Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, 1983)


I first saw this film in the mid-1980s, when I was a mildly alienated, slightly chicken-hearted New Waver who was curious about what more dangerous versions of myself were up to. I remember thinking at the time that Suburbia was really cool. Its depiction of rebellious street punks who make a home together in a squat spoke to my need to feel affiliated with something wild and counter-cultural without actually taking any real risks myself. And as someone who was disillusioned with suburbia, I appreciated the movie’s frank commentary on the hypocrisies of middle-class life. Revisiting the film today, I realize that I overlooked a great deal the first time around—not just its major themes about the blindness of youth but also the directness of its depictions of the casual racism, misogyny, and homophobia of some of its characters (and their society as a whole). Watching it now, it looks like much more than a stylish time capsule of a not-so-great period in American history (the Reagan years). It looks like an honest attempt to tell the truth about the way that young people experience a harsh world.

This is not to say that the film is always good. The performances of its mostly non-professional actors (actual street punks) are often wooden, the dialogue is stilted, and the attempts at humor mostly fail. Even so, the film is bold and completely unflinching in its attention to human ugliness, to the simultaneous vulnerability and cruelty of the young, and to the way that disaster so often strikes with little warning and for no good reason.

Suburbia follows its young characters as they hang out together, talk about their traumas and disillusionments, attend punk shows, steal food from unlocked houses, work elaborate pranks, and get into violent scrapes with various antagonists. (The violence of the film probably rules it out for some assault survivors: For example, two young women are stripped and humiliated in uncomfortably long shots, and one discusses the sexual abuse she suffers at the hands of her father in specific terms. And even for viewers who are simply sensitive, the film can be a bit much. In its early frames, for instance, a toddler is mauled to death by a wild dog, and even though the scene of the mauling is almost comically fake, it still unsettles.) In some cases, it’s difficult to sympathize with some of the punks. One complains about his father because he’s a cop and “worse, he’s black.” Another gripes about his father’s coming out as gay and being in a relationship with another man. Homophobic slurs abound. The film makes clear, however, that we don’t have to like all its characters to understand their vulnerability. Ultimately, the punks are still kids who are hungry, unwashed, and at risk. We feel this most keenly when various adults come after them with the intent to harm, and other adults simply look away.

It’s this abandonment by adults at all levels, from the political to the personal, that gives the film its weight. Suburbia criticizes the blithe disregard for human suffering that characterized the Reagan administration, as well as the ways that suburban parents who were preoccupied with materialism, power, and conformity failed their children. To its credit, the film steers clear of oversimplifying its commentary and resists demonizing all suburban parents: The smartest and most sympathetic character is certainly the “black cop” (Donald V. Allen), who continually reaches out to his racist son and comes across as eminently reasonable, patient, and kind. But on balance, the film’s attention is on the young victims of the era’s “throwaway society,” and it treats their concerns without condescension.

Its social commentary aside, Suburbia has some moments of purely cinematic vitality. Many of these revolve around the character who calls himself Razzle (portrayed by the always puckish Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, back when he was calling himself “Mike B. The Flea”). Razzle loves his pet rat, and his miscellaneous eccentricities animate the world of the squat with real charm. The scenes where this movie really comes alive, however, are the punk shows that its characters attend. Fans of Spheeris’ first documentary about the L.A. punk rock scene (The Decline of Western Civilization, 1981) recognize that her greatest strength as a director is her ability to capture the raw, ragged energy of live punk performances, and this movie does that brilliantly. The Vandals, D.I., and TSOL all show up, and the camera loves them. If there’s real pleasure to be found in an otherwise fairly grim movie, it’s here.

Suburbia is showing at the Grand Cinema, Saturday only.