Suburbia (1983)

“We’re talking about kids — kids like yours and mine!”

Suburbia Poster

Synopsis:
A group of runaway punk youths living in an abandoned house find their existence threatened by a vigilante citizen group called Citizens Against Crime.

Genres:

Review:
Penelope Spheeris’s follow-up to her cult documentary about the punk scene in Los Angeles, The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), was this fictional look at the lives of the disaffected youths drawn to this aggressively nihilistic musical genre. Although the film’s protagonists (most played by non-actors) are shown visiting punk music clubs, with real-life bands such as D.I. performing, the screenplay is ultimately most concerned with depicting both the teens’ daily struggle to survive, and their tragic back stories — such as that of Sheila (Jennifer Clay), a female runaway introduced in the film’s appalling opening sequence, in which she watches mutely while a young baby is mauled to death by a wild dog. (This scene is so viscerally disturbing I had to turn the movie off immediately, and didn’t return to it until well over a year later — so consider yourself duly forewarned.)

Other characters in the ensemble cast include the teenage son (Bill Coyne) of an abusively alcoholic mother (Donna Lamana), and his six-year-old brother (Andrew Pece); a charismatic but bigoted skinhead (Chris Pedersen) who’s upset about having a black police officer (Don Allen) as a stepdad; a druggie (Grant Miner) whose stash plays a pivotal role in a later plot element; a rat-lover (Flea in his screen debut!); and more. While refreshingly sympathetic to these disturbed teens’ sorry lot in life, Spheeris ultimately tends to fetishize their existence a bit too much (watch for the slo-mo musical interlude about halfway through the film, shown as a still on the poster), thus turning their communal existence into the ultimate sleepover fantasy. Yes, they must deal with unruly neighborhood thugs (those pesky adults!) who threaten their very existence — but at least they have each other. However, therein lies its cult appeal; check comments on IMDb for a flavor of how many people have fond memories of this film from their own youth.

Note: Suburbia (also known as The Wild Side) won the Best First Feature award at the 1983 Chicago International Film Festival; Spheeris went on to craft an oddly mainstream Hollywood career for herself.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A gritty look at runaway punk subculture
    Suburbia Still

Must See?
No; while it has (or had) a cult following of sorts, this one is no longer must-see viewing.

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