Small Screen Quarantine – Suburbia (1984)

I remember being so excited when I first saw the movie posters for Suburbia. Penelope Spheeris was still way off my radar. No clue that she existed and had never heard the name. It just seemed so long overdue that someone was making a movie about my people… and let me pause for a second. Who exactly were my people? I had no real clear idea then and no clue now. It’s something in some nebulous idea that I had in 1984 and still in 2020 that our society does create a subset of disposable people (The Rejected or TR as they call themselves in the movie). It’s race. It’s class. It’s circumstance. It’s all the cast-off bits that mess up your counter when creating any masterpiece. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs and all that. And the first pancake always gets thrown out.

Don’t ask me why I thought that the story would be told right and they (anyone) wouldn’t fuck it up as badly as they do in any portrayal of any segment of America. I was just thrilled to see representation. It seemed a dream come true that it wasn’t another Brady Bunch or Little House on the Prairie. This is not to say that the whole thing should have been glorified. Just maybe that it shouldn’t have been as horribly mangled and terrible as Suburbia was. About the only thing they did with any accuracy was the filth and the fashion. The basics were all there. The sense of rejection was spot-on, and the boredom. The nihilism was there. The hostility with suburban society was played right, from both sides.

It’s just…

It’s just that suburbia is terrible. Not that the punks should be canonized but when push comes to shove they were as ugly and backwards as the unemployed auto-workers who persecuted them.

Jack Diddley, when explaining his home life and his cop stepfather to Evan says, “And you know what the worst part is? He’s black.” AND EVAN FUCKING AGREES THAT SUCH A THING IS A MESS!

Jack and Evan “rescue” Joe Schmoe from his home where seemingly the worst thing is that Joe’s father is gay and living with a man.

In one of the early scenes at a concert the assault a girl and strip all her clothes off and jeer and spray beer all over her. Misogyny seems to be a recurring theme in Suburbia, as bad among the punks as the parents. It can’t be said that punks were saints and immune to racism and misogyny and such. They were after all a product of their families. I’m not saying they were saints, but it’s hard to find sympathy for characters who were written as if they were being demonized simply for looking different and listening to loud music. The only one that actually had a horrible home life, at least as portrayed in the film, was Sheila who had been repeatedly raped and beaten by her father. The rest were just “misunderstood.”

The only one in the movie with any clue was Jack’s black cop stepfather, who really tried to mitigate all the hostility. Then there’s the little kid, Ethan, who predictably winds up dead. The punks were less fit to keep kids alive than then bad guys/parents.

It would be interesting to see what Penelope Spheeris would do with this subject today if given the opportunity to do a fictional account of Decline of Western Civilization III, which is technically Suburbia in documentary form. She and her cohorts did a right horrible job with their first stab at telling the story. I’m not even going to bother with a plot synopsis. Suburbia is the movie you watch when it comes on and you can’t find the remote and are too burned out to get up and look for it. You won’t hate it. You may even enjoy it a little, as I did because it’s fucking mindless. It’s almost equally annoying though. The experience of watching it is kind of like watching someone else play pinball when you’re bored and drunk. It’s just watching objects bounce off each other and things lighting up.

Color me unimpressed.

But what did they get right beyond fashion and filth? There was a constant, and very accurate, backdrop of television ads for sofas and household goods. There was the backdrop of nuclear threat and war which was the programming sponsored by the ads. There was acid rain and toxic waste and government cover-ups. There was the sense of mistrust and chaos. This is what we talked about in the 80s. It was all around us. There was no shortage of dark humor. There was the overcast of sadness and hopelessness, and this was 14 years before Decline III.

The screenplay was entirely overwrought, with the prelude to the first kiss between Joe and Sheila being her recounting sexual abuse and violence at home. All the dialogue was a hot friggin’ mess. I remember seeing it for the first time 30 years ago and wanting to stand up and scream STOP THIS PEOPLE DON’T TALK THIS WAY ANYWHERE!!!

One classic line though comes when Officer Bill is trying, with some degree of compassion to save the kids from the movement against them and asked them why they can’t just go home to their families for a while. Evan replies:

Families!?!?! Everyone knows that families don’t work!


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