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Viewer Guide: “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Ten Thousand Saints”

September 14, 2022 | Richard Peña


Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

This week’s double feature begins with Rebel Without a Cause, the classic 1955 coming-of-age drama directed by Nicholas Ray. 

Released a month after James Dean’s untimely death in a car accident at the age of 24, Rebel Without a Cause is surely the most iconic of the three films that make up Dean’s brief movie career, fully showcasing both his charismatic screen presence as well as the emotional intensity of his method acting training. Dean stars as Jim Stark, a teenager whose family has recently relocated to Los Angeles. Picked up by the LAPD for drunkenness, Jim notices two other teenagers at the police station having scrapes with the law: a troubled “Daddy’s girl” named Judy, played by Natalie Wood, brought in for breaking curfew; and a poor little rich boy nicknamed “Plato,” played by Sal Mineo, who’s neglected by his divorced parents. Jim becomes increasingly alienated from his own parents, and his confusion and anxiety only worsen as he tries to start all over again in his new school. Attracted to Judy but ostracized by her “in-crowd” friends, Jim attempts to prove himself in a reckless game that only leads to disastrous results. With nowhere to turn, Jim truly becomes a “rebel without a cause,” trying to survive his current reality and find his way to the future. 

Director Nicholas Ray had become friendly with James Dean after visiting with him in New York, and the duo were eager to work together. Furthermore, after the success of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, “juvenile delinquent” movies suddenly became box office currency. Nicholas Ray approached Warner Bros. about a new troubled teens project, taking some inspiration from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, as well as a contemporary psychology book titled Rebel Without a Cause. But with Dean already signed to co-star in Giant, he almost wasn’t available, until Elizabeth Taylor’s pregnancy delayed the start of production on Giant for three months, enabling Dean to film Rebel in the meantime. Ray reportedly gave Dean free reign with improvisation to showcase his method acting intensity; for the police precinct scene when Jim punches the desk, Dean reportedly got drunk before cameras rolled…and subsequently broke two bones in his hand. After enthusiastic audience reaction at a sneak preview, Warner Bros. was eager to pursue a long-term contract with Dean, but his death in a car crash on September 30, 1955, abruptly put an end to all plans. Garnering three Oscar nominations including Best Supporting Actress and Actor for Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, Dean was not nominated for Best Actor until the following year for his performance in GIANT. 


Ten Thousand Saints (2015).

This week’s double feature continues with Ten Thousand Saints, a 2015 coming-of-age drama, adapted from the novel by Eleanor Henderson, and written and directed by Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcini. 

It’s New Year’s Eve, 1987, and 17-year-old Jude and his best friend Teddy, played by Asa Butterfield and Avan Jogia, are at loose ends, looking for something do—and new ways to get high—in the winter cold of Lintonburg, Vermont. An adopted child mostly raised by his single-mother Harriet, played by Julianne Nicholson, the blame for Jude’s aimlessness seems largely due to the near total absence of his father Lester, a magnetic but undependable 60s rebel winningly played by Ethan Hawke, who now makes his living as a marijuana dealer in the East Village. But this humdrum New Year’s Eve takes an unexpected turn with the arrival of Eliza, played by Hailee Steinfeld, the daughter of Lester’s current girlfriend, a retired British dancer played by Emily Mortimer. Passing through town on her way back to New York, Eliza joins the boys in crashing a party; however, after that night takes a tragic turn, Jude drops out of school and withdraws deeper into isolation and drugs, prompting Lester to undertake a counterintuitive form of intervention and bring Jude to live with him back in New York. Against a backdrop of the East Village’s gentrification conflict of the late 80s, Jude embarks on an odyssey of self-discovery, entering the culture of hardcore “straight edge” punk music with Teddy’s older half-brother Johnny, played by Emile Hirsch. And along the way, Jude’s origin as an adopted child takes on an unforeseen new significance. 

Adapted from Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel of the same name, Ten Thousand Saints offers an updated coming-of-age story from a new angle, focusing on a generation of kids struggling to grow up with parents who never fully grew up themselves. The film’s husband-and-wife writing and directing team of Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcini were new arrivals in New York City at the time of the Tompkins Square riot, and were drawn to the novel’s account of East Village life during an era that was dangerous yet also energized with creativity. However, with production taking place 25 years after the riot, finding areas in the East Village that still looked authentic to the late 80s proved challenging, with production designer Stephen Beatrice devising an art direction kit to help “grunge up” locations, including temporary graffiti decals. And instead of the now standard practice of shooting in high-definition video, 16mm film was utilized to help create the movie’s period look. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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