Kareem Farooq Traditions in Narrative Spring 2002 Final Paper Hollywood’s Distrust of the Unconventional Teenager: A Close Look

at Over the Edge (1979) and Donnie Darko (2001)

Teenage angst and teenage rebellion share a common thread in both film and

literature as a re-occurring theme that is both cautionary and perhaps unavoidable. Many times this theme follows a tragic path—the youth always seem to end up victims of the society they rebel against. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the two “star-crossed lovers” die in a vain attempt to escape their feuding families. In more recent years, the theme of teenage angst and rebellion has shifted from mostly family pressures, to pressures coming from other institutions as well. Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, Catcher in the Rye, is a prime example of an alienated youth who feels trapped in a world of “phonies.” As he attempts to escape the stresses that continually plague him by smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, he slowly spirals down into a nervous breakdown. School, church, and the suburban community have placed added pressures on teenagers, resulting in the same tragic paths these teens had no other choice but to follow. As the literature of the twentieth century, film has told the stories of these flawed suburban teenagers in an attempt to teach the societal pressures responsible for the kids a lesson; yet, time and time again, Hollywood’s decision-makers would rather fund a teen film with over-the-top violence, sex, and gratuity rather than a teen film more authentic and enlightening, or, simply put, Over the Edge.
When Over the Edge was completed in 1978, the executives of Orion Pictures banned the film from theaters due to its violent content. In the film, one kid is beat up, another kid is shot dead by a police officer, and the same officer dies later on in a car explosion after being shot at by another juvenile delinquent. Also, the kids end up destroying several cars and setting fires in their school parking lot. While this level of violence is drastic and quite vivid, it is the result of teenage rebellion and is necessary to the film for the story’s message. Throughout the film, the teenagers living in the growing suburban community of New Granada are constantly neglected and treated as second-

© Kareem Farooq, 2002

class citizens. Their parents are so concerned about making their planned community attractive to investors that they forget the needs of their own sons and daughters. These rowdy kids turn to drugs, sex, and firearms to have fun but are still constantly being threatened by the cops. All these pressures weighing down on the kids create an atmosphere of destruction—the kids go over the edge. However, after the riot, a lesson is finally learned and all is well that ends— as Valerie Carter’s “Oh Child” gently plays, the film’s protagonist is carried off in a barred-up bus to juvenile hall. The film was inspired by actual events that occurred in the small suburban community of Foster City, California during the mid-1970’s. Given all the important social commentary the film intended and the film’s true-to-life depiction of teen angst, which so many youths could relate to, it seems both expected and ridiculous that Over the Edge spent so many years on the self and away from distribution.
Of course, violence in teenage films did not begin with Over the Edge. In 1955, four years after Holden Caulfield’s appearance, Rebel Without a Cause introduced another teenage anti-hero by the name of Jim Stark, played by James Dean. The title of the film alone tells of an alienated youth with no ideas to follow—only impulse. While James’ portrayal of the Rebel Without a Cause won over the hearts of millions of young adolescents, another kind of teenager would be the one to capture the heart of a moneyhungry Hollywood. During the 1970’s, the original B-movie teen-horror films began coming out in theaters. Films such as Carrie, Halloween, Massacre at Central High, Silent Scream, and an assortment of killer cheerleader films became popular among the American youth. Using a combination of sex, drugs, and, of course, a little bit of the ultra-violence, these films targeted teen audiences with nothing to do but be entertained. With so many horror films featuring teenagers being gruesomely murdered in terrible ways, one has to wander: Why ban a film that is almost a bit modest compared to these trashy horror films? The truth is Over the Edge sets a bad example for white teenage youth of America. Suburbia was created to be a safe and secure place for families to raise their children; a place far away from the fast talking hustlers and pimps that deserve to be killed in the Black Exploitation films of the same decade. Before Over the Edge was to be released in theaters, it had been linked to the film The Warriors in an article in the LA Times.1 After a shooting broke out in a movie theater where The Warriors was playing, the Orion executives pulled the advertising for Over the Edge in an attempt to prevent © Kareem Farooq, 2002

bad publicity. They then began a test marketing campaign to see if the film would do well as a teen horror film. The redesigned posters featured the children with their eyes whited out.2 This again was an attempt to take the reality out of the film, making it “safe” for white teenagers to watch without getting any destructive ideas. Hollywood’s distrust of teen films featuring realistic violence did not end with Over the Edge. Throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s, inner-city schools experienced teen-on-teen violence among minority students. Films such as Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society and books such as Alex Koltowitz’s There are No Children Here illustrated this regularity of violence in the so-called “ghettos” of America. While the news media noted this problem from time to time, each and every shooting and murder did not always make the ten o’clock news. However, as teen-on-teen violence escalated in white suburbia throughout the 1990’s, when a rash school shooting in schools all across the country began to occur on somewhat of a regular basis—the most notable and chilling being Columbine in 1999—adults did not know whom to blame. In one scene from Over the Edge, an oil company investor from out of town, who is interested in realestate in New Granada, prophesizes the cause of this future rash of violence, “It seems to me that you all were in such a hopped-up hurry to leave the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you were trying to get away from.” Of course, because this film was never widely distributed, no one was able to learn this valuable lesson. Instead of blaming themselves for these suburban shootings, parents and teachers blamed explicit music and violent movies for influencing their innocent white children. In 1997, View Askew Productions produced A Better Place with a budget of $40,000. In the film, a teenage boy, who has just moved into a New Jersey suburban community after the death of his father, becomes friends with the school’s rebellious loner. When he learns of his new friend’s plan for killing the school jock, he’s not sure how to stop him. This breed of realistic violence is too raw for traditional Hollywood, which explains why it had to be made with the incredibly low budget of $40,000. Still, films such as Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Disturbing Behavior, Urban Legends, and their sequels are systematically produced with the same intentions as well as the same plots. These films follow the profitable pattern with beautiful adults playing teenagers being brutally killed by or killing one another for reasons that are completely arbitrary. However, these films receive the Hollywood green light because they are relatively inexpensive to make, have a great marketability (aiming at teenage audiences of course), and are great for creating a © Kareem Farooq, 2002

franchise with merchandise and sequels. A film that dares to push the envelope and explore the issue of white teenage angst and disillusionment and its resulting violence can only be produced independently, which is exactly what 2001’s underground hit Donnie Darko accomplished. Richard Kelly wrote the script for Donnie Darko in 1997 and spent three years looking for the financial backing to produce the film. After being rejected by every major studio in Hollywood, Kelly’s script was finally taken seriously when Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew Jason Schwartzman expressed interest in playing the lead role.3 Soon afterward, Dew Barrymore was introduce to the script and agreed to be in the film as long as her production company could produce it.4 The film takes the theme of teen angst and rebellion to a whole new level, mixing genres; it goes from a teen thriller to sci-fi through dark comedy and turns back around into a romance film. The main character, Donnie Darko, is a psychologically trouble 16-year old who foresees the end of the world with the help of his six-foot tall imaginary bunny friend. The story takes place in October 1988 during the Dukakis-Reagan election. As a period piece, the film questions the social and political agendas of the time. Donnie lives in a clean and quiet suburban community, yet is plagued with these dark images of death and destruction. In school, the only teachers he can talk to are undermined by the principle. One teacher cannot continue a conversation about time travel with Donnie because it brings into question the existence of God. The other, Karen Pomeroy, is fired for having her English class read Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors.” In the story, a group of kids completely destroy a man’s house from the inside out for the mere pleasure of destruction. Kitty Farmer, an extremely conservative teacher at the school, links an act of vandalism in the school, which Donnie committed in an unconscious state, with the story. Before Ms. Pomeroy leaves, she warns Donnie in a line left out of the film’s final cut, “The children have to save themselves these days because the parents have no clue.” In the behind the scenes director’s commentary on the DVD, Richard Kelly notes that during a meeting with Francis Ford Coppola, the accomplished director underlined that one line and remarked, “This is what your film is really about.” In essence, Donnie Darko is a film about repression and the bottled-up aggression that results from that, which is also what Over the Edge is all about. However, Donnie Darko lends this idea to the realm of psychological fantasy, bringing in a sort of postmodern philosophy by not really having a true ending. The audience is left to guess what © Kareem Farooq, 2002

happened, almost how one can only guess what is going to happen now that Over the Edge’s prophecy has transpired. The safe and secure setting of suburbia has turned out to actually breed violence—“…you turned your kids into exactly what you were trying to get away from.” The kids are not all right as long as they are trapped in suburbia with nothing to do and nowhere to go. There’s a lesson to be learned that both of the films teach. Unfortunately, only so many people will never discover this lesson because both films are not very well known. Donnie Darko has the advantage of being on DVD and is easy to find at your local Blockbuster. Over the Edge, on the other hand, is truly hard to find and is only available on VHS. Despite Hollywood’s lack of teen-realism, new ideas dealing with teen angst in suburbia have finally been achieved. Better Luck Tomorrow places a fresh perspective to the classic indie, teen drama genre complete with sex, drugs and violence. Featuring teenagers from Asian backgrounds, the film communicates a familiar message with a new kind of American anti-hero. Better Luck Tomorrow shares the rebellious spirit that originated with James Dean and Holden Caulfield in the 1950s, but expresses a new cultural aesthetic to teenage rebellion. The film’s main characters live up to their parents’ expectation of straight A’s, tennis, and academic decathlons; however, while remaining over-achievers, the gang uses their talents to score money, drugs, girls, and most significantly, fame. These contemporary rebels are smarter than your average teenager and ready to beat the system, not by fighting against it, but rather by working with it and then exploiting it. The film was picked up by MTV Films and has been distributed to a select number of theaters. While it may still take some time for Hollywood to trust the rebellious nature of the average teenager, it certainly appears as though films dealing with real teen issues—not just the stereotypical issues discussed in teen magazines—are gradually finding their place in popular culture.
SOURCES: 1 Winter, Jessica. “Edged Out.” Village Voice 15-21 August 2001.
<http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0133/fwin2.php>
2 Simon, Alex.

“Matt Dillon’s Holiday in Cambodia.” Venice Magazine. <http://www.venicemag.com/features/mdillion.htm> Gina. “’Darko’ Hard to Sell, Quick to Shoot.” LA Times 26 October 2001. <http://donniedarko.tripod.com/article/la10262001a.html>

3, 4 Piccalo,

© Kareem Farooq, 2002

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