I thought the best time to review this unique movie would be in honor of James Dean's 85th birthday on February 8th. Back in 1955, this movie caused a nationwide sensation throughout the U.S. not only because James Dean had died prior to its release, but also because it was the first time that the issue of teen violence was noted and addressed in public.
Many parents were enraged at the idea of film that seem to glorify rebellion and violence, however, the movie did tell the hard truth of the difficulty of the teenage population that were born at the tail end of the Great Depression and spent most of their young lives living through WWII. The title in itself was actually the title of a book about the violence and rebellion of middle class teens in the 1950's. Adolescents from good, stable households who seemed to be going off the deep end and heading toward self-destruction for no reason at all
|L-R: Jim Stark, Judy, John "Plato" Crawford|
While it may say rebel without a cause, there was a cause of the rebellion that lay in the social lie of the 1950's of the perfect American life and of parents, who may have given their children material wealth, but were incapable of giving them the responsible training and lessons that their children desperately needed.
In the space of 24 hours, the lives of three young teenagers and the well being of a small suburban town in California are all irrevocably changed by the dangers of teen violence, lack of parental structure and a young man's struggle to find out who he is and his purpose in life.
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Jim Stark (James Dean): A young troubled teenage boy who is desperate to break free from his dysfunctional lifestyle that is made up of his domineering mother and spineless father. While both parents spend their time arguing, Jim is left on his own which usually leads to trouble. After moving to a new suburb (where everything just screams the American Dream), Jim finds himself embroiled in teenage trouble with the popular group at school (or the bullies who run everything in town).
Quiet and reserved, but also gifted with an unexpected strong leadership ability, Jim immediately makes an impression on several people from across the board. While desperate for a father figure, Jim becomes an unexpected father to a lonely boy with hidden sociopath tendencies and allows a young girl to feel a strong love that has been withheld from her by her own father.
While Jim Stark may not be the stuff of extraordinary heroes, his gift of understanding the human heart that is hurting and offering comfort and shelter, is what makes him incredible. No one would think to find that in a teenage boy who has a pretty shady past. Yet, he manages to make a whole town see that children are desperate for more than material wealth and that parents and families have a chance to start over again.
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Judy (Natalie Wood): While she gives the appearance of the pretty popular girl who has the best looking boyfriend in school, inside, Judy is screaming and crying for love and affection from one person, her own father. Past experiences makes Judy believe that her father hates her, is disappointed in her, prefers her little brother, and at times he verbally and physically hurts her. This lack of parental affection causes Judy to run around with the wild kids who give her the needed attention she craves, but also sets her down a path of trouble.
When Judy and Jim (who are next door neighbors) meet, Judy gives him the typical mean girl welcome and ignores him. Then a series of events are put into motion and Judy finds herself on the balancing point between right and wrong, love and hate, and family and fear. Jim becomes the man that Judy has waited so long to love and love her in return. With Jim around, she doesn't have to be afraid to be herself, she doesn't have to hide her feelings; for the first time, Judy has found herself.
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John "Plato" Crawford (Sal Mineo): No one is more troubled in this story that Plato. While Jim, Judy and most of the other teenagers find their problems embedded within their turbulent relationships with their parents, Plato's problems come from his lack of parents. Father died when he was little and Mother is always gone. These two vital figures in a young persons life that are completely absent causes Plato to have the beginnings of sociopathic tendencies which eventually becomes his downfall in the end.
After meeting Jim and then eventually befriending Judy, Plato begins to see them as the parents he always wanted, but soon his desperation for family and his anger toward his own parents begins to take hold of him and he becomes a loose cannon that is more dangerous than anyone could ever imagine.
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A coming of age drama of love, loyalty, family and future, Rebel Without a Cause was something of an acid trip when I first viewed it, but then I began to look deeper into actual meaning of the story. The 1950's is portrayed as the era of plenty, happiness and fulfillment, yet, parents that were stippled from ten years of a Great Depression and then four years of war, have now resigned themselves to the belief that as long as their children are financially stable and have everything they want in materialism, then they'll be all right. However, children need parents to be the parents. To say, this is right, this is wrong and there will be consequences.
The American Dream was really a painful nightmare for teenagers who needed their parents to reach out to them in affectionate love, not in money. Children rebelled against their parents and the authorities, however, their real rebellion was in the social lie of the 1950's and how materialistic value can pay a heavy price on a child's well being.