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Starring Matt Dillon, Jim Metzler, Meg Tilly and Emilio Estevez
Coming-of-age adventure about two teenage brothers and their struggles to grow up, on their own, after their mother dies and their father leaves them.
In my review of Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of the S.E. Hinton teen novel Rumble Fish (written five years ago when the Special Edition DVD was released), I mentioned my affinity for her classic debut novel The Outsiders. I was absolutely in love and obsessed with that book when I was 14, and was overjoyed a few months later when I had begun high school and my first assignment in English class was to do a report on a novel of our choosing from the selection of books in the class repertoire, so I found and chose Hinton’s second last teen novel Tex.
The summary sounded appealing, similar to The Outsiders, and I just dove right in. Much to my surprise, my enthusiasm would wane as I was just not engaged by the book. After reaching the thirty-page mark, I decided I could not proceed and would choose another book to do the report on. I was quite disappointed to say the least. I was expecting the same revelatory experience I had with The Outsiders and instead was bored and underwhelmed.
Having since reread The Outsiders, and also reading Rumble Fish and Outsiders follow-up That Was Then, This Is Now, in addition to my less than memorable experience with Tex, I’ve come to the conclusion that Hinton, like Mary Shelley, Joseph Conrad, J.D. Salinger and Ken Kesey, is an author who only had one great book in her, and everything else she did was pale by comparison. I personally find her post Outsiders teen novels to be bland and self-conscious, lacking the verve, heart and beauty that wonderful book had. Hinton has said that the tremendous success of The Outsiders was overwhelming and led to three years of writer’s block. I think that the scar left by being suddenly thrust into the spotlight was something Hinton never recovered from, which is why her subsequent work declined in quality.
It has now been twenty years since my abortive attempt at reading Tex. I did briefly consider giving the book another try before watching the film version. However, despite the considerable passage of time and growing out of adolescence into adulthood, I have a staunch attitude and approach when it comes to books I don’t finish. If I’m not engaged and enthralled, I don’t make any attempt to revisit the book, and twenty years has done almost nothing to make me change my mind.
Tex, the film, was the first of four screen adaptations of S.E. Hinton teen novels, with it being made via Disney. It was also the first of three appearances in these movies by Matt Dillon, who would go on to appear in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, and Emilio Estevez, who would also appear in The Outsiders, as well as starring in and writing the screenplay for That Was Then, This Is Now. By critical consensus, Tex is the best of all four films, with The Outsiders placing second. Unfortunately for me after watching the movie, the déjà vu of what I felt reading the novel twenty years back had returned.
Tex is a character study of two teenage brothers in Bixby, Oklahoma (a suburb of Tulsa, S.E. Hinton’s hometown), the 15-year-old title character (Dillon) and his 18-year-old brother Mason (Jim Metzler). Their mother has passed on and their father is barely present, being away majority of the time on rodeo tours and frequently forgetting to send money, leaving the boys to live in penury and fend for themselves. Tex and Mason are in such dire straits that Mason has to sell their horses, enraging Tex and beginning a tumultuous period that results in a coming of age for the siblings, especially Tex.
Meandering character studies where story and plot are secondary is a style I have a personal affection and passion for, but in order to be successful within that style, the piece has to be compelling, which Tex the novel and film are not. The characters are thin and shallow, and the movie is too understated and low-key for its own good, causing one’s attention to drift, as mine did. There’s just an almost complete lack of energy and heart. Tex meanders monotonously for the first half and does pick up the pace a little in second, however, it does so with twists that are heavy-handed and hokey, culminating in an ending that’s abrupt and feels tacked on.
Basically, Tex is a second-rate rehash of The Outsiders, recycling many elements of that novel: the just barely into his teens working class protagonist who’s absolutely mixed up about who he is and the world around him, his parents are deceased or absent, is constantly at odds with his older sibling who is raising him yet doesn’t understand him, who feels more comfortable in the company of friends that are like a surrogate family and unintentionally gets involved in a criminal act that will have a profound effect on his life. Tex’s best friend even shares the name of the best friend in The Outsiders, Johnny (Estevez), whose sister, Jamie (Meg Tilly), Tex has a budding romance with, which unfolds in a naturalistic and believable way, but like the majority of the movie, is also uncompelling.
Overall, Tex comes off as a feature-length early eighties after school special. On the plus side, the film does manage to, for the most part, not fall into the stylistic clichés of the teen movie genre with its simplistic, unpretentious and somewhat gritty approach, managing to dodge the obligatory sentimentality and cliché love story found in most teen movies. The dialogue, though devoid of saltiness, as this was made by Disney, does have an air of realism to it, avoiding pretentious hip teen speak.
Theatrical feature teen movies are something Disney doesn’t do often, and when they do, they’re glitzy and lightweight affairs that have much to be desired in quality. But Tex, though not successful in what it was trying to achieve, is an interesting alternative to the Disney teen movie cannon, although the, very wisely, sparsely used and saccharine musical score doesn’t let you forget that this is a Disney movie.
It’s rather odd that screenwriters Charlie Haas and Tim Hunter, making his directorial debut, chose to do this film for Disney, as their previous collaboration was an intensely gritty, edgy and disturbing independent film about juvenile delinquency called Over the Edge (1979), which was Matt Dillon’s debut. Had Tex not been produced under the auspices of Disney, it may have been more in the vein of that film and had the juice it sorely needed.
While Tex, in both its incarnations, may not have resonated with me and is not, in my opinion, the best of the S.E. Hinton film adaptations, I do applaud it for eschewing teen movie trappings in a decade where that genre was all about style over content (only eighties teen movie icon John Hughes managing on occasion to strike an equal balance) and trying to set itself apart.