Review: Suburbia

According to Spheeris, this is the shot that really embodies the film.

That’s the 1984 film, not the 1996 film of the same name.  This Penelope Spheeris film is a true cult classic, shot in six weeks on a shoestring budget and immediately forgotten.  I would never have discovered it if it hadn’t been recommended to me while I was researching the Angeleno punk scene.  Yet it’s unique, or at least distinctive, among cult classics because it isn’t a B movie.  In fact, it’s quite good.  I’m reviewing it here–and including tons of screen caps–because it deserves more recognition.

Jack Didley and Skinner (kneeling in foreground), Evan Johnson and Joe Schmo (standing in background), and various T.R. House inhabitants.

Suburbia defies comparison with other films.  Its most distinctive trait is its all-amateur cast; Spheeris decided that turning punks into actors would be easier than turning actors into punks, so she populated the cast with teenagers she found at clubs, none of whom had prior acting experience (though Chris Pedersen, who plays Jack Didley, went on to have a brief acting career).  Only the adults are played by professional actors.  Is the result wooden?  Sometimes.  But it’s also incredibly authentic.  The kids don’t have good diction or animated delivery, but neither do real teenagers.  Lines mumbled with flat affect are perfectly appropriate for the setting.  They look like real teenagers too, with crooked teeth and acne, rather than like pretty Hollywood 20-somethings.

Jack is unfamiliar with orthodontics.

The limited budget also adds to the authenticity.  T.R. House, the squat where the punks live, was designed by giving them posters and spray cans and letting them go wild.  The actors do all their own stunts; Peg Leg was written in because Spheeris knew a punk with a prosthetic leg.  Many shots had to be done in one take, so moments like Razzle spilling the slushie are preserved when they would have been re-shot in a more polished production.  (Razzle is played by a very young Flea; watch The Other F Word to see how he’s changed in the past 25 years.)

Razzle almost gets the slushie in the jar.

But the other reason this film feels so different is that it’s slice of life.  Slice of life is a small genre in film, perhaps because film lacks the literary fiction/genre fiction distinction found in literature, and it stands apart from all other genres.  Romances, noir mysteries, action flicks, and every other genre use the scenes to advance the plot.  In slice of life, the reverse is true: The plot only exists as a vehicle to show the scenes.  Suburbia does contain conflict and a climax–albeit no resolution–but that isn’t the point of the movie.  The point is these teenagers hanging out and living their lives.  The cast is large and lacks a clear distinction between main characters and supporting characters, like real life, and the events are of roughly equal importance.

Sheila reads Ethan a story while Mattie and T'resa look on.

The intentionally directionless feel masks careful writing and direction.  Dialog is used judiciously, avoided when actions and expressions (and, in Skinner’s case, fists) speak for themselves, but incorporating the random natter always present in groups of teenagers.  There’s a lot of attention to details like what’s playing on the TV in the background.  The cinematography is clever, and often beautiful.

Skinner's primary form of expression.

And, of course, the characters.  Wooden or not, I’m not inclined to criticize the acting because it’s so effective.  The kids are what makes this movie.  You are quickly drawn into their lives, their harsh backstories, their losses and victories, and the familial bond that forms between them.

Joe and Sheila bond over their horrible parents.

The only noteworthy adult role is Officer Rennard, Jack’s stepfather, a police officer who finds himself caught up in the conflict between the T.R. kids and local vigilante group Citizens Against Crime.  Instead of taking the conventional police-as-killjoys route, Spheeris makes Rennard sympathetic to the punks’ plight and concerned about their reckless behavior primarily because it puts them in danger.  Conversely, the punks are not idealized nor their lifestyle glorified: They steal, vandalize, and even rip a girl’s clothes off at a concert.  The choice to make characters and situations less like Hollywood conventions and more like real life also makes them more interesting.

Rennard finds a way to communicate.

Suburbia is regarded by punks, ex-punks, and scholars of the movement as perhaps the only truly accurate cinematic depiction of punk subculture, but it’s completely unknown to the general public.  This is a shame.  Punks deserve to be depicted as people, not caricatures, and this movie deserves a watch.

More screen caps, including the one you’re probably looking for, after the cut.

Punk or not, we all knew someone with a car like this.

The bedroom of every punk ever.

I just love the cinematography.

The kids create an indoor picnic area.

This is totally the one you were looking for.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Review: Suburbia

  1. John

    Just watched it again. Great punk depiction and the feel of the movie is very raw and real. You are right about not having any comparable films.

    Thanks for your review.

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