Rebel Without a Cause (1955) Directed by Nicholas Rey. With James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.
The things that kids will do under the weight of peer pressure and the resulting ill effects of becoming a social outcast – both topics under observation in Nicholas Rey’s seminal teen drama, Rebel Without a Cause. Starring James Dean, the film has perhaps become more iconic as a vision of cool, laconic individualism than it has for the message it attempts to convey.
Dean plays Jim Stark, a bright but confused young man struggling to fit into a new college. Not only that, Jim suffers at home as his domineering mother treats his father like a badly performing employee, much to Jim’s frustration. He finds himself befriended by a troubled child called Plato (Sal Mineo) and the girl who catches his eye (Natalie Wood) seems more interested in the safety of hanging around with the ‘cool kids’, a group led by resident bully, Buzz (Corey Allen).
For a film released in 1955, it remains as potent today as ever. James Dean’s ‘Jim’ is an individual. Someone who refuses to adhere and conform to the wishes and bullying tactics of the herd. For starters, Dean is magnificent in the central role. His presence as an actor, as well as his iconic face, seems to elevate the film to a level above its level. Sure, this a film about young people’s problems, but much of it can be applied to adult life. The fear of not fitting in to a new town or a new job, we’ve all that familiar tug in our gut about how we’re perceived.
As well as being a film about peer pressure, it has much to say about the subtle impacts and sensitivities of children, to the behaviours of their parents. A parental situation where the mother and father no longer see eye-to-eye, even though they both care for and love the child, can have far-reaching, damaging effects.
Filled with sadness, as much as it is about teen angst, Rebel Without a Cause is a cautionary tale. But it’s also about being an individual and standing up for who you are. James Dean’s performance is one to cherish. Of course, the film’s underlying sadness is further highlighted by the fact that this talented young actor’s life was abruptly ended the same year this memorable film was released. 4/5