(Richard Linklater, USA, 1996)


The point at which certain independent American filmmakers stop being fashionable is sometimes precisely the point at which their work starts becoming really interesting.

This was the case with Hal Hartley – whose Flirt (1995) deserved a lot more attention than it got – and history repeats itself with Richard Linklater (Slacker, 1991, Dazed and Confused, 1993, Before Sunrise, 1995). SubUrbia (not to be confused with Penelope Spheeris's 1983 punk classic of the same name) is unquestionably the most accomplished, masterful and intricate work to this point in his career.

Suburbia's modest surface belies its deep artistry. Adapted by Eric Bogosian (the star and writer of Oliver Stone's Talk Radio, 1988) from his play, the story locates five teenagers in their unassuming suburban milieu. This bunch mainly hangs around outside a local supermarket, much to the consternation of its conservative Indian proprietors. Evoking a '90s version of American Graffiti (1973), these teens face the prospect of either getting out of their small world and trying to make something of themselves, or staying still and stagnating forever more.

The plot moves in this piece are small, and Linklater admirably sidesteps possibilities for the kind of angst-ridden melodrama that characterises such breast-beating, youth-oriented films as Fun. But a complex, minute intrigue develops once a previous inhabitant of this suburb, the upcoming rock singer Pony (Jayce Bartok), returns for a local gig and a nostalgic encounter with his old gang.

With its limited number of locations and its extended dialogue exchanges, SubUrbia will doubtless attract the reflex criticism that it is too stagey and static. Linklater, however, displays a quietly virtuosic grasp of what really makes a film cinematic: not aerial shots and a thousand blazing edits, but a fine, moment-to-moment tension accompanying the behaviour of characters, their movements and positionings within the frame. This is a movie in which the unseen, or the fleetingly glimpsed, is always just as telling as what is centre stage.

Above all else, SubUrbia is remarkable for its work with actors and characterisation. Linklater and Bogosian take the slacker stereotypes of the contemporary teen movie and invest a new depth, resonance and sympathy into each figure. The boastful, deluded, hoonish Buff (Steve Zahn); Sooze (Amie Carey), an angry punk with an ambition to be a feminist performance artist; the sullen, brooding jock Tim (Nicky Katt); Sooze's sidekick Bee-Bee (Dina Spybey), battling silently with her alcoholism; and the ever frazzled, conscience-stricken Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi) any of these could have been a mere trigger for easy laughter or cheap thrills, but all are touching, beautifully rounded character portraits.

So many films adapted from 'social issue' plays – particularly in Australia – tend to didactically reduce their characters to two-dimensional emblems wearily signalling various political problems of class, gender, wealth and so forth. These young suburbanites conjured by Linklater and Bogosian – kids who banter about postmodernism and video art just as naturally as beer and splatter movies – are more than emblems: to encounter them on screen is to experience the shock, and the poignancy, of a reality that has been acutely observed and vividly rendered as drama.

MORE Linklater: The Newton Boys, Waking Life, Boyhood, Before Sunrise / Before Sunset

© Adrian Martin November 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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