Rebel Without A Cause stars Dean as Jim Stark, a young man who seems to get into endless amounts of trouble for no particular reason. His parents move him from town to town every time Jim gets into trouble with the police, and have landed in Los Angeles (though its never actually called Los Angeles). On his first day of school, he meets Judy (played by Natalie Wood), a young girl who is desperate for love and acceptance, and Plato (Sal Mineo), a young man with a troubled psyche. Judy's boyfriend, Buzz, doesn't approve of Jim, or his flirtations with Judy, and after a fight on a planetarium field trip (starring the gorgeous Griffith Observatory in L.A.), Buzz challenges Jim to a "chickie run", in which two people race stolen cars towards a cliff, and whoever jumps out of their car first, is the chicken. When it all goes down, Jim bails, but Buzz gets caught in his car, and plummets off of the cliff. This opens up a world of hurt for Jim, Judy, and Plato, with both the police, and Buzz's friends, who are now out to kill Jim.
Rebel is an amazing portrait of the boredom of post-war youth. There's nothing wrong with Jim's life, but he has nothing to strive for, no war to be won, no battles to be fought - except to prove that he's not chicken. Judy plays a spot on model of the kind of truth that psychologists were just realizing in the 50's - that young girls crave the acceptance of their fathers, and often times seek that acceptance in other men when they can't get it from their dad's. The character of Plato is interesting because he is constantly re-inventing his world through lie's to gain Jim and, eventually, Judy's acceptance.
Rebel Without A Cause holds, within it, the great mystery of the American teenage psyche. After having watched it, I am thoroughly convinced that, if psychologists could decode Jim's habits, thoughts and feelings, they could figure out a way to bring peace to one of, if not the most, turbulent time in a person's life - the teen years.