Penelope Spheeris’ “Suburbia” (1983)

I have no clue when I first saw Penelope Spheeris’ 1983 movie Suburbia. I was a fourth grader when it came out, and I don’t remember watching it until later in the ’80s. There’s no way that it came on regular TV in Montgomery, Alabama, like on those weekend afternoon matinee shows that used to fill time alongside Kung Fu reruns and Ronco infomercials. It’s possible that a friend had it on VHS or something. 

However it happened, I did find it. And I watched Suburbia quite a few times after realizing that the movie rental store in Normandale Mall near my house had a copy. Those were the days of latchkey kids, and I was one. It was no sweat to put together a few dollars, walk up to the store, rent a movie, watch it while no one was home, put it away before anyone got home, then walk it back up there the next day.

What I do remember about Suburbia was: it took a while for me to clue in to the fact that Penelope Spheeris was the same director who’d made Decline of Western Civilization, Part II about the LA hair bands. At that point, I had not seen the first Decline film and wasn’t into punk as much as ’70s rock and ’80s metal. Back then, punk was hard to come by in Montgomery, but the local classic rock station and the shopping mall record store made rock and metal readily available. My taste in tunes led me to watch Decline, Part II, probably on MTV, and that may have also been where I stumbled on Suburbia. (For those not old enough to remember, MTV used to play music videos, then as time went on, they strayed into other programming, like showing movies. I’m pretty sure that’s how I saw The Song Remains the Same and The Wall.)

Even though punk wasn’t my thing, Suburbia is very much a movie about punk. Some people would say that punk was dead by that point. I don’t know enough about the history to have an opinion, but I will say that there will never be a shortage of disaffected young people looking for art and music that speak to what they’re going through. Even though I wasn’t a punk, I did understand what I was seeing. As an example, in the opening scene of Suburbia, the mom comes home from work, sees that the boys have done no chores, and begins flipping out and screaming. This freakout leads the older son Evan to run away from home, leaving behind a promise to come back for his younger brother Ethan. That’s the catalyst that drives the plot.

One problem with growing up in 1980s Alabama was: even though we had our share of divorce, poverty, intolerance, and violence, there were no homegrown musical (or artistic) forms that spoke to the anger felt by young people whose lives were rattled by these things. Ever-conservative country music reflected the concerns of working-class adults, and even the more progressive Southern rock and the more freewheelin’ outlaw country weren’t really designed for teen angst. Neither Charlie Daniels nor Waylon Jennings had songs about being mad at their moms for refusing to get them a Pepsi.

So, to find those expressions, it was necessary to look beyond Alabama, beyond the Deep South, past the beer-drinking dads and muscle-car bullies, and to fabled places like New York and Los Angeles. The latter is where Suburbia took place, in an abandoned housing project occupied by runaways and plagued by wild dogs. In this apocalyptic refuge, an assortment of streetwise punks, naive newbies, and fragile miscreants huddled among cast-off furniture and other refuse. The leader was Jack, older than the rest with spiked blond hair and a beat-up car. An angry, usually shirtless skinhead named Skinner was his righthand man. Also in the mix was the wild-eyed Razzle, played by Mike B the Flea, the bassist for Red Hot Chili Peppers. The group goes to concerts, lays around the house, and causes some trouble.

The main antagonists are two middle-aged white guys, pissed off at having lost their jobs and looking for someone to blame. Though I’d never been to LA, I recognized those guys. They lived in Alabama, too. To distill their thinking down to a sentence: everyone who isn’t like me is a problem. That attitude is sorry enough, but the guys who take it further and act on it can cause real problems, like running over a little boy on his big wheel.

The other sort-of antagonist is a police officer, played by Isaac from The Love Boat. He patrols the area where they live and has some measure of sympathy for the kids. Others aren’t quite so understanding about it, so he has to spar with two unemployed white guys, who would rather take a zero tolerance approach.

Though I had no desire to live in the dirty hovel that was home to the runaways, I think that I identified with their plight: unwanted and maligned, victims of their circumstances, seeking refuge among people like themselves, trying to make sense of it all. I had been a bookish, nerdy kid who grew into a frustrated teenager tired of hearing that I was weird and wrong and unacceptable. Though I didn’t want to run away from home and emulate these unruly punks, their situation resonated with me, telling me that I wasn’t the only one going through this kind of thing.

It’d be a mistake to watch Suburbia and think that it summarized or encapsulated life for Gen-Xers. It didn’t. Most of us didn’t live like that. But there are glimmers of truth among the muck, and that’s what appealed to me about it. There really were small concert venues where people piled in to hear local bands, and occasionally got violent. There really were angry parents who would throw glass bottles at their kids for not taking out the trash. There really were guys who would follow punks and skaters in their cars, then jump out and start a fight in some random person’s yard. There really were MAGA types who would do things like prowl an empty housing project with guns, looking to get even with the punk kids they didn’t like. And for kids who were on the fringes, those were some of the facts. What was great about Suburbia was: without trying to turn the punks into saints, it flipped the scenario on its head and showed the mainstream folks what they looked like.

Note: Don’t confuse this movie with the one from 1997 with the same title. That one was made by a group with Gen-X credibility – director Richard Linkater, writer Eric Bogosian, starring Giovanni Ribisi and Parker Posey – but . . . well, it’s not as good.

Foster Dickson is a writer, editor, and teacher in Montgomery, Alabama. He is the editor of level:deepsouth.

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