While it might be exaggerating to describe Over the Edge as the definitive teen-rebellion movie of the ’70s, the picture certainly captures the angst of suburban kids who feel trapped by the rigid lives their status-obsessed parents have created. Furthermore, because this rich thematic material is combined with a fiery screen debut (by future star Matt Dillon) and an adrenalized soundtrack featuring songs by Cheap Trick and the Ramones, Over the Edge coalesces into a tasty expression of adolescent rage. No surprise, then, that Over the Edge has enjoyed a long life despite never achieving box-office success or significant mainstream awareness; savored by hip viewers who see themselves reflected in the film’s characters, Over the Edge has become a minor cultural touchstone, reportedly inspiring the iconic 1991 music video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Loosely based on real events that occurred near San Francisco in the early ’70s, the movie takes place in a fictional suburb where teenagers have no place to hang out except a dull recreation center, where adults monitor the kids’ activities. Predictably, teenagers jacked up on hormones and rock music find outlets for their aggression, congregating around fields and highways while experimenting with drugs and getting into mischief. When one of the kids, Mark (Vincent Spano), takes potshots at a police car with a BB gun, he inadvertently triggers a chain of events that results in a crackdown by authority figures and mass civil disobedience by the local teenagers. Tragedy ensues, as well, because the put-upon adolescents take action after one of their number is martyred.
The reason everything kicks up to such a high level of conflict is that intergenerational tensions in the fictional town run deeper than just grown-up consternation about teen issues—the adults want to raze the recreation center and build a new business zone, permanently marginalizing the town’s youth. In effect, it’s class warfare. Incensed that their needs are being neglected, the movie’s core group of kids—including swaggering tough guy Richie (Dillon)—provoke standoffs with grown-ups, eventually leading to car chases and shootouts. The movie’s memorable finale includes an act of defiance so destructive and flamboyant that it should thrill anyone who ever wanted to lash out at clueless adults, roughly in the same measure that the act might horrify anyone whose sympathies lie with the Establishment.
And even if Over the Edge ultimately pulls its punches, opting to stay within the realm of reality instead of venturing off into the teen-fantasy zone of Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979) or Heathers (1988), the picture represents a spirited middle finger to squares who suppress kids. As for behind-the-camera significance, obviously Dillon’s presence is the most noteworthy element—but Over the Edge also represents a key step in the career of director Jonathan Kaplan, who cut his teeth making exploitation movies for Roger Corman and other producers. After shooting On the Edge, Kaplan did a brief tenure in TV movies before breaking into studio features with ’80s hits including Project X (1987) and The Accused (1988).
Over the Edge: GROOVY