When a film is so defined by it’s era, so much a product of the struggles of a certain time, can it still be relevant fifty years later? Rebel without a cause defined a generation. The American youth with a country trapped in a silent war. The war divided them from their parents further than almost any generation before. Out of this came the disillusioned teenagers which make up our protagonists Jim (James Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood) and ‘Plato’ (Sal Mineo). Each one has been warped in their own way by their family upbringing. The film places these characters into increasingly unnerving situations. The script never directly addresses these issues, the fight for male ego, burgeoning sexuality and acceptance is underplayed to such an extent that not even the characters themselves seem to recognise it. Each one seems ready to explode from their own troubles but are forced into a straight-jacketed ‘normal’ life.
In fact, the only character who is ever permitted to express this is Jim. But even then it is in short outbursts, devoid of literal meaning but filled with raw emotional power. His performance is, while decidedly accomplished, somewhat stilted and awkward. Even the few years that he has on the character seem to render him as a man in boys shoes. It’s an odd quirk which the film bends to its advantage, Jim becomes the guide and patriarch in the dysfunctional family set up by these three children.
This temporary family unit reflects the dissatisfaction that they feel in their home lives but also absorbs the problems. The freudian conflict and jealousy felt by Plato is shocking for its time, as his clear romantic intentions are thwarted by the mother figure. The same mother figure who is denied the affection of her own father.
The film captures a generation in the process of change. New definitions of masculinity created rifts in the social structure at the same time as women asserted their own autonomy. Perhaps it is best seen as a snapshot, parts of it are imperfect but it serves as a flawless reminder of a flawed time.