The Young Don’t Cry is a surprisingly ahead-of-its-time coming of age film, with a message less of faith in humanity and more of trusting one’s own instincts.
To be honest, I watched this specifically because it stars Sal Mineo, one of my favorite 1950s teen idols. He gives a fantastic performance as a teenaged orphan at an all-boys’ school who befriends a chain gang convict. From the very beginning of the film, we see how his character suppresses himself, forcing himself to speak in a more neutral tone of voice, but when challenged and confronted, he breaks out a sneer and a Brooklyn accent, revealing character attributes beyond those outlined in the script.
The entire movie has this otherworldly weight to it; the audience is asked to suspend its disbelief in a variety of ways, including but not limited to the chain gang that works surprisingly close to the boys’ school, and the middle-aged woman who lives alone in a cabin and offers comfort to the boys who feel lost or forgotten. Logically, much of the film borders on ridiculous, but the sincerity of the performances and the weight of the emotions make us believe what is transpiring.
One of the film’s highlights is a successful alumnus of the school, who comes back to mentor the boys. He turns out to be a greedy asshole, but, as Holden Caulfield might argue, these are the type of people we are supposed to idealize and strive to become. This figure is foiled with that of the prisoner, convicted with manslaughter after getting in a bar fight initiated by his wife being insulted. The moral ambiguity displayed in this Hayes code-era film is engaging and intriguing, particularly for its time.
Mineo’s character, Leslie, is consistently faced with difficult ethical choices and is caught in several crossroads throughout the short duration of this film. While there are no easy solutions, the mother figure in the film reminds him “Bad men make excuses. The good ones don’t have to.” He learns that his intuition and his inherent moral compass will take him further than fulfilling a destiny society decided for him.