I’ve never read S.E. Hinton’s classic 1967 novel The Outsiders. Somehow, I had managed not to see the original 1983 cinema adaptation directed by Francis Ford Coppola, even though that landed right at the beginning of my obsession with movies, when I was a young teenager. Maybe because I was more into sci-fi and fantasy then, which this is most definitely not, and because even that early on I was aware — and annoyed — that movies always seemed to be mostly about boys. As this one is.
So all that means that I have zilch invested in what came before Coppola’s 2005 director’s cut, cleverly called “The Complete Novel,” for which he restored 22 minutes of what had been snipped away, by studio demand, from the original theatrical version. Which is the version of the movie I finally saw, just now in 2021, in its brand-new 4K restoration.
*whew* Keeping up with the different flavors of a movie can be exhausting.
Anyway. I may be a bad GenXer in my heretofore Outsiders avoidance, but there is solid generational pleasure to be had catching up with it now. Because this is the proto Brat Pack movie, peopled by an absolutely iconic 80s cast, a veritable who’s who of Xer screen luminaries: Tom Cruise. Rob Lowe. Emilio Estevez. Matt Dillon. Diane Lane. Ralph Macchio. C. Thomas Howell. Leif Garrett. (Also Patrick Swayze is here, but he was a Boomer. And there’s a cameo by early Boomer Tom Waits!) It’s a bit of a shock, in fact, to see that the bigger these guys would go on to become, the smaller their roles are here: Cruise, Estevez, and Lowe are mostly just hovering in the background in a handful of scenes, for instance. How strange and random it can be, who rises to megastardom, and who does not.
No, this is solidly the story of teen Ponyboy Curtis (Howell: Woodlawn, The Amazing Spider-Man) and his friend Johnny Cade (Macchio). They’re a couple of poor kids from the wrong part of Tulsa, Oklahoma in the mid 1960s, and things go from bad to worse for them when they get caught in the middle of a fatal stabbing between their gang, the Greasers, and the Socs, the rich kids’ posse from the other side of town. And despite two genuinely heartfelt central performances, the most intriguing aspects of the film, as with the cast, are the bits around the outside edges.
Like how Hinton’s novel is pretty much credited with starting the literary genre we now call “young adult”; the way that is reflected in the movie is important to cinema, too. Hinton was a teen herself when she wrote the book, and the movie’s utter lack of any adult perspective still feels fresh and necessary today; it’s unusual even as 80s and 90s teen movies ended up developing, which tend to offer at least brief asides of adult disapproval of These Kids Today. This shows itself, too, in small moments that capture teen society, like when Lane’s (Serenity, Justice League) Cherry — who is from the wealthy side of town and whose boyfriend is one of the Socs — tells Ponyboy, her social opposite whom she has befriended, quite to the contrary of expected norms, “If I see you at school and I don’t say hi, don’t take it personal.” Ouch, but accurate. Perhaps more incisively, it’s in how, say, domestic violence is accepted as a norm among these kids, if also something that is Not To Be Discussed: Johnny talks around his reasons for not wanting to go home, but we know exactly what is going on with him. His bluster about his face being a mess because “some guys” (not his dad, defo not his dad) beat him up does not jibe with the terrifyingly haunted look in his eyes.
A subtle unspokenness that all the cast deliver fuels the power of this film. It is beyond charming, and vitally essential, to see deep, honest emotion undercutting the performative toxic masculinity of these characters, who are pushed to play the Tough Guy by the world they exist in yet crave — and receive — true connection from their male peers. As much of a mess as the little Curtis family is — Ponyboy, his brother Sodapop (Lowe: Monster Trucks, Sex Tape), and their eldest, grownup sibling, Darrel (Swayze: Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Donnie Darko), who has been raising the younger brothers since their parents died — they are a paragon, and rightly so, of love and devotion, even if Ponyboy doesn’t always understand why Darrel is so tough on him. (Darrel is terrified of Ponyboy running afoul of the police and bringing the authorities swooping in and deciding that the younger, underage brothers should be taken into social care.) No one talks about it, because of course they wouldn’t, but we instinctively grasp why Johnny wants to be around them, rather than his own family, all the time…
Authentic adolescent angst is inextricably part and parcel of Hinton’s point of view, but so is the extremely concentrated earnestness of a teen writer, to the point of absurdity. Where the film lost me, plotwise, was in the melodramatic randomness of one major turning point. Ponyboy and Johnny, on the run after the stabbing, are hiding out in a place where no one will find them, a place they have been assured is remote and lonely, a place the film ascertains as such: a long-abandoned church at the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. And yet there comes a moment when *checks notes* a school trip of little kids to this unlikely, unnoteworthy place is compounded in its improbability by a *checks notes again* tragic fire outta nowhere to which *checks notes one last time during which mind boggles* one of the boys will be nobly sacrificed while saving small children.
The solemnity with which this preposterousness is served up, I’m sorry to say, verges on laughable. By comparison, it makes the unlikeliness of the poor Curtis family having an incredibly expensive, and rare, color TV in the 1960s seem hugely reasonable.
Still, I now understand the profound esteem in which Ponyboy Curtis is held among a certain sort of sensitive teenager, what with his devotion to “movies and books” and his interest in writing (he is telling us this whole sorry tale in the form of a school essay reflecting on his life). I’m sure I would have been one of them as well.