Being a teenager living in the centre of a city in England, middle class suburban America couldn’t be further from reality for me. But the suburbs that are a backdrop for the American Dream of the 50’s seem to be where most of my favourite films are located. Why is the big house, station wagon and freshly mowed lawn such a great place to set a film? And why is it an even better film when everything goes wrong in this setting? Without getting into the Capitalism of The American Dream, we all know the reality of a perfect suburban life is non-existent, The Truman Show being the textbook example, and it’s fun to play with and subvert these images.
BRICK (RIAN JOHNSON, 2005)
Film noir set in a high school. Sounds like one of Max Fishers plays, but Rian Johnson depicts it beautifully. When Emily, the girl our protagonist Brendan ( Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is in love with turns up dead; his journey to find out “who” and “why” leads to the seedy underground of his otherwise plain looking high school. If you like to look at lots of low angles and hear teenagers speaking like they’re cops from the 20’s then look no further.
A SERIOUS MAN (THE COEN BROTHERS, 2009)
The backdrop of a serious man is ordinary. Larry Gopnik lives the most ordinary life. Even when his life tells him she’s leaving it seems ordinary. Unlike my other favourites set in suburbia, this isn’t supernatural; and it isn’t really about teenagers. Its philosophical and makes you think, it delves into Judaism and doesn’t give you any answers: I ended up debating our religion and life with my mum for about an hour after watching. It presents the uncertainty in religion next to some really cute sixties suburban aesthetics.
GHOST WORLD (TERRY ZWIGOFF, 2001)
The thing about Ghost World, is that the characters all know they are living this in boring little city, and they act as if it’s the worst place ever, but instead of just sitting inside playing video games and eating Cheetos (or whatever teenagers in America do Enid and Rebecca follow and prank poor old boring Seymour to try and find out something more. Enid’s cynical attitude and over active imagination means she tries to find the strangeness in everything amongst the dull lacklustre of her everyday life.
ELECTRICK CHILDREN (REBECCA THOMAS, 2012)
Not technically Suburbia – but it’s still a creepy part of America where everything is a bit hazy and adults want their kids to conform. Rachel (Julia Garner) has an immaculate conception, but she lives on a fundamentalist Christian community. Rachel then runs away to Las Vegas in search of the man who she believes to be the unborn child’s father. This film is like a magical day dream with a cool soundtrack and a tender approach to everything. The teenagers she befriends in Vegas could be any gang of boys from any suburb or city, and their life of playing guitars, skating around, skinny dipping at night and getting drunk is depicted in the most perfect generic way.
DONNIE DARKO (RICHARD KELLY, 2001)
Donnie Darko is the only film I’ve watched over 20 times. It still doesn’t bore me. Donnie Darko is a superhero. He has visions of a giant bunny rabbit named frank and escapes death. The camera work is sinister throughout and right from the first scene you know there’s more to this than it seems. The uniformed backdrop of school, neat green lawns, happy families and PTA meetings serve to make the happenings even more unusual. If this film were set anywhere else in a more specific time frame I don’t think it would be as ominous as it is in the suburbia that fears the unexpected and punishes non-conformists who declare motivational speakers “the fucking antichrist” It’s easy to question what genre this film is, and as a “cult film” there are endless internet resources to delve into the symbolism and hidden meanings of it all.
Collage at top by Chloe