Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Film Review: SUBURBIA (1983, Penelope Spheeris)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 94 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Music by Alex Gibson, The Vandals, T.S.O.L., D.I., The Germs. Starring Bill Coyne, Christina Beck, Chris Pederson, Flea, Timothy O'Brien, Wade Walston, Jennifer Clay, Grant Miner, Maggie Ehrig, Donald V. Allen, Lee Frederick, Jeff Prettyman. Directed by Penelope Spheeris (THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PARTS I-III, WAYNE'S WORLD).
Tag-lines: "A New Movie ... About A New Generation."
Best one-liner: "My old man's gonna be back soon, and if we're still here, he's gonna shit Twinkies!"

Now this is the ticket. Low-budge' greatness. Mohawks, graffiti, and roaches in the Rice Crispies.

Primal screams and rebel yells, body-slammin' and bird-flippin'. Tossin' a glass bottle at a bus cause you "got a thing against buses."

I mean, when your movie begins with THIS tableau:

And then you've actually got the balls to follow through on it... then truly the sky's the limit and the world's your filthy oyster.

The fusion of 'suburb' and 'utopia' in 1983 is pretty fuckin' far from what Thomas More had envisioned back in 1516. "Suburbia." It's a world where packs of slavering dogs roam the cul-de-sacs in search of soft flesh, a world of prefabricated homes and streaks of spraypaint, a world of lawn sprinkers and spiteful young pissers, a world of bored children and bored adults.

They're all numb, looking for whatever kicks they can find. Bored kids attend their ramshackle punk shows and engage in petty vandalism; bored yokel adults attend their cheap strip clubs and gun down mangy mutts from their car windows- but keep in mind that only one of these factions claims moral authority. There are children cast from their homes- by circumstance or by choice- who must become brutes to survive, or at least to craft an identity they can live with. They lash out madly at their humdrum tormentors in every way they can- through words, through deeds, through aesthetics– transforming themselves completely into a mockery of the status quo.

They may say that they wished they'd been aborted before they entered this vile world, but now that they're here, they're certainly not going quietly. They've never really had options- "Most of us couldn't afford lunch back in high school." So they embrace humanity's base nature, the refuse that civilization often tries to sweep beneath the carpet, flaunting it in the open, on the normals' well-manicured lawns and in their sterile convenience stores.

They're not just misunderstood, they're actively waging war against a society that's so noxious, so loathsome to them that they must habitually comport themselves with belligerence.

The boiling blood, the childish exuberance, the rage, the mania- it all comes together for them in the music. To them, it is a sort of sacred disconnect wholly at odds with the mainstream culture (and the Muzak which the club's owners occasionally use to drive them out!).

Director Penelope Spheeris captures all of this with shoestring charm and absolute "Hasta luego, shitface!" grittiness. She's no stranger to it, having long been a connoisseur of the Los Angeles music scene and crafting the punk documentary THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION two years prior. With a cast made up of actual street kids and impoverished punks, there is a special quality of sincere, energetic 'bad acting' which I appreciate immensely. One of the standouts is Timothy O'Brien as "Skinner,"

whose Nic-Cage-in-VALLEY-GIRL-style lilt, predilection towards the words "asshole" and "lame," unpredictably violent manner, and loyalty to his friends are extremely charming (sort of the polar opposite of Tim Roth's masterfully despicable skinhead in Alan Clarke's MADE IN BRITAIN).

We've got Casey Royer of D.I. strangling himself with his mic cord in the midst of a rousing rendition of "Richard Hung himself,"

and Flea performing tricks (and even dancing) with his pet rat.

Note the R.C. Cola.

Yeah, there's a lot to like here. And though it is a film which attempts to authentically (to some extent) document a subculture, I have to place it in the same category of staggering, cheap n' gritty outsider masterpieces like STREET TRASH, DEADBEAT AT DAWN, and BASKET CASE. Four and a half stars.

-Sean Gill


Jason said...

Does the dog eat the kid? Excellent review.

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stopping by. Now I DID say that Spheeris has the balls to follow through on it, so...

Anonymous said...

I just watched this yesterday and your review captures everything I also loved about it. I can't believe Timothy O'Brien didn't go one to more films, he was amazing.

Sean Gill said...


I'm glad you enjoyed it, and thank you for stopping by. Indeed it is unfortunate O'Brien never went on to anything else...