Movies

How Penelope Spheeris Captured The Wild Side Of American Youth Culture

“May 10th, 1968. Mark and I are going to be very happy here. The air is clean, skies are blue, and all the houses are brand new and beautiful. They call it suburbia and that word’s perfect because it’s a combination of suburb and utopia… I’m sure with Mark’s job at Lockheed I’ll never have to work again… Oh and by the way, diary, we want to have a child soon. Suburbia’s a great place for children…”

These words come from the diary of Tina Johnson (Donna Lamana), expressing all the hopes and optimism of her youth in the late ’60s. But now, in the ’80s, her teenaged son Evan (Bill Coyne) reads the old diary with the cruel benefit of hindsight. His father Mark is long gone, and Tina, now a single mother to Evan and his much younger brother Ethan (Andrew Pece), works all day, drinks all night, and interacts with her eldest by throwing bottles at his head.

So Evan has left home, and joined Jack Diddley (Chris Pedersen) and a coterie of other young punks in a squat on the neighbourhood’s outer limits. As Evan and Jack drive through that same suburbia which Tina had been describing, and which now looks the worse for wear, Jack comments, “They didn’t realise they’d be the slums of the future.”

Penelope Spheeris is perhaps best known for directing SNL comedy spin-off Wayne’s World in 1992. But she had for the previous decade been a chronicler of LA’s underground scenes in her The Decline of Western Civilisation documentary trilogy, and in her early features. Her debut Suburbia serves as the low-rent downside to John Hughes’ more sanitised vision of ’80s youth culture. For here Reagan’s America is seen as a place of lay-offs, layabouts and general decay. All the kids in the squat – literally branded with the initials TR (for ‘The Rejected’) – come from broken homes, and are forming their own unruly family together on the edge not just of town but of all their decade’s ideological bromides.

These young people are unambiguously delinquents – vandalising property, getting into fights, stealing whatever they can. But in a film of uneasy juxtapositions and symmetries, they are also shown to be a product of the very environments from which they have emerged and grown marginalised. Suburbia opens with the shocking spectacle of a toddler being attacked and killed by a wild dog. These dogs, abandoned by their owners, are rumoured to have interbred with local coyotes, and now prowl near the squat.

One of the gang, Razzle (played by Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers), who keeps a pet rat, is also trying to domesticate a pair of the dogs. The dogs serve as an obvious analogue for the kids, themselves condemned by others as “wild teenagers” and “metal rejects running wild on the streets”, and themselves forming a domestic pack together in response to their own rejection and abandonment.

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