Rebel Without a Cause
1950s James Dean teen-rage landmark still resonates.
Rebel Without a Cause
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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this landmark depiction of teen alienation and delinquency has plenty of don't-try-this-at-home moments, including knife fighting, gunplay, breaking-and-entering a disused house, a fatal game of "chicken" in stolen cars, and animal cruelty. Young people drink to inebriation and smoke. There is a link made between a single-parent household (actually less than that; never-seen mom lets the maid oversee things) and a loner mentally ill son.
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What's the Story?
Daring for its era, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE showed 1950s viewers that nice middle-class suburban kids could go wrong too. High schooler Jim Stark (James Dean) is perpetually moody and in trouble, despite -- maybe because of -- his doting but conflict-shy father (Jim Backus). Starting at a new school after unspecified problems elsewhere, Jim befriends a sensitive misfit boy (Sal Mineo) from a broken home, and he also catches the attention of popular classmate Judy (Natalie Wood) with her own baggage of family turmoil. Judy is part of a gang-like clique that bullies Jim and goads him into a dangerous nocturnal drag-race duel (in stolen cars) that has tragic repercussions.
Is It Any Good?
Despite outdated touches -- these punks don't listen to rock music, but rather big-band swing -- Rebel Without a Cause still comes on strong. From the opener of live-wire actor James Dean drunk in the gutter, there's a sense that this film means business. It was indeed an iconic screen drama of the 1950s, serious-minded, superbly acted, and designed to illuminate the hot topic of juvenile delinquency -- which huffy authorities at the time blamed on everything from Bill Haley's Comets to comic books.
Here (although no quick fixes are offered) the diagnosis is grounded in Freudian psychology; it's hormones and parents, in Jim's case his bewildered, ineffectual dad and domineering mom, in Judy's case a father repulsed by the girl's maturing sexuality. Alienated and aimless despite their affluence, the lonely kids form their own gangs. Compared to the generally Disney-esque treatments of adolescents onscreen back then, Rebel remains forceful and un-phony.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about tormented teens in this movie. Can 21st-century young viewers still relate to Jim's anger, aggression, dysfunctional parents, and negative peer pressures?
Parents seem to be blamed for root troubles in this movie. What do kids today think causes juvenile delinquency?
Talk about the meteoric career of James Dean, his early car-crash death, and the mystique surrounding the few films he completed (a monument to Dean stands at the L.A. observatory where Rebel Without a Cause was filmed). Who are the James Dean-like idols today?
Rebel Without a Cause, in keeping with 1950s studio censorship, handles its potentially R-rated bombshell topics without the now-expected ingredients of profanity and explicit sex/nudity. Does that approach make it less powerful, or did the filmmakers and cast still pull it off? Should more movies be made this restrained?
Tell movie-minded kids to watch for a young Dennis Hopper among the high-school gang member here -- and mention the irony that a generation later Hopper played the helpless-dad role in another delinquent drama, Rumble Fish.
- In theaters: October 27, 1955
- On DVD or streaming: May 31, 2005
- Cast: Dennis Hopper, James Dean, Natalie Wood
- Director: Nicholas Ray
- Studio: Warner Home Video
- Genre: Classic
- Run time: 111 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some violence and thematic elements
- Last updated: January 2, 2023
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