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  • Alternate Character Interpretation:
    • Given the below trope, it's possible that Judy has gone into shock after Buzz's sudden death and her Anguished Declaration of Love (as well as a couple of other bits of odd behaviour) are all side effects of that.
    • Plato's fascination with Jim. There's a lot of Ho Yay involved, so many fans take him to be Ambiguously Gay, as did Sal Mineo himself. The way he talks to Judy about him sounds like one would talk about someone they were in love with. But then again, a major part of his angst comes from not having a father - and in their interactions in the 'castle', Judy and Jim act as surrogate parents to him. With the noticeable age difference between them, other fans have seen his interest as entirely platonic (and that's in his chosen nickname), viewing him as just a teen who wants a father figure. Of course there's no reason it couldn't be both too.
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  • Angst? What Angst?: Judy takes her boyfriend's death pretty easily. She's shown trying to hold it together when she comes home late, but it's practically forgotten the next time we see her.
  • Award Snub: Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo were both nominated for Supporting Actor roles, but James Dean wasn't nominated for his performance as Jim (because he was being nominated for his role in Cal Trask in East of Eden).
  • Ensemble Darkhorse: Jim and Judy are the first ranking protagonists, but a lot of viewers feel that Plato is the true protagonist of the story. Even Nicholas Ray agreed.
    • Ray Fremick the police officer is a fan favorite for being one of the most responsible adult figures in the film, and giving a sympathetic eye to the three troubled protagonists.
  • Fair for Its Day: Plato's black housekeeper subverts some of the Mammy stereotypes by being well-spoken, caring and probably the least flawed parental figure in the story.
  • Foe Yay: The legendary exchange between Buzz and Jim:
    Buzz: I like you.
    Jim: Then why are we doing this?
    Buzz: You've got to do something.
  • Harsher in Hindsight:
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    • Sal Mineo was later murdered and James Dean died in a car accident. The latter was part of the experience from the very beginning, as it happened shortly before the film was released.
    • Additionally, Natalie Wood's death also qualifies as later reports implying Wood may have met with foul play led to the reopening of the investigation of her death.
    • Jim's dad tells him it'll all make sense when he's older. Dean was dead before the movie was released.
    • The third act of the film is driven by a depressed kid running around with a gun. Numerous school shootings in the last few years make this even harsher to watch.
    • When Jim's father comes into his room before the chickie-run, Jim gets out of bed and removes his tee shirt. on the left side of the screen are B&W photos of racing cars, the most prominent being one that looks very much like the 1953 Porsche 550 Spyder that Dean would die in on his way to a racing event he was included in with that car.
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  • Hilarious in Hindsight: One of Jim's big outbursts is "You're tearing me apart!", which brings to mind an infamous Narm-filled line in The Room — "You are tearing me apart, Lisa!" — which is actually a Shout-Out. Tommy Wiseau is a fan of James Dean.
  • Ho Yay Shipping: Jim and Plato. Of course, considering that James Dean was rumoured to be bisexual, director Nicholas Ray was definitely a bisexual and that Sal Mineo was also bisexual, it's more than just subtext.
  • Narm:
    • Despite the quote now being heavily associated with The Room, Jim's cry of "You're tearing me apart!" actually averts this. James Dean being an astronomically better actor than Tommy Wiseau undoubtedly helps.
    • Though there is a straight example with the poor dubbing of Plato's line "I have to go warn him!"
    • In her first scene, there's a ridiculously over-the-top delivery from Judy of "my mother!" when she hears her mother will be picking her up. In-universe she's annoyed that her father isn't paying her attention, but the delivery of the line makes her mother seem like The Dreaded - which from the little we see of her, she clearly isn't.
    • Judy also gets a line that sounds almost like a parody of 50s slang when she first meets Jim — "I bet you're a yoyo". She thankfully gets better as the movie goes on.
  • Retroactive Recognition:
  • "Seinfeld" Is Unfunny:
    • This film made or codified several tropes that went on to be mainstays of the way teen angst would be depicted for the next 50 years. For example, elements of several early episodes of The O.C. are explicitly drawn from parts of this movie. As a result, much of it seems cliché today; when it was released, it shocked audiences.
  • They Wasted a Perfectly Good Character: Judy may be one of the leads but after Buzz's death, she takes an entirely secondary role in the story. She essentially turns into a Satellite Love Interest for Jim, and the issues between her and her family don't get touched on at all.
  • Values Dissonance:
    • At one point Jim realizes he's so screwed up because his dad never beat his mom. Jim thinks his father is weak because he seems to do a lot of the cooking and cleaning in the house, and Jim believes that cleaning up is women's work. Today, any man that doesn't at least clean up after himself is likely to find himself divorced and out on his ass. It doesn't help that Jim tells his dad to not clean up a mess he made and to have the mom clean it instead. Jim's family having the mom be the "leader" of the group is treated as an unambiguously "bad" thing.
    • Plato's Mammy doesn't bat an eyelid at the boy having a gun in the house, or try to confiscate it after he's taken to the police station for shooting puppies.
  • Values Resonance:
    • Somehow the film still remains relevant despite the changes in teenage life and behaviour all these decades. It somehow anticipated issues (such as a troubled teenager from an abusive background using a gun going on a rampage) that still remain relevant to contemporary teenage life.
    • Dangers over teenagers having guns have made this film eerily prophetic of the school shootings that started happening in the early 2000s.
  • "Weird Al" Effect: A good portion of viewers know the "you're tearing me apart!" line from the Shout-Out to it in the Narm-filled scene in The Room.
  • Writer-Induced Fanon: Since this is The '50s, Plato is not specifically identified as gay in the film, but he was intended as such by the director and actors, who confirmed the hints that critics and audiences had picked up since the film's release.
  • The Woobie:
    • The three protagonists to some extent. Jim has a difficult relationship with his parents, especially his father, and just seems so lost. Judy's relationship with her father is strained too, and it's implied that he ignores her a lot. Plato of course is introduced with no friends at all on his birthday, and is so lonely.
    • Jim's father too. He clearly wants to be a good father to his son, but he's ridiculed by his wife for his failures and Jim even seems to feel sorry for him.
    • Plato's housekeeper has to see the boy in her care grow up with no friends or attention from his parents. She seems to care for him and is devastated by his death.

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