10 Films That Examine Suburban Anxiety

Once upon a time the suburbs were about borrowing milk, sharing cups of sugar, and having neighborly chats over white-picket fences. Evenly spaced houses with well-manicured lawns and two-car garages represented a sort of happily-ever-after nirvana. It was the American Dream realized in tract houses, planned communities, McMansions, and material possessions. That nirvana, of course, is a sham. The suburbs are rife with angst and discontent, ennui and conflict, emotional repression and intolerance, and films have long presented cul-de-sacs and small town residential communities as battlegrounds where happy facades mask corrosive urges and anxieties.

The suburbs are the target of both dramas and comedies, but for the most part suburban films straddle genres. Black comedies, fantasy dramas, surreal soap operas, the best movies about the suburbs mix mercurial genres in order to peel back the layers of normal, everyday existence. In the first line of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy said: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In these 10 films every unhappy suburb is unhappy in its own way.

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10 Little Children, 2006

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Marital frustration, angst, ennui, prejudice, and pedophilia -Little Children, based on a novel Tom Perrotta, portrays suburban Massachusetts as a breeding ground for life’s ills. Unhappy in marriage and adrift in adulthood, Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson) start an affair. While both Sarah and Brad have children, they become the “little children” of the movie’s title, trying to evade their responsibilities and recapture their lost youth with disastrous results.

9 The Graduate, 1967

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While Mike Nichol’s The Graduate is remembered for its Simon & Garfunkel songs and pop culture catch phrases (“Are you trying to seduce me?”), it was one of the first comedy-dramas about the death of the American Dream. More precisely, the film was a counterculture statement for the youth of the time about the death of their parents’ idea of the American Dream.

The story follows Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) as he graduates from college only to find himself trapped between the expectations of his parents and his own unclear desires. He sleeps with an older neighbor and embarks on a series of misadventures. It’s a “Generation Gap” story -a story about freeing oneself from the constraints of an older generation. Benjamin Braddock is an educated, affluent kid, but education and money don’t buy happiness.

8 Grosse Pointe Blank, 1997

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American author Thomas Wolfe famously said “you can’t go home again,” and in the 1997 comedy Grosse Pointe Blank, assassin Martin Blank, played by John Cusack, riffs on the author’s line: “You can never go home again…but I guess you can shop there.”

After a botched hit, Martin Blank, depressed and irritable like a teen character in a 1980s John Hughes film, receives an invite to his 10-year high school reunion in Grosse Point, Michigan. His therapist suggests he attend. What follows is a dark, comedic skewering of the suburbs and the artificiality of high school reunions. The film underscores Thomas Wolfe’s thesis, too: your home will never be the way you remember it. It’s a lesson Martin Blank learns when he discovers his boyhood house has been transformed into a convenient store.

7 E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982

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E.T. is the story of Elliot, a lonely boy in California who befriends an extraterrestrial who is accidently left on earth. Despite the film’s cutesy use of Reese’s Pieces and a Speak and Spell to phone home, it has a darker subtext: divorce and alienation. The film is about the parallels of Elliot and E.T.’s life; Elliot feels alienated because of the loss of his father, and E.T. is divorced from home -a stranger in a strange land. Steven Spielberg directed E.T., and the concept for the film is based on an imaginary friend that Spielberg created after his parents’ divorce.

E.T. was released the same year as Poltergeist, a film Steven Spielberg co-wrote and produced, but didn't direct. While Poltergeist examines the suburbs with the use of horror, E.T. examines the suburbs through mythical sentimentality; the films are the opposite sides of the same coin, a Yin to a Yang. In an interview in Douglas Brode’s book, “The Films of Steven Spielberg,” the director is quoted as saying, “Poltergeist is about suburban evil, and E.T. is about suburban good. Both films started with similar ideas.”

6 Poltergeist, 1982

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The Freeling family -Steven, Diane, Dana, and Robbie -just moved to Cuesta Verde, a new California housing development. The Freelings are a classic American nuclear family, and Cuesta Verde is a classic American suburb, until the utensils start to bend and furniture moves on its own accord. In Tobe Hooper’s 1982 horror classic, comfort, stability, and suburban domesticity come under attack from supernatural forces.

With a turn of the screw piece of suburban symbolism, Poltergeist uses the idea of material possessions –in this case a TV- as a source of supernatural danger. Carol Anne, the youngest daughter, not only talks to ghosts (“They’re here”) through the TV, but when she gets sucked into another dimension her voice can only be heard through the family’s television set. What do the ghosts want? What triggered the poltergeists? It just so happens that the Cuesta Verde suburbs were built on a Native American burial ground.

5 American Beauty, 1999

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Written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes, American Beauty won five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Kevin Spacey). Like a novel by John Updike or a short story by John Cheever, American Beauty presents the suburbs as a hotbed of middle class malaise and marital discontent. The story follows the midlife crisis of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), his materialistic wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) and their insecure daughter, Jane. American Beauty covers a variety of novelistic themes: materialism, idealism, conformity, sexuality, liberation, and redemption.

Despite winning five Academy Awards, American Beauty hasn’t aged well. Fifteen years after its release, the fin de siècle film doesn’t feel that fin de siècle. The movie is bloated with big motifs, yet at the same time it feels decidedly insular, as if the events are taking place in some type of snow globe where the snowflakes have been replaced with rose petals. In 2005, Premiere rated American Beauty as one of the “20 Most Overrated Movies of All Time.”

4 The Stepford Wives, 1975

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Ira Levin’s satirical thriller novel, The Stepford Wives, first appeared in 1972, and it was made into a film in 1975. Part feminist doctrine, part science fiction, the movie savages the sterility of suburban living. The story follows Joanna Eberhart, a photographer and young mother, who moves with her husband from New York City to an idyllic suburb in Connecticut. She begins to suspect that all the submissive housewives in Stepford are actually robots created by their husbands. Today, the term “stepford wife” is part of the pop culture lexicon and used to describe any woman who subordinates her life to her husband’s interests. In 2004, a muddled remake of The Stepford Wives staring Nicole Kidman, Bette Milder and Matthew Broderick failed to thrill, satirize, or sell movie tickets.

3 The Virgin Suicides, 1999

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Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides is Sofia Coppola’s first feature film. Haunting and ethereal, the movie is a darkly comedic examination of life in an affluent Michigan suburb in the 1970s. Told through a collective narration of high school boys, the film investigates the startling deaths of the five Libson sisters, while at the same time exploring ideas of love, loss, adolescence, emotional abuse, and parental repression. In an ordinary and unremarkable town, the boys search for the fateful moment when something went terribly wrong with the Libson sisters. Sophia Coppola amps up the mood and atmosphere –the French electronica duo Air provided the soundtrack –and the story unspools like a disarmingly poetic dream.

2 Edward Scissorhands, 1990

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Isolation and self-discovery are the themes in Tim Burton’s classic dark fantasy, Edward Scissorhands. Edward (Johnny Depp), an unfinished, Frankenstein-like creation with scissors for hands, is found living alone in a Gothic castle. He’s taken in by a suburban family and falls in love with their daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder). Kim eventually leaves her misogynistic, jock boyfriend to be with Edward.

Beauty and the Beast and Frankenstein influenced Edward Scissorhands, and the climax of the film even mirrors James Whale’s classic horror tale, with an angry suburban mob confronting Edward -the evil and misunderstood monster. Tim Burton said his depiction of suburbia is “not a bad place. It’s a weird place.” Critics have argued that by having Kim leave her jock boyfriend, Burton was getting revenge against all the jocks that bullied him when he was a non-conformist, misfit growing up in the suburbs.

1 Blue Velvet, 1986

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Blue Velvet is David Lynch’s masterpiece of suburban surrealism. It all starts when a college student named Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) discovers a human ear in his hometown. Beneath the quaint, Norman Rockwell veneer of small town America, Jeffrey and his friend Sandy (Laura Dern) discover a lurid underworld of deviance and dread –a mysterious film noir landscape complete with a kinky femme fatale torch singer (Isabella Rossellini) and a foulmouthed criminal psychopath named Frank (Dennis Hopper), who huffs nitrous oxide and sings the praises of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Blue Velvet was included in The New York Times “10 Best Films of 1986.”

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