Plot: The only one of the popular S.E. Hinton books to be filmed by Disney, this is a bit glossier than the two directed by Francis Ford Coppola (“The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish”), but still a very frank and gritty story about two brothers who have to take care of themselves and each other while their father is on the road. Mason (Jim Metzler) is a senior, a basketball star, dedicated and responsible. Tex (Matt Dillon) is fifteen, unsure of himself, not yet ready to focus on the problems they face. His horse, Rowdy, is the center of his world. As the movie begins, they are out of money, out of food, and the gas has been turned off. It has been four months since they heard from their father, who is traveling with the rodeo. Mason sells their horses to get money for food. Tex is furious, throws things, and wrestles angrily with his brother.
Tex comes home drunk after a party with friends. The next day, his friend’s harsh father, Cole (Ben Johnson), blames Tex, and threatens to call the juvenile authorities to make sure that Mason and Tex have some supervision. Mason tells Tex, “You want to stay off some youth farm somewhere? Start thinking ahead five minutes at a time now and then.”
Mason is under so much pressure that he develops an ulcer. They pick up a hitchhiker on the way back from the hospital, and he turns out to be an escaped prisoner. He points a gun at them and tells them to drive him to the state line. Tex swerves into a ditch, and the hitchhiker is shot by the police.
Pop returns and promises he will stay. He tries to buy Rowdy back, but the people do not want to sell. Tex is angry and bitter. When Mason’s application form for Indiana University arrives, Tex takes it.
Mason is injured in a game. Tex is suspended from school for a prank and overhears Mason say that Pop is not his biological father. Hurt and angry, he gets in the car with a small-time drug dealer friend, on his way to explain a “mix-up” to some tough characters. Tex goes along and gets shot. At the hospital, he fills out Mason’s application, and Mason is accepted. Tex urges Mason to go, knowing that it is best for Mason, and that he can take care of himself.
Discussion: Tex has tougher problems than most kids, but his impulsive approach to dealing with them will seem familiar to many viewers. He knows they have no money to feed the horses, much less themselves, and yet is angry when Mason sells them. When he is angry and hurt, he makes a foolish decision to get in the middle of a fight over a drug deal, saying, “If there is any hassle, they’ll be sorry, because I really feel like making somebody sorry,” one of many incidents of displacement. All around Tex and Mason are the consequences of bad choices — Pop’s, in going to prison and neglecting his sons; Cole’s in being too strict with his children; their own, in picking up the hitchhiker; Lem’s in dealing in drugs to make money; and Lem’s and his girlfriend’s in getting pregnant.
The issue of responsibility is also an important one here. Mason takes on the responsibility of the household, putting enormous pressure on himself. But in “over-parenting,” he keeps too much from Tex, and it is only when Tex has to take some responsibility himself that he can begin to think of other people.Sexual involvement by teenagers is an issue as well. Mason’s advice to Tex (that a boy should keep going until the girl tells him to stop) is worth discussing with both boys and girls. So is Jamie’s ability to make it very clear to Tex that she is not ready to have sex with him.
It is also worth discussing the principal’s comment to Tex: “I hope there’s something you take seriously, because it’s the only thing that’ll save you.”
Questions for Kids:
· Cole and Pop have opposite reactions to the trouble Johnny and Tex get into. Is one more effective? How would you respond?
· Why didn’t Mason apologize for selling the horses?
· Why did Tex take over when Johnny didn’t jump his motorbike over the creek?
· Pop tells Mason to go ahead and explode and clear the air. What do you think about this approach to communication?
· Why did Johnny say it was all right for him to criticize his father, but he didn’t want Tex to do it?
Connections: Matt Dillon also appears in “My Bodyguard.” Older teens will appreciate Francis Ford Coppola’s versions of “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish,” both of which feature a number of future stars.
Activities: Read the novels of S.E. Hinton (who has a brief appearance in this movie as Mrs. Barnes).