Rebel Without a Cause (1955) explores teen-age rebellion, restlessness, and parental misunderstanding of middle-class youth of conformist mid-1950’s America. The screenplay was based on an actual case study contained in Dr. Robert Lindner’s 1944 factual book titled Rebel Without a Cause: The Story of a Criminal Psychopath of a delinquent, imprisoned teenage psychopath in the post-war years (www. filmsite. org/rebel. html). The film is seen from the perspective of 17-year old Jim Stark, a troubled teen with ineffectual parents, who has just moved to Los Angeles and faces a new high school.
The film opens Easter night in Los Angeles with Jim Stark lying contentedly in a fetal position on a sidewalk curb, tipsy-drunk. A beatific smile on his face, he sets a wind-up toy monkey next to him to ‘sleep’ underneath a newspaper blanket. The toy monkey symbolizes his essential innocence, sensitivity and immaturity. Although disheveled, drunk and lying in the gutter, Jim is dressed in a dark suit and tie, the adult clothes symbolizing the need to be an adult — a cover up to hide his confusion: he’s old enough to be a man but feels a child in desperate need of guidance and understanding that his parents have been unable to provide.
The police drag him into a police station where the other two main middle-class “juvenile delinquents,” Judy and Plato, are also hauled in for anti-social behavior and their paths cross. Judy is a defiant, unloved pretty girl has been mistaken for a streetwalker. She wears a bright-red outfit with matching red lipstick to symbolize a wild trampiness. Attracted to her spirit and defiance, Jim wears a red jacket for much of the film to symbolize his need to feel aggressive and strong, unlike his father.
Plato is a deeply disturbed and anguished “orphan” brought in because he shot and killed a litter of puppies with a gun found in his mother’s drawer. All suffering from a lack of love and feelings of abandonment, and difficulties relating to their parents, the three quickly identify with each other’s conflicts and connect. Jim feels alienated from his conformist, indifferent parents in their Los Angeles suburb. His mother is overbearing and critical. His father offers support and tries to protect him but is too weak to defy the mother and not someone Jim can idealize and want to emulate.
Although he loves his father, he wishes his henpecked, ineffectual “chicken” father would one day stand up to his domineering mother who is only concerned about keeping up an image of respectability: … if he had guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she’d be happy and then she’d stop pickin’ on him, because they make mush out of him. Jim contemptuously doesn’t want to be a “chicken” like his father: “I’ll tell you one thing, I don’t ever want to be like him. ” Ashamed of being thought a coward, Jim also wishes he wouldn’t feel confused and that his parents would listen to him and give more helpful advice.
Needing his parents but wanting his independence, a classic teenage conflict, he finds their love smothering and artificial and can’t handle their bickering. How can a guy grow up in a circus like that?… Boy, if, if I had one day when, when I didn’t have to be all confused, and didn’t have to feel that I was ashamed of everything… If I felt that I belonged someplace, you know, then… Caught between wanting to grow up and feeling still a child needing a strong, protective father to help him feel safe in the world, Jim utters: Will the world end in the night time?
Or will the world end in the day time? (I really don’t know) And is there any point ever having children? Oh, I don’t know. What I do know is we’re Here and it’s Now”. Judy experiences problems with her father who has withdrawn his physical affections and love now that she is older and wears lipstick. Calling her a “dirty tramp,” he smears the lipstick off her lips. Plato is in despair because his absent, divorced parents have abandoned him to the black maid/housekeeper. His killing of the puppies is symbolic as puppies never know their father and the litter is eventually abandoned by the mother.
Plato experiences many of the same problems as Jim, such as searching for a place in life and dealing with parents who “don’t understand. ” Misguided and constantly in trouble and dealing with the police, he looks up to Jim as a role model, because his real father abandoned his family. A typical teenage growing up story, Jim is desperately seeking to know himself, where he belongs and fits in and how to resolve the dilemma of needing to separate from his parents and needing them for comfort and guidance (Snyder, 1995). An outsider and loner, Jim desperately longs to fit in and being popular consumes him choices.
On his first day of school, he again wears ‘adult’ clothing – a white shirt and dark sportscoat and a tie that he immediately removes after walking outside. He gets involved in silly games with a local bully and tough guy named Buzz Gunderson that ends in tragedy. Buzz and his thugs defy Jim to play “chicken” wiith Buzz, which means rushing with cars towards an abyss. In typical male posturing and the need to flex his muscles, Jim accepts his threat. But he’s the first to jump out of the car and loses. Deemed a chicken, Jim feels a coward like this father, his worst fear.
He flees the gang and Judy and Plato join him in the garden of an abandoned villa, where they act out a sort of “fantasy family”, with Jim as father, Judy as mother and Plato as child. Jim can now recover from the humiliation of being a chicken like his father and feel some sense of power as a surrogate father to the deeply lost and desperate Plato (Slocum, 2005). Plato ends up getting killed by the police which deeply distresses Jim, who feels he has been unable to protect his “son. ” The themes inherent in this teenage growing up film remain highly relevant today. (Stone, 1996).
Adolescence is a time for searching for identify. When parents fail to serve as role models and when the relationship with the parents creates conflict and confusion, teens, looking for identity and power, defy them and commonly end up in risky activities, like drinking, reckless driving, promiscuous behavior and carrying guns. It is often a temporary phase that gets resolved. And indeed at the end of the film Jim confides his distress about Plato’s death to his father, who finally seems to understand his son. Plato, without any parental guidance, loses his life (White, 1995).