The movie opens with Jim Stark (James Dean) being hauled into the police station for public drunkenness. A girl his age named Judy (Natalie Wood) is also there because she was wandering the streets by herself late at night. She tells a detective that she ran out of her house after her father called her a dirty tramp and rubbed all the lipstick off her face; "I thought he was gonna rub off my lips," she sobs. Judy reluctantly agrees to let the police call her parents and have her dad pick her up.
Out in the lobby, Jim offers his jacket to a shivering younger boy named John (Sal Mineo), better known as Plato. Plato declines. Judy becomes angry and upset when she learns her mother will be coming to pick her up. It doesn't make a lot sense because it's apparent that she hates her father. When Jim's parents and grandmother arrive, they aren't pleased about being called away from celebrating Easter at the country club.
Plato is brought into a room with another detective, accompanied by his family's black housekeeper. We learn that he's in trouble for shooting a litter of puppies with a gun he stole from his mother. Plato doesn't seem to have an explanation as to what made him kill the dogs. Throw in fire starting and bed-wetting and he'll hit the sociopathy trifecta. The housekeeper tells the police that Plato's parents are divorced and his mother is off visiting relatives in Chicago by herself. Not only is she skipping Easter with her only child, she's also blowing off his birthday.
Back with the Starks, we find out that they've just moved to town. Mr. Stark sees nothing wrong with his son getting drunk, "boys will be boys" and all that. Mrs. Stark disagrees. The ensuing bickering causes James Dean to scream what is arguably his most famous line: "You're tearing me apart!" The cop tries to befriend Jim and says he can come to the station and talk to him anytime he wants to get something off his chest.
On his way to school the next day, Jim bumps into Judy, who turns out to be one of his new neighbors. She gets into her boyfriend's overfilled car. When Jim pulls up to ask how to get to school, the kids in the car purposely shout wrong, confusing directions. Jim makes friends with Plato during a field trip to the planetarium. The same afternoon, he catches Judy's boyfriend Buzz slashing his tires. Buzz challenges Jim to a game of chicken. It goes wrong, leading to Buzz's death. Jim is horrified and wracked with guilt. He tells his parents about the accident and that he wants to go turn himself in to the police; they object. Jim runs away. He, Plato, and Judy decide to hide out in an abandoned mansion on the outskirts of town.
The movie is obviously a product of another time; at one point, Jim wishes his father would knock his mother out "just once, so she'd stop picking on him." Judy gets slapped by her father for kissing him on the cheek; he deems her too old for that because she's 16. Jim's mother doesn't cook unless she's wearing a frilly apron. And then of course there's the drag racing.
Rebel Without a Cause has undoubtedly influenced pop culture during the 60 years since its release. Given the many plot similarities, I feel safe in saying that it may well have inspired S.E. Hinton to write her teen masterpiece The Outsiders in the early 1960's. Rebellious characters/antiheroes have remained big draws for audiences: Jax Teller, Travis Bickle, Ferris Bueller, Jack Sparrow, Dean Winchester, and Luke Jackson to name just a few. The performances are solid. James Dean in this role is handsome, brooding, and charismatic; it truly is a pity he had his own tragic car accident before he had the chance to grow more as an actor. Sal Mineo played to perfection the shy kid who hero-worships his best friend Jim. Natalie Wood was strong as the female lead and had good chemistry with James. It really is an American classic.