In the planned community of New Granada, the kids are ignored by their proto-yuppie scum parents, where there's plenty of room for tennis courts but only a run-down rec center for their children. Disaffected and bored, the junior high kids drop acid and eat speed, shoot BB guns at cop cars, and have sex in half-built condos.
Carl Willat (Michael Kramer) is a good kid compared to his wilder friends Richie (Matt Dillon) and Claude (Tom Fergus), the town druggie in a town filled with them. But Doberman, the local lawman and a petty bully (Harry Northup), targets him anyway. With the parents more worried about property values than their kids, when businessmen come to town to look at land for an industrial park, the president of the Homeowners' Association orders the rec center closed for the day. When Doberman tries to enforce the order the scene turns ugly, ending up in a minor riot.
When the police come for Carl and Richie they go on the run in a stolen car, but Doberman chases them down and ends up shooting Richie dead. While the town's adults meet with the cops at school to "solve" the problem, Carl goes to the closed rec, where the kids, unsupervised, have gathered, and leads them on a guerrilla attack on the school. The signature images of the movie come in the climax, when the kids lock the parents inside and run riot, starting bonfires and bashing in car windows. They trash the school, steal guns from the police cruisers, and blow up cars, with the parents and teachers hostages inside.
The state police finally show up, and the movie closes with a daytime shot of Carl and the rest of the town's kids being carted off to juvie in a school bus with barred windows, a whole generation sent to prison.
Dillon was just 14, discovered in a suburban New York high school. It's his first attempt at the role he perfected in movies like The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, and he's great, mumbling and dangerous and not really acting. ("I wanted to do everything real.... I was a Method actor, and I didn't even know what that meant," he says. Check out Vice's awesome oral history for more behind-the scenes stories).
With a raucous soundtrack with tracks from the Cars, Van Halen, the Ramones, and four songs from a newly discovered band called Cheap Trick, it captured the anomie and violence of the era, an early look at the deadening influence of suburbia.
Although it was loosely based on a real juvenile crime spree, Orion was afraid to promote the film, and at first advertised it as a horror movie. Then they pulled it after just a few days of limited release (it made just $200,000) because of fears of riots. Youth-gone-wild paranoia was in the air that year. Two other Mondo Culto favorites from 1979, Rock 'n' Roll High School and The Warriors, featured the same kind of teenage violence, one playing it for laughs and one as apocalyptic forecasting.
But Over the Edge played it straight. Director Jonathan Kaplan was just 30, and had studied with Scorsese and directed the Sex Pistols movie Who Killed Bambi? He aimed for a kind of realism, with real teenage actors (many first-timers), dialogue that was vetted by the kids themselves, and cinematography that made it a more true to life than most. (Though it still has after-school-special moments, particularly when the cheesetastic score kicks in.)
Even though Orion had initially buried the movie, it screened at a handful of festivals and then went into heavy rotation on cable, where it affected a generation of suburban teens. Directors like Richard Linklater and Cameron Crowe have referenced its influence and it was a favorite of Kurt Cobain, who used it as the inspiration for the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video ("That movie pretty much defined my whole personality," he told a biographer).
The American dream of suburbia might have been heaven on earth for adults fleeing the inner cities, but it had a different effect on some of the kids who had to grow up there. See Over the Edge for its explosive finale, the classic soundtrack, and for Dillon, snarling out the delinquents' code: "I only got one law. A kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid."