Sunday, July 6, 2014

SubUrbia - 1996

"SubUrbia" - 1996
Dir. by Richard Linklater - 2 hrs. 1 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm often frustrated with trying to explain why something is a really good story, when there is resistance to it based on surface attributes.  The cynical part of me says that people, in general, are unable to sympathize with anything or anyone that is not immediately and obviously like they are, and then refuse to pay attention to anything further.  The ability to look beyond one's own experiences and surroundings, and understand them to some degree is the basic foundation of interacting with the larger world in a meaningful way.  Dismissing something because it didn't come in exactly the right package or in the right color to match your sofa is an enduring and infuriating human trait.  So understand this: I am going to try to explain why "SubUrbia" is a really good story, and every time you roll your eyes or get dismissive because it's not brand new, or because it's trappings are different than what you're used to, I will judge you harshly.  If someone is too distracted by Sooze's corduroy pants and the general fashion of the time to notice what's actually going on here in "SubUrbia," then I figure that you're probably not smart enough to form any coherent thoughts about a film that's asking questions of meaning, and asking you to participate in the dialogue.

The buzz sentence about "SubUrbia" would probably (definitely) include words like disaffected, angsty, GenX, slackers, malcontents, teens, and anything else you can think of in that vein.  Roughly a year after graduating high school, a bunch of kids ritually hang out in a convenience store parking lot, drinking and not doing much else.  Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi) seems permanently addled, or maybe befuddled, but definitely directionless.  He's dating Sooze (Amie Carey), a performance artist who wants to move to New York and go to school.  Rounding out the crew are Buff (Steve Zahn), a sort of skate punk, Tim (Nicky Katt), an air force washout, and recovering alcoholic Bee-Bee (Dina Waters).  What make this night different is that one of their former classmates, Pony (Jayce Bartok) has suddenly turned into a MTV darling, and his tour is rolling through town, and he might stop by the corner to catch up and reminisce.  Sooze is completely enraptured by this, and the guys are predictably a bit jealous and not very enthusiastic about him showing up.
One of the hallmarks of Richard Linklater's films is a sort of curiosity about the world around.  Even about things that seem mundane or eccentric, Linklater's work has genuine interest and empathy for those that are just existing, even without purpose.  Even among the other prominent indie directors of this era, Linklater's unique in his ability to make an interesting story take place, even without plot or anything meaningful happening.  The tone of his work is so strong that it trumps the need for events.  "SubUrbia" was his fourth film, and the first one that he didn't write.  Eric Bogosian adapted one of his own plays for the screen here, and the resulting film is an interesting mash-up of the sort of characters that Linklater would normally choose to pay attention to, but with a much more cynical, defeatist streak than you'd expect.

The characters of this film aren't particularly sympathetic, but who can expect heroism in a suburban wasteland?  There are no big challenges to overcome, save for inertia.  And Pony's arrival complicates matters - he's pretty much a big dork, and his success baffles Jeff, Buff, and Tim.  Jeff can't pull himself out of the mire; he's dropped out of college already, lives in a tent in his parent's garage, and is frustrated and angered by pretty much everything around him.  He cannot figure a way out, he can't even figure out why he should try.  Buff is a goofball, and Tim is a malignant, antagonistic bully who is trying to take everything down with him.  Sooze is not presented as being a particularly talented artist, and is also not particularly good at paying attention to much of anything besides Pony; after performing a piece entitled "Burger Manifesto Part One: the Dialetical Expression of Testosterone," which has her humping the air and screaming "fuck all the men" over and over again, she flips out when Jeff (her boyfriend) is put off by it.

The closest thing to a sympathetic character is Nazeer (Ajay Naidu), who runs the convenience store, and is constantly being taunted by Tim and Buff.

One of the keys to the film is Giovanni Ribisi's work.  He may not be very heroic, but at least he's trying to think things through.  His body language makes it clear that this is very difficult work; that's not to say that his character isn't very smart, but it's as if he's just an IQ point or two short of the task at hand.  One also gets the feeling that he might be able to figure it out if he kept better company; Buff is a like a fly buzzing around him, Tim is a malicious, mean-spirited liar, Sooze is too self-absorbed to do anything but overreact, but that might just be a function of the character's age.  "SubUrbia" is a film with a limited cast, but Ribisi makes the most of that, and makes sure that his character is always worth watching.

The question that Jeff is struggling with is one that's been part of the American fabric since the first TV set warmed up and started receiving signals: is there any value to a life if you're not a star?  Or even more to the point, is there any inherent value to life?  The different characters have answered this question differently, and only Jeff seems to be the one voicing the question.  Pony has value and gets attention because he's on TV, but he was a dork in school, and he's still a dork after "success."  He appears to be following some idiotic script for fame, almost like the Leif Garrett episode of "Behind the Music," but this movie predated that episode by three years.  Tim has given up, but seems determined to go out with a bang, taking out anyone else along the way that he can.  Buff skates along, finding people who will buy into his bullshit.  Sooze buys into the notion of fame equaling value, basking in Pony's angelic glow.  Even the notion of producing art to escape monotony and boredom comes off like a fool's errand; Pony and Sooze are far more interested in themselves than anything they could produce.

But all of this is talk and suggestions until "SubUrbia" takes a very dark turn near the end.  One of the things that I like about "SubUrbia" is that it starts off as a movie about theory, and winds up as a story about the perils of putting those theories into practice.  And Jeff kind of ends up being steamrolled by life - the time he's spent being aware of his dilemma and trying to make sense of it leaves him on the outside looking in.  Of all of the depressing statements made here, the most potent is that ignorance is bliss, and that people will pay the price for trying to stand still in the middle of a hurricane.  Figuring things out might be personally gratifying, but if you don't come up with a good, workable answer to whether or not life can have inherent value outside of the perceptions of others, you'll lose both the opportunity to succeed and the positive perception from others.

These questions might seem like they're from another point in history, but they feel valid today.  Even through the '90s veneer, "SubUrbia" is a good story because there is drama, an attempt to tease out some kind of meaning from meaninglessness, and because the characters are distinct and act accordingly.  Like in "Slacker," a fundamental part of the story (and one of the reasons that the characters are frequently lost in thought, deep inside their own heads) is that this is an existence with a lack of stimulation, a void of distraction with which to pass time.  That in itself is a valuable look into another era, a pre- Apple-branded gadgetry era, where people actually had to cope with boredom without a shiny pair of keys to jangle in front of one's face always within arm's reach.  If it seems that Jeff is thinking things through too much, I'd suggest that maybe we don't think things through enough.

4 / 5 - TV (HD)

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