Throwback Thursday: Rebel Without a Cause is Where Teenage Angst Started

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

The beginning of the school year is a good time to talk about one of the original teen rebellion films, 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. In one of his only three movie roles, James Dean plays a youth who’s trying to figure out his place in the world and how to interact with it. It’s no surprise that this film is considered a classic: James Dean gives a tour de force performance of brooding angst. Stepping up to the plate behind him are Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, each confronting their own issues in a relatable way that draws in the viewer.

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Theatrical lobby poster for Rebel Without a Cause.

James Dean plays Jim Stark, a teen who keeps getting into trouble. His parents don’t know how to deal with him so they constantly move him to new schools. (Jim Backus plays Jim’s father: you might recognize him from Gilligan’s Island and as the voice of Mr. Magoo. You might even be able to spot an incredibly young Dennis Hopper as Goon.) Jim wants to do the right thing but doesn’t always know what that looks like. Like most teens, he wants to fit in while also figuring out his individual identity. He wants to be a “stand-up” guy but doesn’t know how to go about it. In one of the most awkward subplots ever for a modern audience, Jim wants to look up to his dad but sees his dad as ineffectual and weak, a guy on the receiving end of hen pecking by his wife and mother-in-law. While friction between couples and their in-laws isn’t unusual, this ’50s set dynamic doesn’t translate well now. Likewise, the struggle between Jim and his parents doesn’t ring as true as it probably did in the ’50s.

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The stand-out jacket Dean wears is iconic.

Natalie Wood plays Judy, the girl next door. She fits in because she goes along with what everyone else wants but has relationship problems with her father. She still wants to be close to him, but he’s uncomfortable with the changes he sees in her: she’s no longer his little girl. She dresses more provocatively and wears (heaven forbid) red lipstick. This subplot borders on creepy. Unfortunately, it’s still true that some guys can’t handle women experiencing the world on their own terms.

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Mineo, Dean, and Wood in a rare moment of happiness.

The saddest subplot of the three is that of Sal Mineo’s Plato. The film glosses over his backstory at the beginning, but it involves shooting puppies (off screen). This detail doesn’t quite fit with the rest of Plato’s issues (neglect and lack of a parental figure), but the filmmakers needed to slip in the fact that Plato knows how to get a gun. This incident also lands Plato at the police station where he runs into his new partners in petty crime (Jim is there for public drunkenness and Judy for being out after dark. Seriously, it was the fifties: this was a crime).

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Haven’t we all felt like this?

The film culminates in Jim having a knife fight with Judy’s boyfriend, Buzz, which then escalates into a chicken race. (The entire premise of Back to the Future II and III of Marty McFly hating being called chicken originated with this film.) Jim can’t handle being called a chicken. He’s trying to be a stand-up guy. As things escalate out of the teens’ control, they try to figure out how to do the right thing. In a prescient moment of white male privilege, Jim’s parents try to convince him not to report something to the police because it could ruin the rest of his life.

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Buzz and the gang try to intimidate Jim with a knife to his car.

The film is melodramatic, but not overly so. It comes to a somewhat tragic end but with a hopeful outcome. All three main characters have had revelations, try to change their outlook, and struggle to integrate into their worlds without losing themselves. Some aspects haven’t aged well, but many themes that still ring true. Rebel Without a Cause is a must-see film featuring some incredibly iconic moments.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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