Nether Regions 03.15.11: SubUrbia
Posted by Chad Webb on 03.15.2011
This week we take a look at the under appreciated Richard Linklater film from 1996, which examines slackers facing adulthood after high school.
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Giovanni Ribisi, Steve Zahn, and Amie Carey Directed By: Richard Linklater Written By: Eric Bogosian Running Time: 121 minutes Release Date: February 7, 1997 Missing Since: January 1998 Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Available on Watch Instant Availability: Mildly Rare
Of all the films that revolve around young people stuck in that rut between high school and adulthood, SubUrbia is one of the most obscure. It was Richard Linklater's fourth film, and after his immensely popular efforts Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise, SubUrbia was difficult to embrace. It doesn't help that its availability has been weak since its release. Based on the play of the same name by Eric Bogosian (who also penned the script), this story countered the formula of many similar films from that era like Empire Records, Mallrats, or Clerks which either relied on comedy or provided their characters with an optimistic way out. Though it does possess humor, SubUrbia is largely a dark and conversational piece.
Jeff, Buff, and Tim chill at the Circle A.
The story takes place in the town of Burnfield from the evening to the next morning where a group of slackers are struggling to decide what the next chapter in their lives will be. First there is Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), a college dropout who still lives with his parents but sleeps in a pup tent in their garage. He is dating Sooze (Amie Carey), a performance artist who has just announced that she will be moving to New York. The other members of their group include Buff (Steve Zahn), a kooky personality who strives for attention and says he wants to make videos, and Tim (Nicky Katt), an ex-Air Force pilot who keeps himself busy being an alcoholic and making snide comments. They tend to hang out at the Circle A convenient store run by a Pakastani couple (Ajay Naidu and Samia Shoaib) who hates their incessant loitering. Together, they await the arrival of an old classmate, Pony (Jayce Bartok), who suddenly became a rock star. When he arrives in a limousine, emotions begin swirling and bonds are tested.
Linklater is a genius at establishing a universe and giving the viewer an acute sense of time and place. He certainly doesn't falter with SubUrbia, which captures the fictional town of Burnfield as if it could be any suburb in the United States. After some research, Burnfield is supposed to be set in Texas, and Eric Bogosian based that on his own hometown of Woburn, Massachusetts, but Linklater and regular cinematographer Lee Daniel shoot in a consistently general manner that reminded me of the town I grew up in. He conveys Burnfield as a gloomy and monotonous place, and the nighttime looks like a wasteland of ordinary with mini-malls, angry convenient store clerks, dimly lit parking lots, and a few cars traveling on the roads. It is a disturbingly accurate depiction, and one would not be eager to live in such an area, yet many of us have. It also goes down within a 24 hour period, which Linklater explored with each of his previous titles up before 1996.
Some critics made complaints that the characters commonly talk about profound topics, but those speeches end up meaning nothing. Well, yes, this is true, but that is also the point to a degree. These are twentysomething kids that will spit deep musings on life and their futures like its going out of style, but when it comes to taking action, those consciously advancing strides are a lot harder than they seem. I found it to be very powerful that Jeff frequently contemplates the meaning of life and ponders his own significance, yet never takes a step to change any of it. His best friend Tim nails him perfectly late in the story when he describes Jeff as "gullible and gutless." The fact is, many of these characters are all talk, little action, and this is not a flaw, but part of the message. I was totally invested in these people, regardless of whether or not I sympathized with them, and thought their interactions and exchanges to be more organic and truthful than many would give them credit for.
I enjoy talky pictures when I can commit to the characters and connect with the topics. In this case, the lifestyle of Jeff and his pals hits home. Then again, their central dilemma and conflicts should be relevant to all ages. I've seen youths like this hanging around local mini-marts, gas stations, and empty lots. Hell, I probably was one a time or two. Whether or not the philosophical ramblings amount to anything is not the issue. I enjoyed listening to and being part of the conversation, as if I was tagging along. What makes this an underrated effort is how uniquely it approached material we've seen numerous times before. Bogosian's intense and insightful screenplay is also not overly theatrical like plays often are, and Linklater balances the ensemble cast with the cleverness and skill of Robert Altman.
The performances are all fairly equal. Giovanni Ribisi springs to mind first because he has more screen time, but everyone delivers solid turns here. Ribisi is proficient at playing a slacker or a screw-up, and he has some commanding scenes as Jeff, a bitter kid who is more intelligent than he realizes. Take his moment of revelation that induces him to strip, only for it to be cut off by certain events. Of course most of these people have been drinking, and that definitely makes a difference. With more alcohol consumed, one's self-judgment goes away, and several characters experience that effect. Steve Zahn also stands out as Buff, and this was hardly the first time he enveloped the "crazy comedic guy" shtick, but it fits in this setting, and instead of him simply being inserted for cheap laughs, Buff's wild antics actually say a lot about the character. He has an affinity for roller blades, which brought back memories. One of my favorite scenes is Buff detailing his fantasy existence while Jeff retorts that it would become extremely boring.
There are two fully inhabited performances that have lingered in my head. The first is Nicky Katt's Tim, who strolls around drinking from his flask, unleashing random comments. He resides mainly in the background, but his presence is always felt. He is the most enigmatic of the clan, and therefore incredibly intriguing. Ajay Naidu is fantastic as Nazeer, the frustrated clerk who is on the path to attaining an engineering degree, and who just wants these kids to stand somewhere else. Only three years later would he be Samir in Office Space. With Jayce Bartok's Pony, Bogosian and Linklater could have introduced him as any number of stereotypical MTV rock stars, but they are avoided. Pony is an ok guy, but not completely likable either. This makes the chemistry amongst the group more convincing and the plot development more absorbing. Look for other satisfying supporting contributions from Parker Posey as Pony's publicist Erica, who wants to get laid, Amie Carey's Sooze, who is eager to leave her town behind, and Dina Waters' Bee-Bee, who is battling an alcohol addiction.
A picture of the charming Richard Linklater.
SubUrbia offers no easy answers, and that is what made an impact. Despite the rather unfortunate abruptness of the ending, it seemed to be telling the audience that this was a slice of life, an analysis of confused post-high school peeps, rather than a tale with a clear-cut trajectory. Linklater and Bogosian supply a window into their world, and then close it without notice. Putting a handle of Jeff's alienation, Buff's outrageousness, and other characters' actions is almost alluring. When real fame, lofty aspirations, and a lack of ambition all converge, SubUrbia is mesmerizing. When it tries to play it safe and be one with the numerous other Generation X (Empire Records, Reality Bites, etc.) entries, it is mediocre. This is an amusing, penetrating, and occasionally painful film, but one well made; and unless you're Jeff, who says "It's all so fu**ing futile", this is worth checking out.
The stellar soundtrack featuring Sonic Youth and Beck among others is available through sellers on Amazon for cheap prices. On a side note, you'll notice Catherine Hardwicke as the Production Designer, well before she bludgeoned us with Twilight and Red Riding Hood. Also, Ajay Naidu was nominated for Best Supporting Male at the 1997 Independent Spirit Awards, but rightfully lost out to Jason Lee's mastery in Chasing Amy. Steve Zahn and Samia Shoaib were two cast members that reprised their roles in the original stage version. No word on why this isn't on DVD, but I'd love to get a release some day with a possible Linklater/cast commentary. This is not the most accessible Linklater film, but I found it difficult to shake from my memory.
- I went to see How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying starring Daniel Radcliffe and John Laroquette and loved it. It has been awhile since I've seen a musical I genuinely enjoyed from start to finish, but everything clicked here. I now need to watch the movie version from 1967.
- I'm slowly catching up with new releases. The Adjustment Bureau was entertaining enough. It wasn't perfect, but Damon and Blunt had chemistry. I also finally vaught Drive Angry, which I also had fun with. It's cheesy Nic Cage in all its glory. It doesn't pretend to be anything else. I also caught some limited releases, Certified Copy and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which I hope to review soon.
- As for music, I picked up the Drive-By Truckers' new one Go-Go Boots, which was pretty solid, and listened to the latest Kings of Leon CD, Come Around Sundown, which was excellent for the first half and forgettable towards the end. Thumbs up overall though. Radiohead's new album The King of Limbs is predictably very good. Not their best, but quality stuff for sure.