open a portal to late-’70s puberty hell via the brilliantly, horribly credible youth-gone-wild film Over the Edge. It hurts. It thrills. It’s funny. It’s dire. It leaves marks you might not notice for years.
Over the Edge is coming-of-age cinema’s most visceral downward spiral, but it’s also a phoenix of perpetual reinvigoration that bears regular, repeated, and perhaps even ritualistic viewing.
Based on an actual incident in Foster City, California, Over the Edge chronicles what happens when teenagers are penned in and pent up in a prefabricated community with nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no way out except through sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, BB guns, vandalism, and, ultimately, life-threatening violence.
Matt Dillon, in his film debut, is the leader of the underage residents of New Granada, an under-construction town where kids comprise a full quarter of the population. They repeatedly suffer police harassment over infractions as serious as a belt buckle shaped like a pot leaf.
The confrontation between New Granada’s teens and adults quakes with suspense. The chaos goes right up to “the edge” of irreversible catastrophe. In time, “correction” looms for various troublemakers, while those left behind create a powerful display of silent support. The Five Stairsteps’ soothing 1970 hit “Ooh Child” swells on the soundtrack, assuring all involved that things are going to get easier and brighter.
That moment may well function as an uncanny forecast of the years ahead. After the radical ’60s and the narcissistic ’70s—the rotting remnants of which boil over in the teens’ uprising—the ’80s promised cultural hangover balms by way of Reagan, MTV, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and all the stuff griped about in first-wave hardcore punk lyrics. Insistence that things were getting easier and brighter came cheap and plentiful.
The paradoxically comforting “Ooh Child” note reflects other youth outrage films that contain seeming defeats, from Rebel Without a Cause to Pump Up the Volume. The message is clear: A kid who fights and gets put away inspires more kids to fight another day.
The story behind Over the Edge is on par with the power of the movie itself. After the movie was dumped with ads that made it look like a zombie flick, hip critics and keen-eyed young viewers caught its multiple HBO runs, prompting a fan-demanded theatrical release in 1981. It has remained a cult sensation ever since.
Cinematically, Over the Edge has echoed throughout virtually subsequent American films regarding outsider adolescence, from Penelope Spheeris’s punksploitation favorite Suburbia to Harmony Korine’s geek tornado, Gummo. Screenwriter Tim Hunter even directed Edge’s most potently direct descendent, River’s Edge.
The film has continuously resonated for its audience as well. Case in point: Kurt Cobain, who said: “Over the Edge pretty much defined my whole personality. It was really cool. Total anarchy.”
What’s also really cool is the Over the Edge soundtrack, which is dominated by Cheap Trick, Ramones, Van Halen, and the Cars. The (teen) spirit embodied by the movie—and those songs—announce loud and proud that liberation is an inside job.
The “edge,” per se, of Over the Edge can be applied to any number of its elements: the kids playing chicken with rudderless adulthood; the bucolic borders of New Granada intended to fortify against outside strife; even the barrier between civilization and mob rule. To go “over the edge” means not being able to go back. It’s one hell of a way to have to grow up and it gets laid luminously, brutally bare in this inspiring adolescent inferno of a movie.