Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Rebel Without a Cause</strong> (1955)

(On Cable TV, February 2018) Things change, people evolve and standards move … but in James Dean’s case, he remains etched in perpetuity in three movies, of which Rebel Without a Cause remains the most iconic. Dean, modern audiences are told, exemplified the new American teenager of the 1950s: cool and lost and identifiable to teenagers while being vaguely threatening to older audiences. Younger audiences then lapped it up, of course, and we ended up with an icon made permanent thanks to his undue death. From a modern perspective, though, Rebel Without a Cause remains a film of its time, and Dean is rather irritating. His then-new detachment has become annoying moping by the 2010s, and his style has been taken on by so many better actors that, at times, Dean seems to be playing an exaggerated version of James Franco. I’m being too harsh, and yet I’m stuck at how much I don’t buy into the Dean mystique now that I’m middle-aged and contemplating a near future in which my own kid will be a rebellious teenager. Rebel without a Cause, to be fair, does work now as a time capsule of mid-1950s Californian suburbia. As a teenage drama, the stakes of the film are relatively low, with an emphasis on generational disconnect rather than outright confrontation. What’s more, what the Dean hype doesn’t quite tell you is that Dean’s character in the film is more confused than detached—he’s trying to do the right thing, but the world is stacked against him and the not-so-cheery ending makes that clear. I don’t think it has aged all that well—the rebelliousness did anticipate the sixties (explaining the film’s appeal to baby boomers) but seems rather old material today when endless teen-TV series are looking at the same material, except with far more complexity. Rebel without a Cause remains an essential film if only to understand Dean’s appeal, but it’s not exactly terrific on its own for modern audiences.

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