“Be on my side, I’ll be on your side”

The other day I watched River’s Edge, a 1987 film based on a 1981 crime. I’d say it falls in the Law and Order category of true crime, as a fictionalization of real events. The gist of the story is that a teenage boy killed his girlfriend, then told people about it at school and brought them to see the body. It took a couple days before anyone reported it to the police, due to confusion, loyalty, and distrust of authority. The community, the media, and the film ask What is wrong with kids these days? What is wrong with our society?

The news story:
California Suburb Sorts Out Fear and Confusion in Teen Slaying

I saw this film when it was new in a theater, at a showing that was so packed that we had to sit in the front row. I remember this made for a very intense experience, right in front of the screen, right in front of the speakers, viewing at an uncomfortable distance and angle. The discomfort of the experience accentuated the discomfort of the film. Most of my friends saw the film when it made it to HBO, and interpreted the film as a kind of black comedy. To me, that said something about the difference between seeing a movie in a theater and watching one in the living room.

What is wrong with kids these days? What is wrong with our society? Answers offered included media violence, marijuana and heavy metal music, which were often considered to be causes of the decline of western civilization in those days.

“You interest me” the police officer says as he interrogates the teen for reporting the murder. What interests me is that I can empathize with the kid. Who is prepared to deal with a situation like that? How would they know how to behave? One of the reasons people kept quiet about it was they knew no good would come from going to the authorities. It would only mean trouble. The movie, and the real life story, don’t do much to counter that sentiment.

Rewatching it in light of events of the past few years, I thought of how the kids’ struggle with confusion and loyalty in the face of a heinous crime is hardly just a problem for youth. How do officers react when they witness one of their own doing something wrong? Or indeed members of any tribe? Perhaps one function of true crime narratives is to help us think through these things.

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