Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

For much of the past two decades, Penelope Spheeris has led a cinematic double life, alternating personal, unabashedly humanistic documentaries (the Decline Of Western Civilization series) with crass, impersonal narrative films (Little Rascals, The Beverly Hillbillies, Black Sheep). The two halves of Spheeris' career weren't always so diametrically opposed, however. Spheeris began making narrative films with 1983's Suburbia (recently reissued on home video), a flawed but compelling attempt to channel the energy and rebellion of Decline into a fictional drama. Set in a suburban, Reagan-era hellscape in which wild dogs roam the streets and parents are either too wasted or indifferent to look after their children, Suburbia centers on a ragtag group of punks and malcontents (including a young Flea) who call themselves the T.R. (for The Rejected). The disaffected spawn of Baby Boomers, they wear their nihilism and contempt for the mainstream like armor, and Suburbia, like Decline III, excels in exposing the vulnerability and sadness behind the sneering way the T.R. reject society before it can reject them. Spheeris' two punk documentaries (Decline I & III) both benefit from her enormous fondness for their subjects, a quality abundantly evident here as she captures the casual camaraderie, gallows humor, and soul-crushing boredom of outcasts who find in each other the acceptance and support their parents failed to provide. Compassion and sociological acuity can only take a film so far, however, and clunky dialogue, comically broad supporting characters, and often-amateurish acting sabotage much of Suburbia's plot-and-dialogue-heavy second half. But it still shows enormous empathy and sensitivity in capturing the angst and alienation of American youth, making it seem both rooted in a specific time and place and strangely timeless.