Struggling with misperceptions may be par for the course for our main characters, actually. This was an early “troubled teens dealing with their lives” film, where the parents are blind to how they’re mis-handling things and the kids are the only ones who really understand what each other is going through. James Dean is our lead, “Jim Stark”, the only son of a middle class couple who have all just moved into their new town; they move frequently, unfortunately, since Jim has a habit of getting into trouble, and Mrs. Stark has always insisted on moving “for a fresh start” whenever he does. The meek Mr. Stark has never had the courage to refuse – and ironically, his meekness is part of what frustrates Jim so much and makes him act out.
This all comes out surprisingly early, during a soul-baring conversation Jim has with a detective in the local police department after Jim is brought in for drunk and disorderly conduct. It’s a busy night for the police, actually, since two other kids are also there – Judy (Natalie Wood), caught wandering past curfew because she’d had a squabble with her father and was out for a walk to clear her head, and a boy nicknamed “Plato” (Sal Mineo), brought in for animal cruelty.
But the film takes pains to show Judy and Plato’s backstories as well, and trace the motivations for their troubles – Judy’s prudish father has turned cold towards her, afraid that the innocent physical affection she’d been giving him as a girl (kisses and hugs, nothing more) was no longer proper, and the lonely Plato is being raised by an often-absent single mother. The same detective speaks at length with each one about their troubles, treating them with compassion and sensitivity I found pretty surprising. It may have been for exposition, but it’s still exposition that brings us around to the side of these three teens really early on. He seems to take a special interest in Jim, the new kid in town – urging him to drop by the station any time he wants to talk to someone or just vent.
The three gradually run into each other again over the course of the next day, Jim’s first day in the new school. Judy is literally the girl next door, but when Jim offers her a ride to school, she brushes him off in favor of her usual ride with her usual friends – the real bad kids in town, a gang lead by the cool Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen). Plato warns Jim against the gang later, during a class trip to the local planetarium. The gang has often hassled Plato, so much so that he’s sometimes had to hide out in an abandoned mansion on the edge of town – but just as Plato is about to take him there, Buzz and his gang stop by to size Jim up with a knife fight. Jim holds his ground, so Buzz – egged on by Judy – ups the stakes with a game of “chicken” with stolen cars off a nearby cliff that same night.
Jim tries to confide in his father that night, opaquely asking for advice – but when his father can only spout some limp platitudes, he keeps the appointment, with Plato arriving as his only supporter. So Plato is there when the night turns tragic, reminding Jim and the left-behind Judy about his mansion hideout. Jim tries one last time to confide in his parents – but when they let him down yet again, he joins Judy and Plato at the mansion, convinced that they’re the only ones who understand him. So they’re alone when Buzz’s gang comes for revenge – and are alone to cope with the fallout when Plato fights back with a stolen gun, and the situation turns even more deadly.
The “gang violence” in the film was actually far tamer than I was expecting, and Jim was much more of a sensitive soul than I’d been lead to believe. He’s especially compassionate to the troubled Plato, accepting Plato’s blatant hero-worship without exploiting it, and trying to reassure someone who is clearly troubled. Even early on when he’s drunk off his ass in the police station and spots Plato shivering on a bench, he tries to give Plato his jacket. It’s the kind of “troubled kids have troubles” move that I’ve come to expect a movie trotting out later, to build our way towards empathy with our leads, but here it’s put right bang at the front, which sucked me into Jim and Judy and Plato’s world and watching the story unfold with them.
Fortunately the script did this, as the acting could get a tiny bit histrionic; especially coming from Dean. The quieter moments were fine – he’s got some fun exchanges with Judy and Plato as they explore the mansion, pretending they’re potential buyers, and some sensitive talks with Plato where he picks up on just how broken Plato is, and figures out just how to handle him. But his moments with his parents all seem to verge on Big Acting to the point that verges towards parody. (The fact that Tommy Wiseau borrowed the famous line “You’re tearing me apart!” for his own film The Room, and copied the line reading exactly, doesn’t help.)
I’ve been curious about James Dean – partly by reputation, and partly as my father once confessed that if he idolized Dean when he was a kid. This is one of two films where I’ll get to see Dean’s work, and I’m curious how much more a picture of Dean will be fleshed out when see the next one. So far, despite the Big Acting, it kind of tracks.