Suburbia is a desperate vision of middle-class America, hopeless in its obsession with violence and fear of nuclear assault. Writer-director Penelope Spheeris knows the turf well and depicts the catharsis of punk-rock music and teenage anti-authoritarianism with a refreshing subjectivity, circumvented only by her allegiance to characters as oblivious as they are liberated.
Growing tired of his mother’s drinking and paranoid finger pointing, straight-laced comic-book devotee Evan runs away from home, taking shelter in the esotericism of LA’s punk-rock underground, enamored with the studded jackets, sense of freedom and rowdy fraternizing. Mentored by a scene veteran with a spray-paint adorned sedan and chip firmly placed on shoulder, Evan becomes a member of the “T.R.” house, an abandoned Raised Ranch-turned-squat designed for teens too frightened or apathetic to return home.
The “T.R.” kids are part of a reckless subset of crust punks, content to swill beers and steal from open garages, seeing violent conflict as a badge of courage and welcoming confused stares with an erect middle finger. Theirs is an occasionally dangerous and certainly misogynistic way of life, off-set by a strong sense of community and understandable distrust of authority. Only after they’re framed for murder and ruthlessly hunted by jobless vigilantes do we realize that these supposedly aberrant characters are scapegoats, taking the blame of a marginalized middle-class seeking an outlet for their blind hostility.
Spheeris depicts this clash through swift, tense action, favoring authenticity over artifice. Her camera relishes in the cramped spaces and destitution of the squat, lending each scene a sweaty, lived-in immediacy, benefitted exponentially by Timothy Suhrstedt’s uncluttered, symmetrical cinematography. Overlooking a patch of jagged editing or an amateurish transition is a necessity, especially as it caters to the attitudes and fashion of its subject: harsh, reckless and desperate. It’s a befitting milieu, despite the fact that it binds the film to its era like a time capsule, particularly during the unnecessarily long performance footage, which distracts from an already untidy narrative.
In contrast to this slightness of story is Spheeris’ ability to draw complex comparisons, especially between the punkers and their unemployed antagonists. Both disenfranchised and strapped for cash, the warring parties share a distaste for authority, which is ironically lost on them, resulting in continued bloodshed instead of a pooling of resources and redirection of aggression towards the source of their mutual oppression.
Like her cast of characters, Spheeris is just as confused about the identity of this oppressor, taking aim in every direction, firing wildly at capitalism, nuclear energy, consumerism and parenthood, hopelessly longing for a direct hit. Her mode of attack works intermittently, faltering only in its reluctance to make a statement on homophobia, enabling her protagonists to paint gay men as cold, unsavory and dysfunctional.
Passionately sympathizing with one group of outsiders while ostracizing another seems counter-productive, but Spheeris doesn’t want to untangle the contradictory, fascistic aspects of punk-rock ideology. She’d rather take the path of least resistance, narrowing her focus to teen angst and parental neglect, but her depiction of the American suburbs would have been far more compelling if I didn’t just reflect its characters’ fear and ignorance, but challenge it.
Suburbia (New World Pictures, 1983)
Written and Directed by Penelope Spheeris
Photographed by Timothy Suhrstedt