June 01, 1987 12:00 PM

The best and boldest American movie so far this year hardly qualifies as escapist entertainment. Loosely based on several recent teen-kills-teen cases, the script, by newcomer Neal Jimenez, bravely takes on a knotty theme: numbness of feeling. The film begins with a distant shot of a teenage boy (Daniel Roebuck) sitting calmly on a California river bank. As the camera moves closer we see the nude body of a girl beside him. Strangulation marks discolor her throat. The boy’s expression is blank. Later he tells his friends what he has done. They follow him to the scene, doing little more than peering at the corpse of the girl they once called a friend. The group’s leader, flamboyantly and forcefully played by Crispin Glover (Michael J. Fox’s father as a teen in Back to the Future), urges them to help the boy evade the cops. No one weeps for the dead girl. Her former pal, strongly acted by the lovely lone Skye Leitch (daughter of ’60s folksinger Donovan), wonders why she can’t feel emotion when “I cried when that guy died in Brian’s Song.” Glover seeks advice from the town drug connection, played with customary demented urgency by Dennis (Blue Velvet) Hopper. Living alone—except for a life-size sex doll—Hopper recalls shooting his own girlfriend out of jealousy. “Did you love her?” he asks the teen killer, who answers with chilling apathy, “She was okay.” In the context of the film, Hopper’s crime of passion is more comprehensible than Roebuck’s cold-blooded execution. Much of the picture’s power comes from the way Jimenez and director Tim (Tex) Hunter show how the behavior of peers and parents has helped to suppress the kids’ feelings. One of the group, sharply characterized by Keanu Reeves, has a mother who accuses him of stealing her marijuana. The film’s final scene offers no pat answers, just the sight of a few human beings struggling to find some moral bearings. River’s Edge may often be crude and disorganized, but here at last is a different kind of youth picture: one that matters. (R)

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