Ethics & Public Policy Center

Disturbing Behavior

Published in EPPC Online on August 1, 1998



The movies have in the past found it profitable to cater for almost every kind of paranoia there is. The California fantasy factories must be getting a lot of business out of even the survivalist types—who, you would think, must live many miles from the nearest Multiplex—since they managed to get some black helicopters into The X-Files this summer. It is odd then, in view of the generally adolescent-orientation of the industry, that kid paranoia has been largely confined to horror movies. Disturbing Behavior, directed by David Nutter to a screenplay by Scott Rosenberg means to do something about this state of affairs.

The film stars James Marsden as Steve Clark, a new boy at Cradle Bay High School in Cradle Bay, Washington. He comes from Chicago with his family and the usual sort of movie baggage: a brother, Alan, who committed suicide, a death which serves no other purpose in the movie but to make him the romantic hero’s secret sorrow. He finds what appears to be the usual assortment of cliques at CBHS. As a new friend, Gavin (Nick Stahl) explains to him on the first day, there are the Motorheads, the Info-Geeks, the Skaters—and then there are the Blue Ribbons, the straight-arrow kids who wear letter sweaters and hang out at the “Yogurt Shoppe” and listen to Olivia Newton-John and Wayne Newton.

Wayne Newton? Isn’t that pitching it just a bit strong? The idea behind the movie is that the Blue Ribbons, the good children and straight-arrows of Cradle Bay, are actual living robots, programmed by a sinister “guidance counselor” called Edgar Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood) who is actually a neuropharmacologist and so a practitioner, as Steve instantly realizes, of “mind control.” This is to teen culture what The Stepford Wives was to feminists: an acting out of a paranoid nightmare in which traditional forms of socialization are actually the result of some sinister plot by those—husbands, parents, teachers—whose real motive is to enslave you.

The robots are unintentionally funny creatures who get a weird orange light in their eyes and become violent when they are sexually aroused. “I need my fluids,” says one of them robotically as he is engaged in a makeout session with a girl in the opening scene of the film. The girl becomes sexually aggressive (why did I never meet that kind of girl in high school?) and he kills her. Later on, the prettiest of the Blue Ribbon girls, Lorna (Crystal Cass), attempts to seduce Steve and, when she is rebuffed begins her own robotic chant: “It’s wrong, bad, bad, wrong” and then attacks herself with shards of broken glass.

The idea, I suppose, is that they are really afraid of sex and sublimate the urge, which leads to aggression. This may be the only psychological theory about sex that Hollywood is capable of understanding, but it certainly does believe in it with a passion. Of course the good guys—Gavin and his albino friend U.V. and the pretty girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Rachel (Katie Holmes) are druggie slackers. Gavin and Steve spy on a meeting of the Blue Ribbon society at which Gavin’s parents appear to invite Dr. Caldicott to give Gavin the treatment—because he “spends too much time listening to rock music and masturbating.” Gavin is horrified. “I’m a dead man; my parents sold me out.” The next day he appears in a letter-sweater and a neat haircut and tells Steve that he wants to apply himself.

The horror! The horror!

The only sympathetic adult is the janitor, Mr Newberry (William Sadler) who pretends to be retarded but who really reads Kurt Vonnegut (where’s the contradiction? you may ask) He conducts experiments by which he discovers that a machine which emits a high pitch sound meant to drive rats away does not work on the rats but does work on the blue ribbons. When Steve is turned over by his parents (“We just want what’s best for you,” they say) to the doctor for him to do his worst upon we are left to wonder how he is to escape zombification, or if Mr Newberry will manage, Pied Piper like, to rid the town of blue ribbon rats with his wonderful machine and his Pink Floyd war cry: “Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!”

Let’s hear it for mental retardation! After all, without it people wouldn’t go to movies like this one.

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