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When Matt Dillon Was an Adorable Oklahoma Cowboy

I'll be blunt: when I was twelve, I was obsessed with '80s-era Matt Dillon. My bedroom wall was plastered in taped-up pictures of his face, DIY posters printed off of my parents' computer. While other girls my age were going gaga over Zac Efron — I'm Gen Z— young Dillon had everything for me: the sly attitude, the leather jacket, the sexy snarl. I'm speaking mainly of his breakout role in Francis Ford Coppola's The Outsiders which premiered in 1983. Dillon played Dallas Winston, the bad boy greaser. It's still one of his most iconic parts.

But Dillon exhibits a softer, sweeter side in a forgotten film from one year prior: Tex. And in fact, this sweet coming-of-age story was based on a book by the same prolific author who penned The Outsiders: S.E. Hinton.

The Work of S.E. Hinton

After watching The Outsiders, I read the book and quickly fell in love with Hinton's extended body of work. She wrote The Outsiders when she was just 16 years old, and the rest of her books demonstrate obvious technical growth. A few of them are also noticeably pastoral: surprising for an author so closely associated with capturing urban street life. While The Outsiders, its spiritual sequel That Was Then... This Is Now, and Rumblefish all take place on the rough side of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Hinton's books Tex and Taming the Star Runner demonstrate a lovely appreciation for the ranch life that exists all around the big city.

Tex, published in 1979, was the first of Hinton's novels to be adapted for the big screen. The film was directed by Tim Hunter and released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1982. One year before The Outsiders. Hunter, having directed Dillon's wild film debut Over the Edge in 1979, knew exactly who to cast. Tex stars the up-and-coming Dillon as Tex McCormick, an easy-going teen who loves to ride horses.

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Based on the novel by Hinton, Hunter's picture is a faithful adaption. The story follows a season in the life of 15-year-old Tex who lives alone in a rural suburb of Tulsa with his older brother Mason (Jim Metzler). The boys' mother is dead and their absentee father (Bill McKinney) travels on the road as a rodeo clown. But Tex is happy enough. The opening scene shows Tex riding around their sprawling property on his horse Rowdy. From the brief moments shared on-screen, Tex's love for Rowdy is pure and unmatched. He makes earnest conversation with the horse and his gentle gestures prove, naturally, that Rowdy is more than just Tex's pet. He's his friend. Dillon, in all his casual teenage wonder, portrays their unique relationship effortlessly.

When Mason sells the horse to pay the bills — just 10 minutes into the film — Tex's heart is broken. What follows is a complex adolescent journey, populated by pretty girls, fortune tellers, hangovers, hitchhikers, and dirt bikes. Although it's the sale of Rowdy which precipitates this ongoing teenage crisis, the story is not really about that. Tex is a true cowboy, we understand. And what's a cowboy without a horse? That's what Tex asks, through an appropriately naive POV. Though melodramatic in moments, Tex is true-to-life. The character's angst is palpable and moving considering Tex's open-faced kindness. Dillon plays the flannel-fitted boy with a true guileless charm that feels rare, almost miraculous, considering the actor's rugged career.

But Dillon is not the only big name in Tex. Emilio Estevez (another Hinton favorite) co-stars as Tex's best friend Johnny Collins alongside Meg Tilly as Jamie Collins', Johnny's sister and Tex's flirty love interest. Frances Lee McCain, Ben Johnson, Phil Brock, Tom Virtue, Bob Collins, Jack Thibeau, and Zeljko Ivanek also appear in passing roles.

"There is a shock of recognition almost from the beginning of Tex, because we're listening to the sound of American voices in an authentically American world, the world of teenage boys trying to figure things out and make the right decisions... Here in Tex are the clear voices of two young men who are worthy of attention." — Roger Ebert

Although Tex was not immensely popular — it netted $2.4 million at the box office — the glimpse into Oklahoma teenage life was celebrated by critics. For his part as Mason, Metzler was a 1983 Golden Globe nominee. Writing for the New York Times, Janet Maslin called Tex "an utterly disarming, believable portrait of a small-town adolescent." And Roger Ebert, in his infinite cinema wisdom, rated Tex 4 out of 4 stars. I couldn't agree more. Rent Tex today on Amazon for $3.99!

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