In the fifties, the recognition of that troubled in-between state between childhood and adulthood was finally emerging. The creatures of this state were 'teenagers', who had their own troubles and angst that had to be dealt with carefully, otherwise they'd go off the rails. One of the mothers looks in front of her and says "You never think it would happen to a family like yours"- and every parent in the audience knew that she was talking to them. Though of course teenagers still go off the rail nowadays, the serious angst that all the characters go through feels quaint.
To be fair though, Jim's sort-of-friend Plato (Sal Mineo) is first seen in the police station admitting to shooting some puppies. He looks like such an adorable puppy himself that this is surprising. Jim is also first seen there, being questioned about a cock-fight and Judy (Natalie Wood) has been hanging out with the wrong type of boys. In other films of the period, the teenagers were all-American sickly wholesomeness so this really was a blow to that myth. The opening scene doesn't have the same punch that it did back then simply because we don't buy into the myth that teenagers are tormented children.
I won't tell you the plot because it's a bit disappointing, having been overused so much in subsequent films and TV shows about teenagers. Mineo's character is the most interesting and there's a wonderfully touching scene where he engages Jim and Judy in a game in which they are a couple wanting to buy a house and he is the proud owner. The dynamics just work perfectly and it shows a more interesting mental state than a simple bit of angst. There is a potential reading that Plato is in love with Jim but although there is love there, I think it is hero worship rather than concealed desire. Plato is still very childlike, in contrast to Jim, who becomes the man of the house in disgust towards his hen-pecked dad (Jim Backus). I'm sure in the fifties they were implying that Jim had to compensate for his father's lack of masculinity and therefore his father has failed him as a parent. A modern audience might see less of an issue but it is still nicely played. Judy's issues with her father's lack of affection feel the most timeless, and despite not making much of an impact, Wood does do a good job with these scenes and she has nice chemistry with Dean.
Director Nicholas Ray does throw in some interesting ideas about how friendship groups can become like families and how people bond together by a shared experience, and these issues still come across, but films about teenagehood can never truly be timeless because they must react to the here-and-now; which is why Rebel worked for its generation.
I wonder how much Dean was really like this and how much of his personality has been conflated with this film. He is a little creepy as a twenty-four-year old playing a teenager- and a very childlike one at that- and his performance flits between being troubled and sensitive and being angsty and poser-y. There are some mature bits of acting but it would need a lot of polishing up. As for what his next steps might have been, I have an awful feeling he would have got suckered into films that are poor imitations of this.
Worth a watch but it's best to watch it as a slice of fifties paranoia rather than a look at modern teenagerhood.