'Over the Edge,' playing the Roxie Friday, brings back an overlooked Bay Area-birthed teen-film gem.

‘Over the Edge’ Emerges from ‘Cult-Favorite’ Closet

Dennis Harvey June 28, 2011

“Watch out for Children” is the blanket title of Midnites for Maniacs' latest triple bill, this one playing Friday at the Roxie. It's also the ad line that was initially misapplied to this program's middle feature, a cult favorite that was poorly handled and barely released by its skittish studio. 1979's Over the Edge remains fairly obscure—a classic to some, unknown to everyone else—but it's one of the all-time great movies about real (as opposed to Hollywoodized) teenagers. It was an acknowledged influence on everything from rock soundtracks to subsequent ’70s nostalgia flick Dazed and Confused and Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video.

Director Jonathan Kaplan and scenarist Tim Hunter will be present at this very rare theatrical revival. Moving to the director's chair himself, Hunter and his co-writer Charles Haas collaborated again on opening feature Tex, a sweeter-natured 1982 vehicle for Edge breakout star Matt Dillon as a Lone Star State kid growing up under difficult circumstances. Hunter also directed the night's closer, River's Edge, a chillier fact-inspired portrait of youth run amuck (young Keanu Reeves and Crispin Glover among them).

Those are good movies. But Over the Edge—in box-office terms by far the least successful of them—is something more. It grew from the kernel of a 1973 news article about then-new “planned community” Foster City in San Mateo County, published in the S.F. Examiner when Haas was a fledgling reporter there. The piece about serial juvenile vandalism in a fabricated incubator for the affluent “California lifestyle” struck first-time screenwriters Haas and Hunter, producer George Litto and eventual directorial hire Kaplan as grist for an unusually realistic look at teen life.

The result centered on New Granada, a cookie-cutter suburb carved whole from a featureless rural landscape. (Choosing desert-like locations, the filmmakers shot in Colorado rather than California to circumvent restrictive child labor laws.) Its city planners, focused on the townhouses, tennis courts and shopping malls that might lure young professionals, have ignored the fact that a quarter of the population is 15 years or younger.

With nothing to do here but hang at the lone youth Rec Center—which police see as fostering rather than deterring juvenile crime—the kids' discontent simmers, occasionally boiling over into acts of petty crime. They get stoned or drunk, deal drugs, cuss and otherwise act out with a jadedness both precocious and childish. Meanwhile, their parents are variably well-intentioned, ineffectual, or neglectful. Everybody blames everyone else for the escalating juvenile “problem.”

When two of the more callous teens shatter the window of a police car (driven by the unsubtly named “Sgt. Doberman”) with a BB gun pellet, New Grenada's business interests—who are eagerly courting new development money from outside investors—freak out. A 9:30 pm curfew is enforced, underage parties are broken up, and the Rec Center is threatened with closure. Caught up in the ensuing generation-gap strife are two 14-year-old best friends: Carl (Michael Eric Kramer), a “good kid” from a comfortable home, and his alleged “bad kid” best friend Richie (Dillon, all cocky swagger), from a “broken” one.

Once tensions escalate to the point where a kid is killed, New Grenada's adults gather at the school for a serious powwow—while outside their fed-up children, locking the grownups inside, go on a rampage. This fiery climax is like a junior version of the apocalyptic riot that nearly burns down Tinsel Town in Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust—collective frustrations exploding in an orgy of destruction.

Unlike so many films about juvenile delinquency, Over the Edge hasn't grown laughably dated with age. It doesn't lecture, stereotype, or leer (a la such Larry Clark specials as Kids and Bully) at its teenage protagonists. On the other hand, it doesn't glamorize their defiance, either. In the end, parents and offspring have been proven equally wrong, now chastened and hopefully wiser if still far from truly understanding one another.

Its moral ambivalence, non-formulaic storytelling, near-verité feel (Kaplan & co. encouraged the largely inexperienced young actors to improvise dialogue) and then-unusual soundtrack dominated by hip rock cuts (from Cheap Trick, the Cars, the Ramones and so forth) made Orion Pictures nervous even before the movie was finished. Then something terrible happened: The early 1979 release of The Warriors, whose exciting, fantasy-tinged depiction of NYC gang warfare incited several incidents of actual gang violence in theaters.

The movie studios were frantic to distance themselves from any responsibility. As a result they basically kicked under the rug any pending film with similar themes. Those included Philip Kaufman's terrific early-’60s flashback The Wanderers, the justifiably forgotten Walk Proud (with doe-eyed Robbie Benson as an improbable Chicano gangbanger), and Over the Edge. The latter was dumped into a handful of theaters, its “Watch out for Children” ads accompanied by a graphic of kids with blank white eyes—suggesting a remake of the horror film Village of the Damned.

It took two more years, when Edge began showing on HBO, for the film to start acquiring critical acclaim and a significant following. That payoff was bittersweet for its main collaborators. Among the cast, only Dillon and supporting juvenile Vincent Spano enjoyed significant careers. Kaplan and Hunter graduated to the directorial major leagues, at least briefly; these days they primarily work on TV (ER, Mad Men, Glee, Nip/Tuck, Law & Order, Dexter et al.), where arguably most good screen drama exists now anyway. Haas hasn't had a credit since 1994, producer Litto since 2000.

At the time Over the Edge must have been a sore disappointment to all, at least in terms of its scant public exposure. But one suspects now it's probably the project that gets them the most fanatical gratitude from fans who belatedly embraced it as a reflection of their own erstwhile teenage disaffection. They made a great movie—and though it took a while, eventually people noticed.