I don’t live in suburbia anymore, but I used to until not too long ago. I know of medium sized towns, filled with fast food restaurants, gas stations, endless rows of identical bungalows. I know of boredom, unexciting neighbourhoods, same old friends, cheap beer. I know of not knowing what you want to do with your life, dropping out of college, working minimum wage. I know of so-called teen angst, of this vague feeling of dread that hardly ends when you turn 20. I know of thinking that things are fucked up, pointless, and that you can’t do a thing about any of it. I know of a life of hanging out, drunken but shallow fun.
But I also know better. I know that when you set your mind to it, you can do just about anything. I know that a lack of money and prospects can bring real freedom. I know that there’s satisfaction to be found in creation, whether it’s yours or others which you enjoy. Like, for instance, on a cold late March night, at the end of an endless winter, I can leave my computer and go for a walk, and then stop at Super Video 2000 and stroll through the aisles, and notice a little movie called “subUrbia” that I remember wanting to see a few years ago but missed in the 5 seconds it was in theatres. Cut to a couple hours later and here I am, on the verge of crying. “You’re throwing it away!”, he said. Are we listening?
Alright, enough with the bloated Knowlesesque introduction. Basically, I just discovered a little known flick that simply rocked my world, and not just because it’s scored by Sonic Youth. Oh, you could probably brush it off as just another Gen X flick about young guys and gals talking bullshit, an end of millennium “American Graffiti” or whatnot. In a way, that’s what it is, but what sets it apart is that it’s written by Eric Bogosian, adapting his own play. Last time he did that was for “Talk Radio”, arguably Oliver Stone’s best movie. So though the film offers its share of laughs and stupidity, beneath it all is an overwhelming sense of alienation and a lot of social commentary. In a way, you could say that the movie is a pit stop between “Pump Up The Volume” and “Fight Club”.
It’s quite apparent that this was originally a play, as it all takes place during one decisive night and nearly all in one place (the surroundings of a convenience store), but it works as a movie too. So here we are, Burnfield, Texas, around back the (A) Food Mart, right by the trash container and some pipes. Or as a bunch of young dudes call it, “the corner”. Here they meet, night after night, to talk and fool around and work their way through 6-packs. There’s Giovanni Ribisi as Jeff, a confused slacker in his early twenties. He still lives with his mom, he’s got a crappy job and not much to look for. He does like writing and he’s been working on some stuff, but you know how these things are… His girlfriend Sooze (Amie Carey) is an all-out riot grrrl, doing paintings and pseudo-political performance art, and she’s about to move to New York to see if she can make something out of it, which Jeff is not too hot about. What does he got to do in filthy old New York? At least here he’s got his friends, goofy drunk Buff (Steve Zahn) and angry drunk Tim (Nicky Katt)…
This could be just another night of dreaming out loud and getting silly by the (A)Mart, but things get more complicated when Pony (Jayce Bartok), a guy with whom they all went to high school, drops by to say hello… Oh, and he’s in a limo with his publicist Erica (Parker Posey), coming back from a show with his band Dreamgirl. Being confronted with a “nerd” they used to look down upon who’s now an MTV star will mess up the relations between the group of friends, with Sooze seeing a way out, Jeff getting jealous, Buff star struck and Tim pissed off as usual… We’re also in for quite an intense night in which (according to the back of the video): “friendships will be forged or shattered, romances will be won or lost, limits will be tested and futures will be shaped.” Now, that makes it sound like an after school special, which it’s far from being, but it gives you an idea of what’s at stake.
What makes this film so special? Maybe it’s the way director Richard Linklater communicates the depressing feel of a city big enough to have all the fast food and department store franchises but too small to go beyond that, the way contemporary America is both opulent and empty. It’s also how accurately Linklater pins down what it’s like to be out of high school but not quite ready for “real life” yet, to wonder and wander. He sort of did the same thing with his ’70s after prom party flick “Dazed And Confused”, but as entertaining as it was, the movie added up to little more than the usual sex, drugs and rock & roll. In “subUrbia”, Bogosian’s writing helps make Linklater’s world more thought provoking and more dramatically involving.
Is the film perfect? No, but what is? I could have done without the character of Bee-Bee (Dina Spybey), a recovering young alcoholic in despair, which borders on movie-of-the-week stereotypes. But that’s only a small part of the film, and the stronger parts more than make up for this slip towards melodrama. A whole lot is said through the film, and much of it makes all too much sense, but all the same it’s acknowledged that bitching, however deservingly, is not very constructive. Giovanni Ribisi is compelling as the intelligent but disillusioned lead, and Steve Zahn is amusingly all over the place, but to me it’s Nicky Katt who steals the film.
His Tim joined the Air Force right after graduation but recently found a way to be “honorably discharged”. So here he is back in Burnfield, with a check coming in every month from the U.S. Army, free to waste all his time brooding and drinking too much. Katt carries much presence and threat, and his character’s key scenes are riveting, like when he rips rock star Pony a new one or when, like Judd Nelson to Molly Ringwald in “The Breakfast Club”, he observantly deconstructs Parker Posey’s character. Or even more memorably, when he clashes with the Pakistani couple who own the (A) Food Mart. The main disagreement is that they don’t want guys drinking on their property, but Katt’s character figures that as an American, he’s got more of a right to be here than them. This is of course pure racism, but it’s good that the film is willing to explore touchy issues like this. So there you have it, a smart, insightful and engrossing picture that I just know I’m gonna be going back to many, many more times.