Film Nerd 2.0 stays gold with an emotional screening of ‘The Outsiders’

Film Nerd 2.0 is an ongoing series in which we explore the ways we share media with our kids, particularly those of us who grew up deeply in love with movies. The media landscape has changed completely, and parents need to be more engaged than ever in what their kids watch and what they take from that entertainment.

“Daddy, why did the Karate Kid Johnny die?”

When “The Outsiders” was released in 1983, I was 13, and I already dearly loved the S.E. Hinton novel. It's melodramatic as hell, but that's how it feels to be a teenager, no matter what era you're talking about. I may not have had to deal with Socs or Greasers, but navigating the turbulent emotional landscape of adolescence was something that informed every line of Hinton's book. Francis Ford Coppola's film is burnished and beautiful, and it featured a young cast made up of actors on the cusp of becoming hugely famous. C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez… and some kid named Tom Cruise.

Since I'm almost positive federal law has declared this “Tom Cruise Week,” I wanted to share something with the boys. It seems a little early to bust out “Risky Business,” unless I'm looking to kickstart puberty in the both of them. And while I get the eternally silly camp appeal of “Top Gun,” it's also not a film I think they'd get anything out of at this point. I considered “Rain Man,” and we may well do that sooner rather than later, but as soon as I thought of “The Outsiders,” it felt right.

And, indeed, it seems to have played for both of them. It's a beautiful movie, aesthetically, and there's a sense of energy to it that is really appealing and oddly innocent. For all the violence that happens in the film, it happens in a way that makes it hurt precisely because of how innocent all the kids in the film are. Sure, they rumble, but it's just hormonal territorial bullshit for the most part, not a sincere desire to kill one another. You get the sense that all of these characters on the Greasers side will age out of this, provided they make it to a certain point alive. The Stevie Wonder song that opens the movie sounds like it should have been on the front of a Walt Disney animated movie, and it sets this sweetness up that is the secret weapon of the film. Coppola made the book into a highly-calibrated tear generating device, expertly wringing every bit of broken heart from the material.

From the moment the film began, Toshi was 100% onboard. He was taken by the names of the characters, by the '50s style, and by the whole “what has he been in?” game that he could play as the characters were introduced. He recognized Macchio as the Karate Kid right away, and since he just recently saw “Wayne's World” and “Tommy Boy” and loves both of them, he was flat-out thrilled when Rob Lowe showed up as Sodapop. He recognized Estevez from the first “Mission: Impossible,” but it was Allen who pointed out that Matt Dillon was the bully in “My Bodyguard.” By far the best moment of recognition came when Ponyboy and Johnny are walking Cherry Valance home after the drive-in movie. It's a long loose conversational scene, and all of the actors in it (Estevez, Howell, Macchio, Michelle Meyrink and Diane Lane) are very good. As Cherry was mid-sentence, Toshi hit pause, stood up, and pointed at the screen. “IS THAT SUPERMAN'S MOM?!” he demanded.

Both of the boys decided early on that they would have been Greasers if they'd lived back then, but that the Greasers needed nicer houses. I like the way Coppola introduces the notion of violence into the film but escalates it slowly. He doesn't just start the movie with everything turned up on high. There's a creeping dread to the way things keep building, with Darren Dalton and Leif Garrett serving as the malevolent self-loathing Socs who keep pushing until Johnny (Macchio) has no choice but to push back. And while the first third of the film was largely fun for the boys, once Johnny stabs that Soc and kills him, they got quiet and realized that this film isn't quite what they're used to watching.

It had been a while since I'd seen the film, and one of the things that kind of blows me away is seeing Howell, who was 14 when they made the film, playing scenes with 20-year-old Macchio and feeling like Howell is the older of the two. Macchio's one of the more seasoned actors in the film at the point when they made it, and a big part of why the film works is because Coppola had the exact right people for two of the film's roles. If you're making “The Outsiders,” you have to have the right Johnny. After all, it's Johnny's death that pushes everyone to act in the final stretch of the film. Johnny represents all the harm that can be done to people who are marginalized by the system.

And then there's Dally. Man, Matt Dillon must have been grown in a lab somewhere specifically to play potentially sensitive but deeply troubled tough guy teenagers, because few people have ever done it better. In “The Outsiders” and “Over The Edge” both, he nails the archetype. When Dally finally goes down in a hail of bullets, essentially creating suicide-by-cop in the process, it's meant to be devastating, and it was for Toshi and Allen both. Toshi's far more expressive when he reacts to something in a film, and “The Outsiders” had him wiping his eyes several times. The way Allen responds is by getting closer to me and curling up, like he can protect himself better from those big emotions if he just makes himself smaller. We had to pause the movie because they started asking me questions, many of which surprised me. Turns out, my kids are more aware of the world of adults than they let on sometimes, which really shouldn't be a shock. Of course they do. I don't watch the news with them because I think modern news media exists mainly to express this narrative of fear, and it's toxic. Somehow, though, they've picked up on the larger conversation about police shootings this year.

“Would the police shoot me?” Allen asked, genuinely concerned. How do you even begin to have a conversation with a 7-year-old about things like class inequality or white privilege or abuse of power? Well, you listen to the questions they're asking, and you answer them honestly. I would not have guessed when I turned on “The Outsiders” that by the time it was over, I'd have to tell Allen and Toshi that there is a cosmic lottery that they won by virtue of their skin color, and that the people who don't win that lottery are targeted by the police to a disproportionate degree. I never anticipated explaining that there is an undeniable political difference between the shooting of a white suspect and a black suspect by a police officer, and that difference is something that has created a very heated exchange in our culture, one that they should participate in as they get older, especially since they won that lottery I mentioned. We talked about how much pain Dally was in, and how he left the cops in the movie little choice in what they did, and how every single time a policeman fires his weapon, it's a different situation. We can't generalize about every cop involved in a shooting any more than we can generalize about the people being shot. What we have to do is consider strongly who we give power to, what power we give them, and how we let them use it. We have to make sure people feel like they have a voice, because when they feel like they don't, things like Dally's death happen. We talked about all of that before we finally finished the film, and it was a huge conversation in terms of what we covered. Even so, they seemed to absorb things and then move on, part of that resilience that I so admire in children.

What really got Toshi, though, was Johnny. Everything about the character seemed to gutpunch To in some way. Whether it was the house full of screaming parents that Johnny couldn't stomach returning to or the quiet horror of Johnny's reaction after he kills the Soc or his friendship with or his heartfelt scene where he and Ponyboy watch the sunset, he was fully focused on the screen during Johnny's scenes. And when we finally see Johnny in the hospital after his accident and we get a good long look at his burns, To was squirming in his chair, horrified. Johnny's death and his final lines (“Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.”) absolutely ruined Toshi, who covered his face with his hands for a moment because he was so upset. Allen asked me the question that I opened this column with today, and he seemed to almost immediately distrust any movie that would actually kill Johnny. “That's not right, Daddy,” he told me a few times. “He has to get better.”

On Tuesday morning, I took the boys to see “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” and then I drove them out to their mother's office afterwards. Toshi and I have been having some fairly heavy conversations lately as he's starting to unpack his experiences this past year. I feel for him, because he is the spitting image of me, and I think his mother's still very mad at me. Toshi's really stepped up at home to try to help her, and he's wearing his new responsibilities well. But he's a ten-year-old kid, and there are plenty of things he's struggling with, things he is open enough to discuss with me. As he comes into sharper focus as a person, I am continually impressed by how hard he works to absorb art and the world around him. He's a very smart kid, and a very sweet kid, and in some ways, he still seems to have an innate innocence that has long since curdled in some of the kids he plays with or hangs around with. He's holding onto his childhood with both hands even as he strains to understand the world of grown-ups, and that combination is what I think of when I think of this young man who I am raising. I hope that when I finally turn him loose, he is a good man, and I feel like he's struggling to make sure that is what happens. Watching a movie like “The Outsiders” gives him room to talk to me about his feelings and about ideas raised by the film, and just opens the door for him to talk about other things that are equally important. That's the whole point of sharing media with our kids like this, that communication.

Oddly, I didn't feel any emotional pull from the film this time. I've seen it enough times that the tugs on the heartstrings are registered, but ineffective. It's not the film's fault… it's mine. I watched it so many times in the '80s that I'm numb to it now. But when I dropped the boys off, Allen sprinted for the door after a quick hug, the way he always does, and Toshi went around to the back of my car to get the suitcase he carries for the two of them. These days, he's starting to get less gregarious with the hugs, as it normal for a kid his age, and so I let him decide if I'm getting the goodbye hug or not. This time, he gave me a particularly big hug, like I hadn't seen him in months, and then headed for the front door. As he walked away, he called back to me, “Stay gold, Daddy!”

Tears… the whole way home.