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Still from "American Beauty"
Still from "American Beauty"

The suburbs: a hot-bed of angst in film

Take a commuter's trip out to the somnambulant suburbs in celebration of Gia Coppola's look right up the outskirts

The suburbs are oft-forgotten in film, lost to the hustle and bustle of the big cities and their megalomaniacal character set. However, just off the turnpike is where some of the best stories are found – from Derick and Steven Martini’s 2009 hit Lymelife to Gia Coppola's directorial debut out later this year, Palo Alto. So what's so great about the gated communities and cul-de-sac 'hoods? The people – the white picket fence peeking neighbours whose crumbling lives make for excellent dramas. Collectively, they hold a stained mirror up to our faces and remind us of what is going on under the surface, far outside of the rat race.


With a name like Derick Martini, you know this film will go down a bit smooth. Lymelife follows two families struggling through tangled relationships, real estate problems and Lyme disease in the heart of suburbia. With a group of confused and awkward parents and a few confused and awkward teenagers, Lymelife truly highlights the angst associated with living in the suburbs. Co-written with his brother Steven, the Martini duo created a dramedy of suburban disillusionment that has been compared to classic small-town movie American Beauty. Set in the seventies, Long Island works as a great background for Alec Balwin and Cynthia Nixon's uncomfortable mid-life crisis scenario which contrasts greatly with the cynicism and vulnerability of the younger generation, Emma Roberts and Rory Culkin. 


The Coen brothers do little America like no one else. Holding a magnifying glass over the inner-workings of the small towns which America was built on in one hand, and a big, bold mirror in the other – the Coens highlight the desperate isolation, which, in their world, is a ripe playground for suburban murder, kidnapping and clumsy crime. William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and the Coens's go-to girl, Frances McDormand, occupy the beautifully icy and rural landscape set in North Dakota where, according to their tagline, “A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere”, and it does so in true Shakespearean style. Shakespeare? You're darn tootin’. With demented comedy, tragedy, history and that Minnesotan accent, Fargo offers us minimum wage murder, pancakes with beer for breakfast and a whole lotta ‘heck ya’s’ and 'For Pete’s sake’ before dumping your psyche in the snow.


John Waters is the king of American trailer trash, and that’s a compliment. Waters pulls his fucked-up and filthy players into what has become one of the most talked about and notorious films to hit the underground, cult world of cinema. Middle-class exploitation? Nope. Pink Flamingos is a straight-up fictionalised exposé highlighting the struggling bottom feeders of Baltimore and the lengths they’ll go to be a part of celebrity culture. Drag queen Divine and her cast of merry fuckups plot her pursuit for the title of “The Filthiest Person Alive” while rambling through a clunkily shot attempt at transgressive film. It’s a disgustingly apt portrayal of the whitest, trashiest and most desperate culture chasing the dream. Kitsch cannibalism, chicken crushing creeps and a contortionist with a proudly gaping arsehole are nothing compared to the final credits, where Divine watches a dog take a dump before proudly mashing it into her mouth – for real. You win the title, Divine. 'MURICA!


Writer, producer, director and actor Shane Carruth appears to have had his creative hand in everything for Upstream Color, aside from the craft services table. The self-proclaimed “naturally gifted talent” pulls in metaphysical themes and cross-pollinates his fantastical narcotic notions to administer a dose of artistic weirdness. There’s a lot going on in Upstream Color. A kidnapping drug industrialist hell bent on mind-controlling the shit out of the protagonist, hypnotic manipulation, transference of worms to a pig which leads to shared memories with a random dude (Carruth), more piglets which lead to the novel Walden, some cancer, some more pigs and a fragmented ending. I watched it on a plane, though, so it’s a possibility I too was in some kind of in-flight food-induced state. Stick puppets help to break it all down.


Sam Mendes’ film debut set him up as the portraitist of suburban American life. Explored through the mundane and utterly bored eyes of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), we follow his somewhat subtle unravelling in the burgeoning stages of his kinda lurchy and borderline paedo-esque mid-life crisis, though its tagline suggests we “Look Closer”. Closer to what exactly? A skeezy, balding guy fantasising over a high school cheerleader? Closer to the true nature of human behaviour? Closer to our neighbours? Closer to the only pretentious floating plastic bag ever witnessed? All of the above, and then some. I’ve seen the film three or four times and I’m still finding the quiet and understated beauty that lay in the spaces in between all the pre-pubescent tits, rose petals and subtle and reflective subjectivism. It’s eye-candy, it’s reality, it’s thought provoking and one of the most influential films of our time that is still being discussed and analysed today for its power in film schools the world over.


Another Harmony Korine ‘joint’ to be a mainstay on the indie list is Gummo. Set in the penurious armpit of small town Ohio, Gummo is a distorted reflection of the desperation, boredom and glue-huffing that is the result of a meaningless life. Coloured with contemporary and nuanced brushstrokes, the hurricane-stricken townsfolk are devoid of morals, hope and a perceivable future. Gummo isn’t a dystopian science fiction, this is the ugly and nihilistic reality for a large part of our society. This portrait is more a visual and sensory plunge into the murky green bath water of someone else’s existence. Take it scene by scene, frame by frame and films like Gummo will sit with you and your subconscious forever.


Poor little Dawn Wiener is a downtrodden nerd and as if having ‘Wiener’ for a surname wasn’t bad enough, she also dressed like a seventh-grade Fran Drescher doppelgänger. The backdrop for her dollhouse, poignantly interpreted by Todd Solondz, is high school, her dysfunctional family unit and all the shit that comes along with it. Wiener didn’t have much of a running start. Her parents are cookie-cutters on the surface, but as they unravel we see them join the flood of outpoured disdain, resentment and disappointment being levelled at Dawn. She’s ignored, ostracised and viciously bullied in a time before kids were pumped full of the “It Gets Better” bullshit. That’s the core bedroom in the Dollhouse – sadistic bullying. The redemption and power of the black comedy is Dawn, her resilient and unwieldly strength to power-walk through all of it. It’s the most honest and complex exploration of what true bullying can really do a child. Wiener Dog forever!


It’s never a great start when the author of the story comes out before the film’s release saying, “It’s a horrible movie, it’s just awful.’’ But we’re dealing with the poster-girl for 90s depression, Elizabeth Wurtzel. Christina Ricci was tasked to play the self-absorbed wretch of a child as she “struggles” through her scholarship in journalism at Harvard. Lizzie is depressed, needy and annoying before receiving an award from Rolling Stone magazine. Most people would be on the train to happy-villa but Lizzie spirals into chasms of drugs and sex and a whole lot of clichés before wrapping it all up neatly with a cure after some expensive treatment. There’s no “Save The Cat” moment within the depressingly and self-indulgent walls of her clinically diagnosed sojourn. The story though, is an important recounting of the early days of clinical depression.


Sofia Coppola does burgeoning sister-wives in this sort of honest adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel. The Virgin Suicides is a nice take on what a group of super-religious sisters and the group of panty-hungry boys around them would do during their adolescent growth. The young daughter wants out of life and tries to kill herself and when asked why, she honestly replies, "Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl." The narrative has not-so-subtle undertones of male chauvinism. Through the young women’s perceptive (and voiceovers) the cast of sisters sensitively try to show dudes that they just don’t get them, because they don’t. Arrestingly beautiful cinematography and hypnotic performances make it easy to go back to. Worth a second watch just to see Trip Fontaine played by Josh Hartnett before he became a ‘whatever happened to…’ candidate.


The soundtrack was almost as popular as the zeitgeist-y film that featured it. Arguably touted as ‘the golden age of modern cinema’, the 80s gave way to a torrent of coming-of-age type films like The Breakfast Club and anything with Molly Ringwald in it. St. Elmo’s Fire, though, offered something for the older set. The cast is ‘Brat Pack’ heavy with Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore. Director Joel Schumacher aimed to connect with the ageing demographic on the cusp of college graduation as seven friends try to make earnest plans for their future. It’s an early jaunt through the now dire rom-com genre. The characters though are fully fleshed-out, cool and real – not the watered down Katherine Heigl vehicles of blah that we’re used to now. It’s mostly an exposition of nostalgia, though against the played-out collegiate hangovers, parties and big-boy decisions to be made, you can see the bones of a genre that isn’t necessarily redundant in current life…plus it’s always nice to be reminded that Andie MacDowell wasn’t always a shampoo endorsement sellout.