At first glance, Rebel Without a Cause is one of those old 50s-era melodramas that don’t age too well. If you look past the over-acting common to dramas of the day and take the movie on its own terms, it’s actually a surprisingly sensitive portrayal of teenagers coming to grips with their own identities, their thoughts on how society views them, and what values are most important to them. It sounds kind of basic, and the territory has been well-mined it’s true, but what makes it interesting is how maturely the subject is handled. Given the nature of the style director Nicholas Ray is dealing with, it would be easy to fall into a preachy kind of melodrama that chastises the wayward kids or a sensational soap-opera where kids are all noise with no meaning. Instead, the rebelling kids have logical, sympathetic grievances that make sense even if you can’t agree with them.
The movie opens with three youths spending a long evening in the local police office for various transgressions. Jim Stark (Dean) has been brought up on charges of public drunkenness, Judy (Wood) has been caught running away, and Plato (Sal Mineo) was caught shooting puppies. We get a basic sense of the troubles for these three kids, but we spend the most time with Jim and his parents. After that, we learn the Starks have been moving around a bit because of their son’s problems, and this is just the latest in a long line of restarts for the family.
The kids all find their way back to each other eventually. Plato quickly latches on to Jim as a best friend and possible father figure, and Judy doesn’t take long to catch Jim’s eye. Their flirting gets him in trouble with the popular kids, which leads to altercations and finally a rather intense game of chicken featuring fast cars and a looming cliff. What’s interesting is that once you get to know the bullies, even they have a reasonably affable nature. They’re not terrible people; they’re filled with an existential emptiness that they struggle to mask with bravado and any excitement they can manage.
I don’t want to give anything away, but the drag race brings with it a surprising consequence that the new trio has to work through. Jim and Judy both go to their parents for solace and guidance and come away wanting, so they turn to each other with Plato in tow. In an abandoned mansion they discuss the things they most want to see in other people (honesty and a sense of resoluteness) and play at the kind of adults they want to be. All of this could be pretty inconsequential if taken at face value, but if you stop to think about what they’re playing at, why these kids are doing the things they’re doing, it reveals a surprising…yearning in all of them for something they feel they lack.
Jim wants a father who’s strong enough to teach him what it means to be a man. Judy wants a father who is affectionate and close. Plato just wants…any sort of father at all. These are children who feel they’ve been wronged by the previous generation, and have given up hope on ever being understood by them. They’re smart enough to see what’s wrong with the world, but they’re too impatient to really consider how their parents and teachers have turned out that way — they just know that when they’ll get older, they’ll fix it. They won’t make the same kind of mistakes, they’ll be better.
Director Nicholas Rey uses cinematography, lighting and the serious acting chops of Dean and Wood to make these basic ideas much richer and subtle than they would be otherwise. Even though it doesn’t have any right to work, it really does. Dean imbues Jim with the uncertainty and earnestness of a high school student — this is a good guy who makes bad decisions, and has no one to teach him how to navigate the consequences and learn from his mistakes. He’s all but crying out for someone to teach him how to stand up for himself, and it’s a lesson that his beleaguered father and bullying mother are ill-suited for.
Plato, whose parents are absent through the length of the movie, fares the worst. His need for a stabilizing influence is so great it appears pathological, and his emotions are so forceful they overwhelm him almost all of the time. Because none of these children have the insight to explain their issues or needs to the adults around them, they’re forced to wander through their lives angry and unfulfilled, but unable to say why.
It takes a little patience to see this underneath the dialogue that can come off as coarse and hokey. But like the children it follows, Rebel Without a Cause is definitely worth sticking with and making an attempt to understand. If your tolerance for 50s melodrama or the plight of upper-middle-class white kids is low, you might want to skip this. Otherwise, give it a try — you may find the Technicolor world of these children surprisingly rich and deep.