Rebel Without a Cause

AFI Rank: #59
Year Released: 1955
Director: Nicholas Ray
Actors: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus

In modern times we think it's normal and even expected that there are movies talking about teenagers. We are surrounded by TV shows, novels, movies, and other systems that all view the world through teenage eyes. But back in the 1940s and 1950s, that wasn't the case. Movies were about adults and how adults handled things. Rebel Without a Cause became an instant classic because finally there was a movie from a teen's point of view. It showed the issues and challenges that teens were facing in a world recovering from World War II.

Undoubtedly parents of the time thought teens had it easy. After all, the war was over. All the hardships and rationing and trauma involved with the war was a thing of the past. "You kids never had it so good". They had nice clothes and a life free from being sent to war. But to the teens of the time, they had a new set of challenges.

Mineo grows up with everything money can buy - but not the affection of his parents. They aren't even at home - they've left him behind with a caretaker. Wood craves her father's love and affection - but he apparently has become distant as she became more womanly. He's uncomfortable hugging her.

And then there's Dean. His parents seem wealthy, and seem to care for him. But they argue about him constantly. Also, the movie makes quite a big deal about how "masculine" the mom is, vs how "feminine" the father is. One of Dean's plaintive cries is that he wants his father to stand up for him - but the father just looks away.

It can be tempting to dismiss the issues these kids face. So many modern movies tackle teens who grapple with being abused, who are sucked into gang life, and many other quite painful situations. Still, it's important to look at this as a starting point. At least we get to see what the teens' challenges are. And from there we could then delve into even more serious problems as the years move forward.

It's also, of course, a view into a specific period in time. The men are doing all the action and talking. The girls are just there as arm-candy. Wood is the only woman in the film with any real lines. The mom and grandmom are simply there to show the "problems of a too-strong woman". Even the female teacher is ineffective.

But apparently, in the end, Wood is necessary. The only time in the entire movie that Dean's mother and father agree is when they see Dean with Wood on his arm. They both smile contentedly to each other, as if to say "OK everything will be fine now, he has a girl".

It's poignant that the three main stars of this movie - Dean, Wood, and Mineo - all died tragically at a young age. Maybe it does show how even those we feel might "have it made" face challenges that are not necessarily obvious. It shows we should have sympathy for everyone around us, no matter what their status in life. We all have burdens we have to shoulder.

Well recommended.

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