Early in the movie, as Mr. and Mrs. Kub prepare to leave town for the weekend, they talk.
Mom: "I'm just worried."
Dad: "About what?"
Mom: "I don't know. Thomas, leaving him alone all weekend."
Dad: "Oh. Please. Come on. Honey, he's 17 years old."
Mom: "That's what I'm worried about."
In his parents' absence, the sweetheart Thomas Kub allows his pals, the obnoxious Costa and the nerd-supreme J.B., to send out a call for a pool party at his house.
Then, stuff happens. It involves alcohol, Ecstasy, nudity, sex, roof-jumping, a dwarf in the oven and a Mercedes-Benz in the pool, a tasered neighbor, arson-by-flamethrower, a news helicopter overhead, and a SWAT team breaking up a party the size of a small town.
After the riot, just before dawn, Thomas has his parents on speakerphone for the conversation no 17-year-old wants to have.
"Mom, Dad, it's me, Thomas. Um, where do I start? This is supposed to be a small get-together. I wanted to be cool for one night. You know, I wanted girls to notice me. Then things got a little out of control."
This is all from "Project X." It's a comedy, so to speak. It's "Risky Business" meets "Jackass," only more loathsome. By accident of remote control, it showed up on my television the other night. For an hour, I watched teenagers being stupid. One using a cellphone made a video of the party. She said, "I'm going to post this on YouTube."
The line reminded me of Steubenville.
Steubenville's steel mill is a shadow of what it was. Its coal mines are going empty. Downtown is a ghost town waiting to happen. It's a rusted-out place where nothing is bigger than the high school's legendary football program and no one's much bigger than the kids about to be the Big Red's quarterback and his favorite receiver.
Those kids, the would-be quarterback and his receiver, are 17 and 16 years old. They're now in juvenile jail. They may be out in a year, if all goes well, or they may be in until they're 21. They did stupid things -- wait, not stupid, not Jackass-worthy, they did heinous things -- and somebody with a cell phone made a video and posted it on YouTube and everyone texted and tweeted and soon enough, sure enough, here came the police.
The movie reminded me of Steubenville but not only of Steubenville. It reminded me of teenagers everywhere behaving badly. It reminded me of a friend. Her son, 15 years old, an athlete, a good kid, opened the door one evening and saw a police officer on his porch. For three months, the boy had been part of a crew of thieves. They didn't break into cars. They walked through town and if they saw a car unlocked, they opened the door. It's called "car-hopping." They stole GPS devices, cameras, CDs, binoculars, and, in one case, a loaded handgun.
It also reminded me of me. We were in an Oldsmobile 88 on Route 66. We got that old boat flying. The speedometer needle quivered past 100. At that speed, a guy reaching to turn up the radio can tilt the wheel enough to catch a road edge. Anything can happen when you're selectively stupid, much of it terminally bad.
In a National Geographic piece trying to explain why kids do what kids do, David Dobbs wrote, "Through the ages, most answers have cited dark forces that uniquely affect the teen. Aristotle concluded more than 2,300 years ago that 'the young are heated by Nature as drunken men by wine.' A shepherd in William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale wishes 'there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.'"
Even late in the 20th century, scientists shared Aristotle's exasperation. But now, thanks to new brain-imaging technology, psychologists are smarter. I spoke about the teenage brain with Daniel J. Flannery, a Ph. D., a psychologist, and professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He has observed the Steubenville case with a clinician's interest and more; his family has strong connections in basketball and football.
Flannery believes the problem with kids is that they are, literally, kids. "To be overly simplistic, our brains are not fully developed until the mid-20s. Also, the brain develops from the inside out, meaning the last part developed is the area that handles things like impulse control, decision-making, emotions. So the teenager is not set up to make good decisions."
What happened in Steubenville became national news not because of the crimes; they're depressingly commonplace, with one report saying that about one in four girls will be sexually assaulted before age 18. But when it's a football town and the criminals are football players, the narrative inevitably makes a connection suggesting that the football program is to blame, if not directly then certainly as an enabler. Dr. Flannery is hesitant to go there.
"I'm not so sure I'd pin it on that," he said. "There may be a little bit of a sense of entitlement. There's all that attention, adulation, expectations. … But it could have happened in any setting. You have alcohol, drugs, 15- and 16-year-old kids having parties …"
Besides, teenagers believe they are invincible. They may see bad things happen to their contemporaries. "But they pretty much think 'that's not going to happen to me,'" Flannery said. Football becomes part of the story only after the shield of invincibility fails. "Then, maybe, it's 'Coach can get me out of it.'"
The trial of the Steubenville teenagers began on March 14.
Four days earlier, six other Ohio teenagers were in the news.
In Warren, another old steel-mill town 75 five miles due north of Steubenville, those six teenagers died in another of the car wrecks that seem to take kids four, five, six at a time, in Texas, in Indiana, in California, everywhere kids drive. These were six of eight riding in an SUV built for five. None wore a seat belt. The driver had no license. The car may have been stolen. Two kids had lied to their parents about where they were the night before. One witness said the driver, a young woman, 19, was "driving crazy." At maybe 80 miles per hour on a twisting two-lane road at a spot known locally as "Dead Man's Curve," she lost control, hit a guard rail, and flipped the vehicle into a pond.
"They were just kids out having fun," the mother of one victim said. "It's what we did when we were growing up, too."
Could have been me in that Olds 88.
Flannery again: "Kids don't realize that one bad decision can have long-term consequences."
Mr. Kub put it more colloquially. Near the end of "Project X," the father comes home to the disaster area created by his son's party.
Dad: "I just didn't think you had it in you."
Thomas: "I know. Sorry I let you down."
Dad: " No, I literally didn't think you had this in you. So, uh, how many people were here?"
Thomas: " Uh, fifteen hundred. Couple thousand, maybe."
Thomas: "You should have seen it. It was awesome."
Dad: "Well, you're still ****ed, Thomas."