why 'suburbia' is one of the most slept on slacker movies of the 90s
As it celebrates its 20th birthday, we re-evaluate Richard Linklater’s 'worst film.'
SubUrbia is Richard Linklater's worst film. I didn't say that. Rolling Stone did. When the magazine compiled a list of his movies from worst to best it started, at number 16, with the small-town slacker drama from 1996. Which means the film is somehow worse than Fast Food Nation. Worse than School of Rock. Worse than… Bernie. To justify its poor ranking: "Linklater seems lost; you'd think talky-teen angst would be right up his alley, but he never figures out what he can add to the mix."
I strongly disagree. It is right up Linklater's alley and he does add his own flavor to the mix. I'll get into the hows and whys in a minute.
Based on Eric Bogosian's 1994 play about disaffected teens, the film unspools like an extended version of Smashing Pumpkins' dreamy music video for "1979." In that video, suburban teens drive around aimlessly; they hang out in convenience store parking lots, guzzling beer, not worrying too much about their future. SubUrbia sprinkles anxiety over that premise. It follows, over one summer night, a group of teens who have hit a brick wall after high school. College didn't work out for them. They can't afford to move to the city. They're in a rut. And to make things worse, an old friend who left town to enjoy MTV fame with his corny band returns in a limo. Then all their problems -- plus bitterness and resentment -- boil to the surface.
SubUrbia turns 20 this year. With that in mind, here are some reasons why it's one of the most woefully slept on slacker movies of the 90s, and why it deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with Clerks and Reality Bites as a time capsule of Gen X's glory days.
It channels the spirit of Dazed And Confused: Dazed and Confused, Linklater's best film -- even by Rolling Stone's standards -- also happens to be SubUrbia's spiritual cousin. Consider the similarities: disaffected youth, suburbia, a freewheeling all-nighter where virtually every frame features a can of beer, where it's warm enough to wear a T-shirt outside all evening. SubUrbia is darker, sure -- it deals with depression, anxiety, racism, violence -- but it's still laced with laughs. Mainly from Steve Zahn's goofball Buff, a fast-quipping, slightly sexist goon, similar to Sasha Jenson's Don in Dazed (the one in the overalls). Regardless of the disparate decades in which the films were set, you can imagine SubUrbia picking up the story of Dazed some years later. The teens are now a couple of years older, still stuck in suburbia, still living with their parents. In short, still dazed and confused.
It captures the peak of the Slacker Generation: SubUrbia shares common DNA with Clerks and Slacker. That's because all three films are about the so-called slacker generation or Gen X. About suburban losers, dropouts, and dreamers. Put simply, these movies are about twentysomethings who don't know what the fuck they're doing with their lives, who talk more than they do, who basically just hang out. The convenience store parking lot -- where these guys hang out -- is the center of their world. And it's where the idealism of slackerdom finds its voice: "I'm just gonna go [to New York]; I figure the worst I can do is starve to death," says Sooze, a sort of parody of a riot grrrl. Her in-your-face feminist performance art is another reminder of those heady days: "Fuck Oliver Stone, fuck Bill Clinton, fuck Howard Stern... fuck all the men. FUCK ALL THE MEN!" On top of the MTV references, the copious amounts of hair gel, and the roomy denim jeans, I'd say this captures the era pretty well.
The zeitgeisty dialogue is spot on: Dialogue is Linklater's forte. He's known for his walk-and-talk films in which characters simply walk a lot and talk a lot. Take Slacker, which was nothing but walking and talking. In SubUrbia especially there are some sharp zeitgeisty zingers, from "I gotta know what it's like to be on MTV" to the profound, "50 years from now we're all gonna be dead and there'll be new people standing here, drinking beer, eating pizza, bitching about the price of Oreos". But the absolute zenith of era-specific dialogue comprises four simple words uttered through a pay phone: "Meet at the corner." You might not think it, but it is. It sums up the heart of the movie: teens hanging out at a corner. It sounds so arbitrary in the era of the iPhone, doesn't it? "Meet at the corner." There's no, What time? No, How long will you be there for? No need for reassuring updates via text. Just a simple "Meet at the corner."
The cast is a 90s dream team: SubUrbia's cast is peak 90s. You've got Parker Posey (Party Girl, Dazed and Confused) and Steve Zahn (Reality Bites, That Thing You Do!), both faces permanently tethered to the 90s -- try and think of something, anything, they've been in post-90s, I challenge you. Then there's Giovanni Ribisi, best known for playing Phoebe's weird little brother Frank in Friends. In that, he was a quirky college dropout, like a coked up version of the character he plays in SubUrbia. They're all perfect as the (mostly) unlikable characters that Rolling Stone again takes aim at: "You don't want to spend any time with these people." But really, that's exactly why it's so great, why the cast is so great. The characters they play are well drawn. You believe that they're full of shit; and there's honesty in that. Most of us say dumb, cringeworthy shit before we become Serious Adults. Don't we?
The Sonic Youth soundtrack: Linklater peppers the film with Sonic Youth's decade-defining music. In fact, he commissioned three new songs from them. We hear one of them, "Bee Bee's Song", on the radio carried around by the blonde loner Bee Bee. She sets her radio down outside a launderette. It's late at night and no one else is around. She dances to Kim Gordon's sexy vocals. And it's not the only great song to blast from her little boombox on which a sticker reads: "COULD I SEE URANUS TONIGHT?" Once you've seen the film you're probably gonna want to look up the soundtrack, so let me save you some Googling. The other 90s heavyweights: Beck, Superchunk, Butthole Surfers, Elastica & Stephen Malkmus, and there's a solo song by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. This is the soundtrack to your slacker summer.
Text Oliver Lunn