Rebel Without a Cause

Movie review by
Charles Cassady Jr., Common Sense Media
Rebel Without a Cause Movie Poster Image
1950s James Dean teen-rage landmark still resonates.
  • PG-13
  • 1955
  • 111 minutes

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 4 reviews

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 6 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The gang violence and youthful recklessness that drives the plot is shown to be petty and futile. Even Buzz, Jim's hood-like enemy, says he likes Jim, but fights with him just for appearance's sake, or maybe boredom ("Gotta do something"). Part of the message -- supposedly the result of filmmaker Nicholas Ray researching hundreds of police reports -- is that out-of-control teens, even in apparently "good" families, get a raw deal from moms and dads unable to understand and cope with them.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The movie was accused of promoting youth violence, and Jim participates in knife-fighting and an ultimately fatal duel over "honor" for no good reason. Jim's defiant attitude (and, by association, Judy's, and maybe all the other kids) is excused, at least partially, by parental ineptitude. Jim redeems himself by trying to take responsibility and attempting to save an even more unstable, weaker boy.

Violence

Pistol shots cause wounds and a casualty, as does a fatal car plunge. Blood is drawn by jabs in a non-fatal knife fight. Jim physically attacks his father and a policeman, and kids beat up on other kids.

Sex
Language

"Heck" and "tramp" is about as bad as it gets.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Jim is shown drunk from the opening scene, and there is a sense his parents frequently imbibe socially. Jim also smokes and shares his cigarettes with other boys.

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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User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bydvdgirl June 21, 2019

Fine

I am 33 years old but I don’t care I like this movie. It stars the late James dean and Natalie wood.
Adult Written byChris U. March 3, 2019
Teen, 14 years old Written byBlue2102 December 26, 2019
The movie is quite good, a bit slow at the beginning but with an overall interesting plot. Some parts are predictable but it's still entertaining. It'... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written bygen03 August 23, 2019

An old movie that isn't 'boring'

This is a good old movie that I think most teens would enjoy, because they probably think of older movies being incredibly boring. This movie however is really... Continue reading

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.

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love forceful dramas and coming of age stories

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