Jim Stark (James Dean) is the new kid in town, and he takes little time in endearing himself to the local police force when he’s arrested for public drunkenness. Such outbursts are nothing new for Jim, who has been branded a wild child by his flustered parents (Jim Backus and Ann Doran). Hoping to turn the page on his troubled past, Jim enrolls in the local high school, where he befriends outcast and fellow troubled-teen Plato (Sal Mineo). A girl named Judy (Natalie Wood) also catches his eye, which only draws the ire of her boyfriend, Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen), a school bully who is quick to establish his territory.
Rebel Without a Cause is a seminal teen film, if only for the dichotomies and conflicts it presents between adults and the younger generation. A schism between the two has existed since time immemorial, of course, but Nicholas Ray’s film is a rather stark portrayal that firmly sides with the teens. Most of the adult figures are absurdly skewered: Jim’s dad is practically emasculated, dominated by both his wife and his mother (a shocking display for the 50s), while Judy’s father refuses to dole out any sort of affection towards her. Plato is literally abandoned, left with only a surrogate mother in the form of the family maid. It’s no wonder that the three bond quickly and take solace in each other as the situation devolves into an “us vs. them” conflict. Such resentment and distrust towards authority figures (and the subsequent desire to run away from it all) is an experience shared not only by all real teenagers, but hordes of cinematic teens who would go on to echo the universal rallying cry: “no one understands us.” It can be argued that John Hughes built his career on this motto.
The trio battles other demons as well; Plato especially is haunted by the point of life in general, as a trip to the local planetarium prompts him to ponder the end of existence. Astute viewers will also notice the homosexual undertones pulsing beneath the surface of Mineo’s performance, perhaps suggesting that he is destined to be the most misunderstood of them all. Adult figures aren’t the only foils here, either, as Buzz and his gang (check out a young Dennis Hopper as one of the goons) quite literally push Jim to the edge and remind us that teenagers can sometimes be their own worst enemies. This conflict plays out in an arena that would become a familiar one in teen films over the years: the drag strip, which would be revisited by the likes of American Graffiti, Grease, and even the Lemon Popsicle series. It’s interesting that the most potent symbols of teen independence, the automobile, is also so often conflated with danger and conflict, and that is certainly very much the case here, as the kids’ exploits provide a very real reminder of their mortality.
Of course, the film’s central figure is James Dean, who was killed in a car crash before the film was released. His Jim Stark is an indelible portrait of 50s youth whose signature getup consisting of a red jacket and blue jeans has become iconic. Stark is also the prototypical "bad boy"--without him, there would be no Fonz, no Danny Zuko, or even Mike Damone. However, the passage of time and perhaps a continued misunderstanding of the character (this time on the part of unsuspecting audiences) might lead you to believe he’s a dashing, out of control outlaw. Actually, he is perhaps the most attuned and sensitive character in the entire film, infused with undeniable charisma by Dean. The title itself might be the film’s slyest subversion; lifted from a book detailing the psychosis of criminal behavior, Rebel Without a Cause no doubt reinforces images of a wild thug. Of course, Jim proves to be anything but that—in fact, he’s a mostly normal, middle-class suburban white kid (you know, the types that weren’t supposed to have problems). Furthermore, his rebellion is completely justified, with his cause really just being a simple cry for help. The film itself might be a bit dated for modern viewers, but the cry itself still rings as true as ever, as Rebel Without a Cause remains one of the most captivating and authentic portrayals of teenage angst and tragedy. (Brett G.)