Cult Cinema: SubUrbia

Here's our review of Linklater's excellent SubUrbia.

"What? Why do you keep saying
I always play the same character?
I don't."
Richard Linklater is perhaps the quintessential American indie filmmaker. He helped redefine independent film for the 1990s with Slacker, and in the two decades since then he has crafted a very distinctive style as a writer and director in a very strong body of work that includes his Before Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight trilogy, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, and Bernie. And now he has given us possibly the best film of 2014, with his twelve-years-in-the-making masterpiece Boyhood. Towards the beginning of that illustrious career, in 1996, he made SubUrbia: a film which in many ways is a crucial step in his progression as a director, and which is certainly just as great a film as many of those mentioned above, but which, due to a complicated and troubled distribution history, has faded into obscurity rather than earning recognition as one of his greats. It's time for Warner Bros to start giving this neglected piece of the Linklater filmography the respect it deserves- starting with a long-overdue DVD/blu-ray release.

SubUrbia was directed by Linklater, but written by author/monologuist Eric Bogosian, adapted from his off-Broadway play of the same name. Although the two auteurs seem to have pretty different styles (Linklater's work is very laid-back and thoughtful, while Bogosian's is high-energy and confrontational), they work remarkably well together, to create a film that feels just as purely Linklater as Dazed and Confused and the Before Sunrise trilogy, while still having a distinctly Bogosian energy to its more intense dialogue scenes. The play itself (to which the screenplay is nearly identical, save for a few modifications and omissions of minor scenes) is perfectly suited to Linklater's easily-recognizable style: it is set entirely over the course of one night that acts as a microcosm of the characters' lives and personalities, and is told through a series of long, very naturalistic dialogue scenes that are shot in an immersive, fly-on-the-wall kind of way. Like the Before... movies, it essentially just follows its characters around listening to them talk and play out their lives and personal struggles, but his style and his talent for finding powerful visuals among ordinary settings ensures that it is never dull and certainly never stagey, despite its dialogue-heavy theatrical roots. Linklater also really knows how to work with actors, and bring out their best strengths to keep the long conversations engaging. He always assembles a great ensemble cast, and SubUrbia is no exception: this time his leads include Giovanni Ribisi, Parker Posey, Steve Zahn (who originated his role in the off-Broadway production), Nicky Katt, and Ajay Naidu.

"Haha. Yeah, you do, dolt."
SubUrbia is essentially a tale of twenty-somethings struggling to find direction in their lives, and to recognize the personal demons and psychological roadblocks that hold them back. The film's five core characters are a group of old high school friends who never succeeded in getting out of their dead-end suburban town and finding something better. As their twenties are starting to slip away from them, they're still living at home, spending every night drinking outside the local convenience store, and talking vaguely of plans to escape, despite the obvious fact that various factors are keeping them from budging. Whether it's fear of putting their art out there and having it criticized, love for someone who refuses to budge in their ways, or anxiety and depression caused by previous failed attempts at escape, they are all stuck in suburbia, but keep fooling themselves into thinking that they're figuring out how to leave. On this particular night, their one friend who succeeded in getting away and making something for himself – who is now a rock star on tour with his band – stops by the convenience store to catch up with his old friends. His fame, and the various reasons for which some of the other characters resent it, is the catalyst for an intensely emotional night of confrontations: outwardly, confrontations with each other, but really, confrontations with the personal factors holding themselves back, which they otherwise refuse to acknowledge. Fueled by alcohol and each other's volatile personalities, this is a night that will leave no psychological or emotional stone unturned, for better or for worse.

"This is a song called Giovanni Ribisi
Always Plays The Same Guy.
Now, dance!!!!"
The poster for the film somewhat misrepresents it as a Clerks or Dazed and Confused-ish comedy. Anyone who goes in expecting that will be in for a shock, as the film begins quite funny but grows increasingly serious and dark as it goes on, gradually building up the psychological intensity over its two hours. Made just one year after Before Sunrise, these two films mark the point where Linklater proved to the world that he isn't just the comedy filmmaker of Slacker and Dazed and Confused, but an insightful and thought-provoking director who can do drama just as well, if not better. This is a movie that isn't afraid to look at the really uncomfortable truths about this time of life where everything is in flux and futures can be made or wasted. For some it may hit too close to home, but its brutal honesty is a breath of fresh air among the overly-optimistic takes on the college-age comedy that Hollywood typically produces. It also captures the universality of longing for someone else's life, thinking it must be better than yours: just as the friends who never escaped bitterly long for the wealth and freedom of their rock-star friend's life, he longs for the normalcy of their lives, and the perceived freedom he sees in it. A very telling moment of Bogosian's dialogue occurs early in the film, when Ribisi's burned-out would-be writer, Jeff, first meets back up with returned rock star Pony, and each is a bit jealous of the other's life. Jeff comments on how life as a professional musician must be great, to which Pony says “No, man, it's really tough. It's just... airport, hotel, show, airport, hotel, show, airport, hotel, show... are you still living at your mom's?” Each one of them finds pain in opposite halves of that sentence, and it sets the tone for all that is to come.

Linklater and Bogosian's film is deceptively rich in themes and psychological observations, wrapped subtlely in darkly comic dialogue and casual character interactions in a way that makes it all seem rather effortless. Two years earlier, Reality Bites tried way too hard to be the quintessential, issue-encompassing gen-x comedy/drama, and it badly stumbled under the weight of everything it so self-consciously sought to be; SubUrbia actually succeeds in being the quintessential gen-x film precisely because it isn't trying to be. It's just telling a story about these characters, which resonates as a very universal one, for its time or any other. It does a great job of capturing the mid-1990s – both in the characters and the world they inhabit, and in its excellent soundtrack by Sonic Youth – but the particulars of the characters and their stories are so eternally relevant that the film is aging extremely well, and is not totally bound to its particular time and place. This is a film that will not lose its power over time.

click to watch
Yet despite what a strong film SubUrbia is, Warner Bros has largely refused to acknowledge it since the days of VHS and laserdisc. This is the only film of Linklater's that has never received a DVD release anywhere in the world (let alone a blu-ray), and for a decade it was out of print, until it was recently made available by Warner as a web-streaming exclusive. And let's be honest: to exist as a streaming-only film is still a very sad fate. For years, the thing stopping it from coming to DVD was (as with so much great media from the 90s) music rights: Warner either couldn't or (more likely) didn't want to renew the rights for the film's prominent Sonic Youth music. Eventually the soundtrack issue was resolved, and at least twice the film came very close to reaching DVD: once, Linklater reported that Warner had hired the artist who did the box art for the Dazed and Confused Criterion to design the cover for a special edition, then another time Criterion informally mentioned that they were working on a deal with Warner to release the film. Both times, something halted work on the discs, and they were never mentioned again. Warner clearly has little interest in giving it a physical release: they couldn't even be bothered to give it a Warner Archive DVD-R in addition to being available digitally (although again, a DVD-R is still a sad fate for a film like this). Presumably Criterion still wants to release it; maybe someday they'll be able to work out that agreement with Warner, and we'll finally be able to put it on our shelves next to their spectacular two-disc Dazed and Confused set. Until then, renting or buying it digitally is the best option, and under the circumstances is highly recommended. This great entry in Richard Linklater's filmography has been unavailable for far too long, and as Boyhood will likely be getting a lot of attention during awards season, it's the perfect time to rediscover it.

-Christopher S. Jordan