Penelope Spheeris’ ‘Suburbia’: Not Just a Teenage Wasteland

Suburbia 1983 Movie - Film Essay

In Suburbia, writer-director Penelope Spheeris begins on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the city lights glimmering in the distance as a woman (Dorlinda Griffin), with her toddler in tow, pulls over to pick up teenage hitchhiker Sheila (Jennifer Clay). After catching a flat and trekking to a phone booth to call for help, the trio is suddenly met by a snarling doberman appearing seemingly out of nowhere. In an instant, the dog charges (it’s one of a feral pack said to be the remnants of evicted tenants), thrashing the small child before either of the women can do anything to stop it; innocence is snuffed out by a vicious monster born, literally, of a systemic failure. Any question as to Suburbia’s view of its titular subject is answered firmly, and brutally, in these first few minutes: this is a hellscape.

The milieu is one that Spheeris was already intimately acquainted with: perhaps her most celebrated work is the landmark documentary trilogy The Decline of Western Civilization, a gritty series of snapshots about the Los Angeles hardcore punk and heavy metal scenes of the 80s and 90s. Using equipment borrowed through her music videography company Rockin’ Reel, Spheeris shot Part I (1981) over a few months in ’79 and ’80, capturing with vivid immediacy the exciting and violent energy of punk shows from now-legendary bands like Black Flag, X, The Circle Jerks and The Germs. Along with the concerts, Spheeris’ film is spliced with interviews of the teenagers that make up the scene, both band members and fans (plus the occasional venue owner or concert promoter). Though it has since come to be hailed as an essential document of the era, the film wasn’t a commercial success by any means upon release (few documentaries at that time were), yet something in it was striking enough to catch the attention of producer Roger Corman, who offered Spheeris a narrative feature based on that same punk world.

Suburbia’s protagonist-cum-audience surrogate is Evan (Bill Coyne), a freckled boy of about 16 with a brown mat of hair, who, fed up with the abuse of his alcoholic mother, packs some basic necessities into a garbage bag and hits the streets without a plan. In a crucial moment, Evan leans against the outside of a diner; the camera lifts up slightly as he turns to look inside, providing a glimpse of a family enjoying a hearty meal through the glass before he turns back around and his eye catches some bedraggled teens decked out in leather jackets and shredded clothing –– punks on their way to a gig. With the comforts of a normal family life closed off to him (separated, literally, by a pane of glass), Evan’s hand is more or less forced, and he quickly takes up with a gang of punks. They call themselves The Rejected –– T.R. for short –– and they live in a derelict tract house covered in graffiti and crawling with roaches. Evan is initiated with a haircut and a brand on his forearm —  from there, Suburbia settles into its meandering narrative, content to follow this group’s daily life in an episodic fashion. In addition to gigs, they spend their time raiding local garages, terrorizing convenience stores, and goofing off however they see fit.

Coyne is one of the few young performers with prior acting experience (he had a small role in a TV miniseries a few years earlier), whereas the rest of the Suburbia ensemble is filled out by amateurs, purportedly real-life punks that Spheeris pulled from various gigs with the promise of a meager income. (One of those punks is a 21-year-old Flea –– as in the future bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who plays a grimy, animal-loving miscreant named Razzle.) Though Spheeris’ casting decisions were likely influenced by the film’s small budget, the performances actually manage to tap into something that resonates even beyond their being an extratextual marker of “authenticity”: in their wooden, So-Cal-drawls and their stiff, vacant faces, these performers are able to hit on a specific feeling of disaffection, a numbness that comes as the result of a lifetime of mistreatment. As their moniker suggests, these kids have been chewed up and spit out by the world. In one scene, a well-meaning cop asks why they don’t want to go to college and make something of themselves, and he’s met with an earnest reply: “College? Most of us couldn’t even afford school lunch.” There is no home for them to return to, nowhere to go beyond this abandoned housing development on the edge of Los Angeles County.

Most are victims of abuse, parental and systemic alike, and by this point, not even two decades into their young lives, they’re already burnt out. Sheila, who joins T.R. shortly after the opening dog attack, runs from a father who would routinely molest her and then work through his guilt by beating her. She rarely speaks, but her doe-eyed stare and the uneasy way she carries herself, as if she’s ready to flee at any sign of danger, speaks mightily to the weight of her trauma. Late in Suburbia, Sheila details for Joe (Wade Walston) how she got the scars that cover her back, and her hollow, detached delivery makes it all the more poignant, as does Joe’s calmly empathetic reply: “That’s what I thought you were going to say.” Even lighter moments, like Jack’s decision to throw a beer bottle at a passing bus, and his senseless explanation –– “I hate buses,” he remarks with nihilistic plainness –– go far in showing the ways in which these teens respond to their own alienation.

Whether these performances are the product of skillful calculation, genuine experience or just a case of amateurish paralysis in front of the camera is impossible to say for sure, but what is more certain is that it works to great effect –– it resonates uniquely. The punk movement is so often associated purely with anger, and, to be sure, there is plenty of rage brewing in Suburbia (on multiple occasions, it does indeed boil over into violence), but more often than not, this dissatisfaction manifests itself in a more languorous manner; the punks crowd around TV sets depicting a potential nuclear holocaust (most people won’t have the kind of money to build a blast shelter, the TV informs them), numbly taking in the horrors of the world they’ve been born into. In one scene, a commercial for a therapy program comes on screen, and Evan, in his distinctly monotonous tone, notes that “if you had $800 a week, you probably wouldn’t be depressed in the first place.” He’s not saying this with disgust so much as he’s simply expressing a truth. (Note the tattered American flag hanging just above their tiny TV set.)

In many ways, Suburbia is a clear extension of Spheeris’ preceding documentary, narrativizing the latter film’s portrait of a disaffected generation and filtering it through a specific group of fictional characters –– it’s even punctuated by concert scenes (featuring bands like T.S.O.L. and the Vandals) that mimic The Decline of Western Civilization’s intimate shooting style. But, crucially, Spheeris also brings a wider scope to her narrative feature. Early in the first documentary installment, Brendan Mullen, owner of the punk club The Masque, draws an allegory between the punk rock of his day and the folk protest music of the 60s: “Now, instead of acoustic guitars, they have high-speed, 300 beats per minute speed rock,” he says. “And they’re yelling about the same things.” It’s a sharp observation, and one that largely goes untouched past Mullen’s interview. But Spheeris would take that precise idea –– the stark generational divide, the paradoxical similarities of jaded boomers and punks –– and use it as the central conflict informing Suburbia.

Jim (Lee Frederick) and Bob (Jeff Prettyman) are in their 40s, former auto workers exasperated at a world they no longer understand, and now with an excess of time on their hands after a mass layoff at GM. In response to the death of the toddler that opens the film, they decide to take the safety of their community into their own hands, dubbing themselves Citizens Against Crime, and vowing to rid their neighborhood of vermin, whether that be stray dogs or insolent teenagers. (“When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” reads a bumper sticker affixed to their RV.) As Suburbia progresses, the loose narrative begins to build some tension through a series of tense encounters between T.R. and C.A.C., all of it mounting towards a tragedy that mirrors the film’s opening in its senseless loss of a young life.

These men are not unlike Evan’s mother, who, in the 60s, was happily married, dreaming of a beautiful family life. Spheeris provides a glimpse of that blissful past when Evan reads aloud a passage from his mother’s diary. “They call it suburbia, and that word is perfect because it’s a combination of ‘suburb’ and ‘utopia.’” he reads, mockingly, as if the audience didn’t already grasp her failure — the camera shows it, tracking across the decrepit houses that form the reality of her shattered dream. Back then, the air was clean, the skies blue and all the houses brand new and beautiful –– “Little did she know they’d become the slums of the future,” Jack sneerily replies. Jim and Bob have been sold the same lies, they are victims of the same broken promises. Like the T.R. kids, they now find themselves strapped for cash, sexually frustrated and without a proper outlet for their rage. The punks at least have their concerts, but for these suburban dads, that discontent becomes false-righteous vigilantism, thoughtless teenagers the target of their violent ire. Their hypocrisy is decidedly not lost on Spheeris: late in Suburbia, she shows the (married) men in a strip club decrying the “sinful” nature of the locals punks, before cutting out to reveal a nude woman dancing just in front of them.

Suburbia is a punk classic not just because it deeply understands and empathizes with its culture –– the music, the violence, the clothes, the often-jarring lack of political sophistication –– but because it understands something important about punk’s place in society at large: it understands that punk, for all of its danger and extremity, is also a symptom of the same disgruntled rage that plagues all of the downtrodden, disillusioned people across our country. That these adults cannot find it in themselves to admit such a kinship is the film’s devastating tragedy.

Watch Suburbia at The Criterion Channel.

Brendan Nagle (@bnagle17) is a freelance film and music writer based out of Portland, OR. His work can be found in publications like the Portland Monthly, InReview Online, and Spectrum Culture.