Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week: A new adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull has us thinking back on stellar movies made from stage plays.
A group of aimless young people—some with vague artistic ambitions, others with rapidly fading high school glory, all given to windy, philosophical musings—bum around the Austin, Texas outskirts, drinking and talking while delaying the inevitable. It’s a territory that Richard Linklater idled in twice before he made SubUrbia; both Slacker and Dazed And Confused became formative films for a restless yet lazy generation, whose revolution involved defiantly hanging out. But in his third movie to be inspired by that easygoing arrested development Austinites call “the velvet rut,” Linklater found a cross-country spiritual mate in Eric Bogosian, the acerbic, anxious actor and playwright who wrote SubUrbia about his own adolescent malaise in the burbs of Boston. After all, there are vaguely dissatisfied kids loitering outside of 7-Elevens everywhere.
SubUrbia doesn’t exactly celebrate that inertia, which means it isn’t as immediately likable as Slacker or Dazed. Bogosian’s script aims to say something about these kids who have nothing to say, so it often gets a little more accusatory than Linklater’s affable brand of existentialism usually allows. The play’s didacticism and inherent staginess can even be a little off-putting—particularly as it’s paired with characters who are intentionally drawn as entitled and obnoxious. As its ostensible hero, Jeff, Giovanni Ribisi puts his stoned mumble to good use as a sardonic, articulate college dropout who can talk himself out of anything, even aimlessly following his girlfriend, Sooze (Amie Carey), to art school in New York. Jeff earns a little sympathy by dint of his obvious intelligence, his aggrieved sense of global injustice, and Ribisi’s hangdog aura. But mostly, it’s because he’s so pathetic.
Jeff lives in a pup tent in his parents’ garage, and he wastes every night drinking behind a convenience store, watching the symbolic stoplights change with his surly sort-of buddy Tim (Nicky Katt, playing a more soul-deadened version of his Dazed And Confused bully). Jeff’s self-professed alienation is a rejection of the prefabricated drudgery of society, yet unlike earlier Linklater movies, SubUrbia doesn’t necessarily suggest it’s noble. In fact, SubUrbia offers an indictment of his privilege, years before that became a real thematic concern: In the film’s bluntest moment, the Pakistani convenience store clerk (Ajay Naidu)—who’s spent the whole movie absorbing his trespassers’ racist taunts—rebukes Jeff for the way people like him inherit everything, then just “throw it all away.” His own pursuit of an engineering degree is posited as a more traditionally bootstrap rejoinder to their wasted American dream.
Bogosian’s script also reserves some self-deprecating scorn for artists, both accomplished and aspiring. The whole thing takes place over a single night, as Jeff and the gang wait around for their old high school pal, Pony (Jayce Bartok), who’s stumbled into rock stardom. When Pony finally shows up in his limo, he’s a humble-bragging doofus, condescendingly sighing about the demands of celebrity life while being doted on by his publicist (Linklater alum Parker Posey). A scene in which Sooze stages her “fuck”-filled, foot-stamping performance art piece, railing against the patriarchy, feels like an only slightly exaggerated dig at Bogosian’s own world. Even the sex-obsessed goofball Buff (Steve Zahn, cranking his Zahn-iness to a bong-ripping 11) fancies himself a “video artist” because he once filmed a cloud. Taken with Jeff’s own half-realized ambitions to be a writer, SubUrbia clearly finds it amusing that all of them harbor dreams of being famous, important creative types, regardless of whether they have the drive or talent to actually deserve it.
It’s in these moments that SubUrbia transcends its hammy social commentary and unfortunate forays into teen melodrama—a subplot involving Sooze’s willowy sidekick, Bee-Bee (Dina Spybey), a recovering alcoholic, verges into after-school special territory—and it becomes the beery, Gen-X Sartre it aspires to be. Neither the cynicism nor the confinement of SubUrbia feels entirely natural to Linklater, king of the ramble. Still, although he manages to squeeze in a brief joyride and a sojourn to Whataburger, Linklater makes the captivity work to his thematic advantage: His characters are all stuck in this self-imposed purgatory, nowhere to be but here, nothing to talk about but themselves. It’s a play that has been and will be acted out on similar stages across the world and through the years. And while it might not be as naturalistic or as fun as some of Linklater’s variations on the theme, it still resonates with anyone who’s had their own minor starring role in it.