SubUrbia (1996)

Directed by Richard Linklater


SubUrbia starts as yet another familiar, small scale, condensed timeframe Richard Linklater film, but it gets darker, dirtier and grungier, like the music you expect Jeff to listen to when he falls asleep, if he ever falls asleep.

The film, like Dazed and Confused, is as much about a time and a place as it is about any of its characters.  The film begins with driving shots through Texas suburbia and ends with the owner of a 711-like mini mart denouncing the wasted lives and lack of motivations of Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi) and his friends.

We have watched Jeff, along with Buff (Steve Zahn) and Tim (Nicky Katt) waste the night away drinking and fighting with each other about things that don’t really matter.  Whereas Dazed and Confused (and other Linklater films) celebrated these types of concerns, SubUrbia uses them as a way to show the decay of these parts of America that feel paved over and forgettable thanks to the disguise of one chain restaurant after another like camouflage.

The film feels a bit at odds with each other, because it takes the darkness of the play on which the film is based and combines it with some of the more playful aspects of a Richard Linklater film.

When the story begins, we watch as Jeff, Buff and Tim hang out beside the mini mart where they always hangout.  Jeff looks like 90s era Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day, Tim looks like the familiar 90s punk (with shiny, spiky black hair), and Buff is just a guy everyone knows at that age.  They’re all headed nowhere, and that’s obvious, because what kind of person spends all their free time next to a dumpster (other than the Jay and Silent Bob)?  Jeff and Buff argue about third world countries and things neither of them really understands, though Jeff would fight you on that.  Jeff seems miserable, though he wouldn’t admit it, Tim knows he’s miserable, and Buff is too drunk to notice that one day he’ll be miserable too.

Then Pony (Jayce Bartok), an old high school classmate and current rock star, drops into town and just his presence is enough to shake everyone up.  Jeff’s girlfriend Sooze (Amie Carey) wants to go to New York for an arts program, but Jeff wants her to stay back, with him.  Pony, who lives large in Los Angeles, tells her to go for it.

Over the course of the night, the group hangs out, each one taking a turn expressing their worldview.  Jeff finally admits that he doesn’t know what he wants, and in a drunken mini-breakdown, he takes off all his clothes and proclaims how there is power in not knowing and not caring.  He has decided to move to New York with Sooze, but he didn’t tell her in time, and she went off to stay the night at the Four Seasons with Pony.

Sooze tells Jeff that she has beliefs and feelings and opinions about sexism, racism and life she wants to share with the world through her art.  Jeff’s role in their unhealthy relationship, it seems, is to knock her down a peg so he doesn’t feel so lonely at the bottom.  Still, he makes some good points as Sooze’s art is self-indulgent, and what does she have to say about racism?  She only has one black friend?

All Sooze has to admit is that she wants to go make art in New York, because that’s what she wants for herself.  She seems unable to admit that it’s selfish, but it’s appropriate selfishness.  No one would speak ill of her for doing something she wants to do, except for Jeff, of course.  He is the most selfish of all.

There isn’t a whole lot to say about Buff.  He is drunk the whole time, and he lies about sexual conquests.  If adulthood is a form of life into which you have to be born, then Buff is still in the womb, and Jeff, though born, is stuck in the placenta.  He can see life through this lens, but he can’t interact with it.

The other friend, Tim, is aggressive and angry, disenchanted with what little he has seen of the world (through the prism of a brief naval deployment in which he mostly just worked in a kitchen).  Tim causes the most problems in the film, openly hostile and racist towards the mini mart owner, Nazeer (Ajay Naidu), even though the man has apparently let them loiter in his parking lot for years now.

The last person to touch on is Pony.  He was considered a nerd in high school, and everyone in the group either welcomes him or pushes him away, all because he’s a rockstar.  Jeff hates him because his success reminds him he’s nothing.  Tim hates Pony because he has found fame in a culture and world that Tim loathes (consumerism, etc.).  Buff loves Pony because he’s basically a child, and Pony has a limo.  Sooze also loves Pony, but it’s for a reason similar to Buff’s, he’s famous and he represents a life she thinks she can have if she moves to New York and pursues her art.

Compared to Jeff, Sooze is a saint.  She has to put up with a lot when she talks with him, and it’s easy to see her as some sort of ideal, a person with passion and the willingness to fix a problem when she identifies it.  But she has a friend, Bee-Bee (Dina Spybey), whom we learn is an alcoholic, struggling with sobriety, that disappears without Sooze noticing.  Eventually Bee-Bee will show up, unconscious on the mini mart roof, drunk and possibly dying from a drug overdose.

The film plays with these interpersonal conflicts and struggling self-identities for the first hour and a half.  The characters bounce around town, always finding a way to return home to the mini mart parking lot.  A lot of stuff happens over the course of the very long night, and in the end all the characters simply disappear, though in different ways.

At one point, as Tim is arrested by the police for harassing Nazeer and the store, he tells Jeff that he killed Pony’s publicist, Erica (Parker Posey) after they nearly slept together while the rest of the group was away.  Tim points Jeff to the nearby van which they all apparently use when they’re horny, and Jeff is horrified when he discovers Erica’s phone abandoned on the ground.  The phone, and Jeff’s horrified expression, is enough for us to assume that Erica is dead.

Later, as the sun is soon to rise, Buff returns to the mini mart to tell Jeff all about how he slept with Erica at the Four Seasons.  We have already established that Buff is quick to lie about sleeping with various women, so neither we nor Jeff believe him.  Jeff tells Buff that Erica is dead, but then she shows up in the limo, not only alive but happier than we’ve ever seen her.

This is where the film goes from dark into almost surreal.  It’s unclear what really happened, not just because Erica is alive, but because she’s nothing like the person we last saw.  And it feels highly unlikely that she would go for someone like Buff (they only shared one fleeting moment of supposed affection earlier in the film), yet there she is, playing games with him and inviting him out to Los Angeles with her.

Buff disappears into the limo, about to embark on a hard to believe move to Los Angeles where he seems confident he’ll start a career as a music video director (again, however unlikely it may feel).

By this point, Pony and Sooze have already disappeared, and Tim and Buff tell Jeff that they’re together.  The redemption we’ve been trained to expect between Jeff and Sooze never comes, because she is already gone.  Then Tim shows up, released from jail, and he pulls a gun on Nazeer, fed up with the man for some reason even though it’s obvious the real problem is within Tim himself.

When Tim climbs up onto the roof of the mini mart, still in a standoff with Nazeer (whose own marriage appears to quietly dissolve in this single scene), he discovers Bee-Bee’s unconscious body.

Tim and Jeff bring her softy to the ground.  Tim says this is Nazeer’s fault, and Jeff silently hovers over Bee-Bee’s body.  Nazeer tells Jeff that he’s going nowhere.  He might as well be talking to an entire generation.  Tim doesn’t respond because he has nothing to say.  It’s the only time he doesn’t argue back, with Nazeer or with anyone.  It’s unclear if Bee-Bee is dead, but all we know is that she’s dying and so is Jeff and anyone who’s not busy living.

So yeah, this film, when I first started watching, felt plotless like Slacker was or Dazed and Confused or even Before Sunrise or like Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! would feel.  And even now I’m not sure if there was much of a plot.  When the film starts to become more problematic, it feels like plot because we anticipate that things will get better.  So the worse thing get, the more we have an expectation for what’s to come, and that’s basically what plot is, anticipated story movements that occasionally feel contrived.  Except in this case, things just stay bad, and upon the movie’s end, it feels less like plot and more like a statement about where things are at this time.

The 90s feel like a very pessimistic decade.  The dissatisfaction with life is shown in movies like Fight Club (1999) and American Beauty (1999), both of which were made at the end of the decade, like thesis statements on where we stood as a culture.

But the 90s’ pessimism isn’t like the that of the 70s, which was built through political corruption and wars and which followed the extreme violence of the 60s.  Instead, the 90s, from my perspective as someone in 2017, feels undeservedly pessimistic, like we all believe we were going to be given something that we never got.

There was never anything taken away from us, like in other decades (wars, lies, etc.), but the fallout and disenchantment was based on the problems within ourselves, our attitudes and expectations.  Just as we expected the story to get better for Jeff, I suppose, these characters expected life to get better just because they were free of the perceived oppressive authority of school and childhood.

In Dazed and Confused, the characters reacted against what they were forced to do (teachers, coaches, older students with a paddle), but in SubUrbia, all those forces have departed, for the most part, and all you’re left with is yourself.  The only person holding Jeff back is Jeff himself.  The same goes for Tim.

Buff is an example of, if you get out of your own way, you can take off.  He’s open to change and so is Sooze.  The absurdity of Buff’s flight from their small town of Burnfield (fictional) at first felt forced, just like Pony’s arrival and willingness to order a limo to wait in a mini mart parking lot felt forced.  By the end of the story, though, these story elements felt much more poetic and allegorical than literal.  Of course Buff, who had never before held a camera and only a few hours earlier was obsessing over roller hockey, wouldn’t be invited to shoot a music video for a famous musician as well as fall in love with an older, more professional woman.  Of course Pony wouldn’t bother hanging out in this small town, let alone hanging out in the parking lot of a convenience store.  Of course Tim wouldn’t suddenly snap and kill Erica (he lied about that to Jeff for some reason), and of course he wouldn’t go so far as to pull a gun on Nazeer, at least not because of something that had happened just that night.  All of this feels like a dream, in the end.

It’s all meant to highlight how rotten and stuck Jeff is.  There are these obvious signs around him, highlighting his own shortcomings as well as avenues out of this ditch he’s dug for himself, and all of these characters and options, once rejected, further illustrate how Jeff is his own worst enemy.  He wills himself to be this miserable.

The idea of suburbia, in this film, is presented as prison-like, but it’s also a place that’s shown to have clear signs pointing to the freeways to get out of town.  Pony did it, Sooze and Buff are about to do it.  Even Tim did it, but he only saw one small part of life which he didn’t like and convinced himself represented everything out there.  He’s basically the guy, in the Greek myth, who saw shadows of the outside world cast on a wall and believed that was the world itself.  Tim has seen the smoke, but he’s never seen the fire.

At least, in that instance, you can understand, to some degree, Tim’s pessimism.  He thinks he’s seen the world and has now chosen to reject it.  Even though he’s wrong, he’s acting on a familiar instinct.  Jeff, though, has no excuse.  He would tell you that he doesn’t know anything, but he still won’t take the next step and do something about it.

I think SubUrbia is a hidden gem.  It’s one of the Richard Linklater films no one seems to talk about (unless I simply haven’t been listening), and though you have to stomach its bleakness, it says something about a culture, a way of life and a time period just like SlackerDazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!

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