The Linklater Project 6: subUrbia (1996)

One of our favorite filmmakers, Richard Linklater, released a new film this year. So, we figured we’d watch all of the other movies he has made before we see it… just, you know, for context. (While applying a totally made up rating system, of course). Follow along with us.

After making three truly great films–Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise–Linklater had cached considerable indie film starpower in 1996, and decided to accelerate the buzz by joining forces with another rising star of the 90’s, Eric Bogosian, a New York playwright. Bogosian and Linklater have some thematic interests in common, but unfortunately their collaboration didn’t crackle like folks expected. Although subUrbia isn’t a bad movie, it doesn’t have the same magic as Linklater’s prior work.

Who is the protagonist?

Jeff is a young 20-something who lives in a tent in his parents’ garage in–that’s right!–a suburb. Jeff seems smart and self-aware, but isn’t doing much: occasionally going to a class at the community college, working a pointless job, hanging out in the parking lot of a gas station, and sometimes “writing things.”

Who/what is the antagonist – or propels the action?

The action of the film takes place in one night, in which Jeff’s former bandmate returns to Burnfield. His name is Neil, but he goes by “Pony” now, since he’s a big up-and-coming gold record rock star who plays folk music on an acoustic guitar–but apparently also wears a black leather motorcycle jacket. Pony and his publicist, Erica, show up in a limo at Jeff’s favorite gas station, and the film follows Jeff and his friends as they wander around, navigating the wake of Pony’s success.

Midnight Cinematic Index (MCI) Rating

Characters: 2

The characters split nicely into two camps: successful people/wannabees and the depressives/misanthropes. Most of them don’t change or learn much on this particular night. Jeff, one of the misanthropes, is the most complex character and maybe even has a little compassion for others; he gets closer than anyone else to a shift in his perspective (a kind of mini-transformation) while monologuing to Bebe, in which he realizes that uncertainty is a part of living. It’s too bad he’s super drunk in this moment and strips off all his clothes for some reason.

Style: 3.5

Too often, films adapted from plays can feel dialogue-heavy and visually stunted, but Linklater’s wandering eye offers a regularly moving backdrop that complements the structure of scene after scene of dialogue between two or three characters, always in a different configuration. That, and the small geographical area the film inhabits, effectively emphasizes the townies’ bored claustrophobia.

I’d rank style higher, but unfortunately I can’t because ooof–Sooze’s fashion choices are a particularly flashy mess of cutesy mid-90’s alternative girl, right down to her platform tennies and the sparkly barrette in her pixie cut. She looks STRAIGHT out of a Delia’s catalogue. Maybe it’s because I lived through this absurd period in 90’s fashion, but I find her whole look so distracting that it makes me dislike her.

Structure: 2.5

The events of one night in a small town, with a small group of people. Structurally it’s ok – but there’s nothing really new to see here.

Ideas: 3

The themes at work in subUrbia–frustration, isolation, meaninglessness, emptiness–aren’t profound or new, especially for films about disaffected late-20th century youth. If anything, what sets subUrbia apart from its peers is its total lack of optimism. These people are lost: either choosing to subscribe to the nonsense illusion of the consumer-driven entertainment complex (creative prostitution disguised as making art) or spinning endlessly, bored and apathetic, doing nothing with their privileged white middle class (mostly male) American lives. The subplots of xenophobia, racism, gun violence, and addiction feel tacked on and detract from the more interesting ideas.

Midnight Rating: 3

Though it does have moments of insight, subUrbia veers too often into plot turns or stylistic choices that are only there for shock value. Jeff getting naked, Sooze’s f-bomb-heavy performance art manifesto, all the guns aimed at people, Bebe’s oblivion, the red herring of Erica’s murder, Tim’s venomous racism… it feels off that a movie that is about boredom and inaction is so action-packed. These moments feel like a cheap substitute for, or distraction from, the true complexity this movie circles around: that adult life is often boring, frustrating, and the best path to follow is almost always unclear. There is a liberating parallel truth to this difficult one–that having so many choices also offers incredible possibility–and Jeff has a moment where he almost understands that. Unfortunately, he was so drunk, he probably won’t remember it.

Linklaterism Bonus: 35%

For aimlessly walking around, armchair philosophizing, mildly threatening hyper-masculinity, wasted or stoned conversing, time as a structural element.

Overall: 3.78

A completely fine choice to put on in the background on a rainy weekend when you’re jones-ing for some 90’s adolescent seriousness, subUrbia is streaming free on Vudu.

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