Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jim Stark (James Dean) is taken to the police station because he is found drunk on the sidewalk. As the adults try to make sense of the situation, Jim meets Plato (Sal Mineo), a troubled young man with no friends and kills puppies out of frustration, and Judy (Natalie Wood), mistaken as a call girl after she decides to leave home in the middle of night after an argument with her father. In a span of just over twenty-four hours, the trio finds a sense of belongingness and family with each other, something they feel is missing at home.
Based on the screenplay by Stewart Stern and directed by Nicholas Ray, “Rebel Without a Cause” is a thoughtful examination of teen angst. What I loved most about the film is that it transcends its time. While the slangs, hairstyles, and styles of clothing has changed over the years, the inner turmoil that the characters feel remains accessible.
Jim yearns for a good role model. Though he is willing to turn to his parents to set an example for him, his father (Jim Backus) is very indecisive while his mother (Ann Doran) is very controlling. There is no balance in their household. More importantly, there is a lack of respect between husband and wife. In most movies about angry teenagers, parents are almost always portrayed as the ones willing to communicate. I’m not a parent but I wonder how that holds accuracy when, in reality, a lot of parents are too tired from work at the end of the day, let alone make an every day, genuine connection with their children.
The film also tackles how teenagers interact with each other, how they feel invincible, and the need to constantly increase the ante to remind themselves that they have control of their lives. Jim, a new kid in town, is challenged by one of Judy’s friends into a knife fight. But the measurement of machismo doesn’t end there. Later, he is challenged to a game called “Chicken Run,” where two people drive a car off a cliff; whoever jumps out of the car first is deemed as “chicken” or a coward. In either situation, no matter what the outcome, Jim knows he will lose but he participates anyway for, as he claims, the sake of honor.
The most moving scenes involve Plato’s infatuation for Jim. It’s a nice feeling when someone you’re attracted to doesn’t move away aggressively when your face inches that much closer to his. At that moment, you don’t feel so much like a freak. It becomes easier to imagine a future when you don’t have to worry about what others might think. Maybe if LGBT children and teens who had committed suicide and succeeded had experienced a small fraction of that feeling, perhaps a lot of them wouldn’t have decided to end their lives. The moments shared between Plato and Jim are handled with sensitivity instead of judgment. Does Jim share certain feelings with Plato? It doesn’t matter at all.
“Rebel Without a Cause” puts a spotlight on everyone’s imperfections: parents, children, figures of authority. Through the characters’ frustration, confusion, and dysfunction, the film makes a point that asking questions, demanding answers, and making unpopular decisions are a part of growing up.