When it comes to the expansive and oft maligned genre of teen films, a handful of films and filmmakers – John Hughes, Rebel Without A Cause, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, American Graffiti, Dazed And Confused, Porky’s, Mean Girls, Heathers – stand out and state their case with insolent, middle-finger-raised insouciance. But bubbling away beneath the obvious classics is a whole schoolyard of fascinating flicks that dig gloriously into that strange, dangerous, confusing and exciting time labelled adolescence. And while he’s now better known as one of television’s most prolific and gifted directors (he’s helmed eps of just about every major show on the box, including Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Sons Of Anarchy, Dexter, Riverdale, Beverly Hills 90210, CSI, Law & Order and Twin Peaks, among many, many others), Tim Hunter is also responsible for some of the most epochal teen movies of the 1980s.
The son of McCarthy-era blacklisted screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter and a one-time high school teacher, Tim Hunter made his first mark in the film world when he co-scripted 1979’s Over The Edge with Charlie Haas. Though he wanted to direct, the inexperienced Hunter was passed over for his friend Jonathan Kaplan, who boasted credits like White Line Fever and The Student Teachers. The script was knowing and daring, and Kaplan crafted something truly insightful and frightening with Over The Edge, which tracks a group of bored, frustrated teenagers in a dull planned community in the outer suburbs who eventually tick over into mass violence and rebellion, trashing everything around them and even holding the community’s adults hostage in the film’s shocking climax. Featuring the very auspicious debut of Matt Dillon, Over The Edge is a near dystopian view of adolescence that rates as one of the best (but wholly under-appreciated) in the teen film genre.
Hunter’s impressive script for Over The Edge soon pushed him towards his first directing gig. During his research for Over The Edge (which involved talking to a lot of teenagers), Hunter got the inside track on what America’s kids might like to see in the cinema. “We discovered that the only writer that any of these kids read was S.E. Hinton, the author of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, so I wrote to her publishers to hear whether she had anything else in the pipeline,” Hunter told 16:9 in 2018. “And the timing was good. Her fourth novel, Tex, was just about to be published, and they sent it to me, and I thought that this would make a lovely movie. So basically I was able to parlay our writing credit on Over The Edge, Matt Dillon and the book into a deal to write and direct Tex at Disney in the early 1980s, and that’s how my directing career got started. We did an adaptation of Tex, S.E. Hinton became a really close friend, Matt became a movie star, and I went on to my long, if chequered, career.”
Though Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptations of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish might be more well-known, Hunter’s take on Tex is just as good. Wonderfully loose-limbed and charming, Matt Dillon is fantastic as the title character, a good natured but troubled teen being raised by his harried older brother (Jim Metzler) after the death of their parents. Co-starring other fresh young talents in Emilio Estevez and Meg Tilly, Tex is warm and truthful, and really showcased Hunter’s considerable understanding and sympathy for his youthful characters. While Tex was a more gritty and mature effort for Disney, Hunter’s next effort, 1985’s Sylvester, would have felt right at home at The Mouse House. A highly effective a-girl-and-her-horse tale starring Melissa Gilbert (Little House On The Prairie) as a sixteen-year-old orphan raising her two younger brothers while also training the eponymous horse to become a champion, Sylvester again proved Hunter’s affinity for his on-screen kids.
While Tex and Sylvester were more quiet, thoughtful teen flicks, Hunter’s next effort returned to the flagrant danger of Over The Edge. Tough, strange, disturbing and blackly funny, 1986’s River’s Edge features an incredible young cast (Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Roxanna Zal, Daniel Roebuck, Joshua John Miller and a mind-boggling Crispin Glover), and tells the grim tale of a group of teens who realise that one of their own has killed his girlfriend. They then do, well, pretty much nothing. A bruising, battering story of teen ennui based on a true story, River’s Edge (which also features a deranged Dennis Hopper in a supporting role) is a truly shocking look at teenagers and a frightening depiction of small-town America. “In River’s Edge, you have a bunch of disenfranchised kids who simply don’t have the cultural tools and whom society hasn’t given the education or the means to deal with the extremity of the situation that they’re in,” Hunter explained of the film in 2018 to No Film School. A truly vital (but now largely forgotten) teen film, River’s Edge would unfortunately be Tim Hunter’s last great work for the big screen.
In amongst the low budget exploitation flicks and thrillers (2004’s Control, with Willem Dafoe and Ray Liotta; the 2006 western The Far Side Of Jericho; 2018’s Looking Glass, starring Nicolas Cage and Robin Tunney; 2020’s horror flick, Smiley Face Killers) and television films, however, there are a few striking works: 1993’s The Saint Of Fort Washington (starring Matt Dillon and Danny Glover) is a moving look at homelessness; 1997’s The Maker (with Matthew Modine, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Mary-Louise Parker) tackles family dysfunction and youth crime; and 2003’s The Failures mixed teen suicide and an unlikely romance. Even though he’s now very, very, very far from being a teenager himself, Tim Hunter fascinatingly still does his best work on the big screen when he’s telling stories about youth and adolescence. Though never widely acclaimed for it, he’s a true master of the teen film, and is never afraid to push it much further than most directors who work in the genre. “Well, I’m glad that I was able to mess up your childhood,” he tellingly replied when interviewing journalist Heather Wixson informed him of the deleterious effect that River’s Edge had on her adolescence. The years betweeen twelve and twenty can be dark and strange, and Tim Hunter has never been afraid to go down the rabbit hole into the world of teenagers.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.