The 1950s present a very unique crossroads in the American perception of youth. The whole conception of teen-agers and adolescents as their own distinctive demographic was still fairly fresh (a product of the post-World War II era), a tension highlighted by the shifting culture of film and art during that time. The classical era of Hollywood was starting to fade away and grittier, arguably more realistic film was moving in.
It is hard to imagine films like Picnic and Rebel Without a Cause being about the same species, let alone the same demographic and being released in the very same year. Rebel kicked off the new wave of adolescence in film as a tortured, disturbed perspective on American life, while Picnic was with the older school of thought, of classical beauty and imagery.
While more romantic (and hopelessly idealistic), Picnic is just that: an absolutely beautiful movie. Much like East of Eden (another small-town, youth epic from 1955), Picnic is the story of a young hero trying to win over the girl and the approval of his fellow countrymen. Like most classical teen films, there is plenty of melodrama, but the film is shot in an almost transcendental manner. We are given sweeping shots of the young couple, silhouetted against the Kansas City twilight sky. They could be anybody, anywhere, at any time.
Picnic seems less concerned with the action of its primary characters than it is to raise fundamental questions. (Honestly, not that much happens in this movie.) Instead, it provokes questions of fate, how much control we have in our own lives, and lost opportunities. In one of the more tragic storylines, one couple puts off pursuing marriage for years and years, only to eventually follow through but for the wrong reasons. At what point do our dreams become facades? How much can (or should) we change for the people we love?
For any classical Hollywood film (let alone a youth-oriented one), these are very heavy questions to ask. Particularly in the post-war era, this film reflects the growing cynicism and sense of regret that became later associated with counterculture and other reactive youth culture (like Rebel).
In addition to a solid story, the film also gives us a wonderful ensemble cast, led by the miscast (but still fantastic, as always) William Holden and the stunning Kim Novak in a spellbinding love story. This is a very important, and often forgotten, epic youth film ripe with nostalgia and passion.