Nancy Fallon (Ginger Rogers) is a wife and mother living a comfortable life in California, but she’s also a woman with a past. Nancy’s husband is actually her second, and the first, Eric McGowan (John Stephenson), won custody of their daughter Dodie, keeping her away from Nancy for nearly ten years.
Now fifteen years old, Dodie (Betty Lou Keim) is finally going to visit her mother, spending three weeks in California with Nancy, her husband Jay (Michael Rennie), and her seven-year-old son Larry (Rusty Swope).
Dodie is reluctant to visit her estranged mother, though Nancy couldn’t be more excited to reconnect with her daughter. Meanwhile, Eric just wants to send Dodie away so he can secretly marry his girlfriend, and insists that she stay in California when she calls him shortly after her arrival at the Fallon home.
Will Dodie and Nancy reconcile their strained relationship, and will Dodie discover the truth about her father’s plans? Teenage Rebel tells the tale, with director Edmund Goulding at the helm.
This film may be called Teenage Rebel, but there isn’t much rebellion going on here. Dodie goes to a car race and forms a little romance with the neighbor boy, but that’s about the extent of her “rebellion.” When she gets angry, rather than acting out she simply asks to be sent home to the East coast. The focus is on the relationship between mother and daughter rather than on teen delinquency.
Naturally, there’s a lot of tension between Dodie and her mother. Dodie assumes she’s unwanted in her mother’s home, and isolates herself as a form of self-preservation, which is sad to see. Nancy wants nothing more than to build a relationship with her daughter, but doesn’t want to do so by exposing the truth about Eric’s efforts to keep them apart for so long.
The relationship between Dodie and Nancy does improve over the course of the film. They find ways to connect and relate to each other despite their eight-year separation, and despite the hurdles they face to understand each other. When Dodie first arrives in California, she has a bit of a put-on, stuck-up attitude. As she opens up, it’s clear that this came from a place of discomfort rather than a true disdain for the Fallons.
Teenage Rebel is especially worth watching for fans of Ginger Rogers, who gets an interesting role here as a woman who has built a whole new life with her second husband and their young son, but has not forgotten (nor stopped loving) the daughter her first husband took from her. She sparks the film’s commentary on the misguided nature of discrimination against women like Nancy in the mid-century. Custody of Dodie was awarded to her father because her mother had an affair and wanted to re-marry… but Dodie’s father proved to be a detached and uninvolved parent, sending her off to boarding school at the soonest opportunity, while Nancy truly loved her daughter. Was it really best for Dodie to grow up with her father just because her mother chose to end a loveless marriage? The film’s answer to that question is a resounding “Heck no!”
While not a remarkable film, Teenage Rebel offers a not-often-portrayed side of family life, offering some interesting character dynamics and social commentary. The score: 3/5