Over the Edge Blu-ray Review: It’s (Not) Only Teenage Wasteland

Over the Edge (1979) directed by Jonathan Kaplan, features Michael Kramer, Pamela Ludwid, Vincent Spano, and Matt Dillon, in his big-screen debut, playing bored young teens in a new suburban community who lash out at the adults who have all but forgotten them. Unfortunately Over the Edge gets lumped with all those youth gang epics that came out that year: The Warriors, The Wanders, Boulevard Nights, and Walk Proud. It’s not a gang movie nor is it a horror movie as the poster and some ads make it out to be. It’s also something more than just teen terrors taking over a PTA meeting. 

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The planned community of New Granada forgot to plan on keeping its massive young adult population entertained. Now junior high kids like Carl (Kramer), a smart lad whose father (Andy Romano) owns the local car dealership, turn to booze, drugs, sex, and vandalism to get their kicks. Carl’s best friends include Richie (Dillon), the tough, smart ass who comes from the area’s lone, low-income apartment complex; there’s also the easy-going Claude (Tom Fergus), who’s kind of a space case that always seems to be high on something; and new girl-in-town Cory (Ludwig,) who Carl takes an instant fancy to. The only place for them to hang out is a makeshift, afterthought of a building they call, “The Rec.” There was a spot nearby where a movie theater and a skating rink were planned to be built but it’s now being pitched as a business park to rich Texas investors. 

On the day the Texans tour the vacant lot, the Rec is shut down by Police Sergeant Doberman (Harry Northup) and Claude gets busted for drug possession. Richie decides to make a stand atop a patrol car as the young crowd cheers him on and jeers Doberman as he attempts to bring Richie down. Sadly, Doberman will bring Richie down in a tragic encounter which will cause Carl to unite with the town’s real juvenile terror, a punkass named Mark (Spano), who earlier in the picture jumped Carl on his way home from a party. Together, they and the rest of the untamed youth will descend on their Junior High School where the adults have called a town meeting to discuss the antics of their children. Once the kids lock the adults inside, all hell breaks loose as they destroy everything on the school grounds with bats, chains, firearms taken from cop cars, and anything else they can find to bash, smash, and burn the place to the ground. 

Over the Edge has held up well. The story goes deeper than teens simply smashing up the town and wasting away their days with booze and other drugs. The end is a bit too far over the edge though and takes away from the earlier points the movie makes about ignored, bored kids with deep feelings lashing out. The first half of its 95-minute runtime plays almost like a documentary as the camera follows these kids around as they amuse themselves throughout the day. If you’re watching closely, you’ll notice the strong bond that develops between the main characters way before we’re introduced to them on the screen, a bond that goes beyond Richie’s law of “a kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid” and reminds one of the closeness we find with the boys in The Outsiders

Sure they rib each other as they express their individual thoughts and feelings, but they don’t pressure each other to do things against their will. When Carl falls for Cory, they try to convince him not to waste his time but no one belittles him for his interest in her. Later, when Carl wants to bail on a house party, Richie is sincerely concerned about his well-being but relents and lets Carl walk home alone to clear his head. That’s where Carl gets jumped by Mark before they join forces to wreck the school. One can only speculate if Richie hadn’t been killed would they have found Mark and kicked his ass? They did deal out some playful retribution when they found the kid that set up Claude to be busted by Doberman. 

The acting is stronger than expected from a mostly amateur cast of real teenagers. Matt Dillon shines, showing shades of his future stardom. Michael Kramer brings out Carl’s thoughtful side, especially as he decides to walk away from the destructive ending before it hits its explosive climax. Vincent Spano nails the role of Mark, the juvenile delinquent going nowhere at a fast, stupid pace. The supporting cast of adults and local Colorado kids chosen from the areas near the filming location are solid and further drive home the point that these kids aren’t alright. Romano and Ellen Geer as Carl’s frustrated and stressed parents further illustrate the struggles these kids face at home. Northup’s Doberman hits all gears as he tries to be a positive influence on Carl and his friends but also has a job to do in upholding the law. What also helps the movie along is the fact that the dialogue isn’t stiff and outdated. The young cast were allowed by Kaplan to deliver their lines as they saw fit and not forced to say them exactly as written by “old guys.” 

The Special Features include two very informative audio commentaries and a seven-part retrospective documentary, Wide Streets + Narrow Minds, that has interviews with cast and crew alike. One audio track features actor Michael Kramer and journalist Mike Sacks while on the other we hear from director Kaplan, producer George Littoa, and screenwriters Charlie Haas and Tim Hunter. The interviews find Dillion, Kramer, Kaplan, and other prominent cast and crew providing their reflections on how the movie came about, how they were chosen to participate, and the times they had on set. We learn where some of the cast are now and that Tiger Thompson, who played Claude’s mute little brother Johnny, has been off the radar for years and can not be tracked down, not even by a hired P.I. We also discover that the story had its origins in a true incident where pesky junior-high-school-age kids called “mouse packs” played hell around a developing suburb before eventually storming a parent-teacher meeting.  Also included, in its 12-minute entirety, is the film Destruction; Fun or Dumb that was shown to Carl and crew one day at school. This very dated PSA is meant to turn children away from vandalism and features a silly pop song that sounds like it was lifted from an early ’70s kids show. 

What I found most interesting was that the song chosen to close out the movie, as Carl is being taken to a juvenile detention center, was not the first choice by far. Valerie Carter’s version of The Five Stairsteps “Ooh, Child” provides a sense of hope as Claude and Cory wave as the bus passes under them. The tune originally envisioned would have given the ending a completely different sentiment. That tune is The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” desired for Its distinct violin parts and the lines “it’s only teenage wasteland.” Its driving rock sound would have lent a more defiant air as Carl is carted off to do time. The movie’s soundtrack album, as it stands, is superb filled with songs from late ’70s favorites the Cars, the Ramones, Cheap Trick, Van Halen, and even has a cut from “old” Jimi Hendrix. 

Over the Edge’s haunting realism has stuck with me since I first watched it on HBO in the mid 1980s. It also made me think about my own surroundings and what it was like in my home town just a few years before, in those pre-VCR and Atari days. I’ve always seen beyond this movie’s bored teenage terrors, drinking, and doing dumb shit for kicks to the theme of kids bonding over shared circumstances and situations. I do believe its ending is a distraction and leaves most folks coming away thinking it’s just a movie about teenage growing pains and trouble makers lashing out against things they will understand “when they’re older.”  

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Joe Garcia III

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