Movies We Like
Zack Carlson, co-author of the new book Destroy All Movies, opened a screening of this movie the other night with a little note on what the film meant to punk exposure in cinema. He made a good point when talking about the fact that "punks" were often presented in films only as a cue to something negative, or were placed in an environment in order to tell the audience that the story was now unfolding in a bad part of town. American movies before, and during, the '80s have always done this sort of thing, be it with bikers, blacks, or just about any group most audiences were unfamiliar with. Eventually, these groups were shown respect and understanding in cinema, and Suburbia marks a big part of that transformation for those in the punk scene, and really, for homeless teenagers and runaways.
Shortly after Spheeris directed Decline of Western Civilization, she decided to make this movie, which follows the everyday happenings of a group of punk runaways. Perhaps the most impressive part about the movie is the tension built between the kids and the people who live in the suburbs; there is something tasteful about presenting a presumed safe place, like a suburb, as a rotting warzone. Aside from its bittersweet and often hilarious story, Suburbia also has performances placed into the plot from The Vandals, D.I., and T.S.O.L.
Evan (Bill Coyne) decides to run away from home, leaving his very young little brother with their alcoholic single-mother. Unlike most kids who run away due to maltreatment, which he certainly experienced, he feels that one less mouth to feed might help his mother relax and possibly depend less on alcohol. While roaming with a garbage bag full of clothes and his mother's diary, he decides to follow a group of punk kids into a venue. After having his soda drugged, he passes out in a pool of his own vomit and is taken home by a kid called Jack Diddley (Chris Pederson). Home for Jack turns out to be a squatter's commune in a foreclosed house just outside of a suburb. There he meets many other runaways, two of whom are also new to the bunch. There's Sheila (Jennifer Clay), who ran away from home due to her father's many different forms of abuse, and another young boy who split after becoming agitated with his father's homosexual relationships. In order to stick around, each member of their little group must get the letters "TR" burned into their flesh. The idea behind the self-mutilation is to prevent people from flowing in and out of their lives and home, and to boost a sense of comradery. But the letters they've burned on themselves and tagged around the town only help the locals isolate them as a group of violent thugs. While they look intimidating, their biggest crime is simply going around to unlocked garages and stealing food and beer to live on.
Most of the group's troubles are started and sometimes finished by Skinner (Timothy O' Brien), the one and only skinhead among the bunch whose militant appearance interests the suburban teenagers and adults. Things continue to grow increasingly heated between the teens and the locals, particularly from two adult men who ride around shooting stray dogs and have an initiative to clean up the mess the police don't seem willing to acknowledge. That theory is partly true, as Jack's stepfather is an officer who feels like a group of homeless kids is much less of a threat than men who like taking the law into their own hands. In time, Evan's little brother joins the ranks and the group shows tenderness and strength while trying to raise a small child to the best of their ability. But as their helplessness grows, so does the will of their adversaries, and soon, harassment and fist-fighting leads to death and great sorrow.
The cast is among one of the finest I've ever seen, many being kids pulled off the street and put before a camera. Some were local California musicians, including a very young Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers. The rest were simply kids who were able to guide the audience through their lifestyle and interests with an understanding of what the movie could become. The result is not only an honest and innocent story of teenage squalor, but also a nostalgic flashback of what it feels like to be misunderstood. Regardless of where you come from, you thought you knew what was best and that the whole world, especially your parents, just didn’t understand you. Suburbia captures these feelings and so much more, and I feel as though it will not only remain relevant, but can be watched whenever you feel the need for melancholy and nostalgia for your youth.