REVIEW: Scenes From the Suburbs [2011]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½


Rating: NR | Runtime: 28 minutes | Release Date: May 2011 (USA)
Director(s): Spike Jonze
Writer(s): Will Butler, Win Butler & Spike Jonze

“I wonder what happened to the other moments”

There is no better praise to heap on a short film than to admit you watched it again right after the initial viewing. Scenes from the Suburbs is just such a piece, not because of the connection to one of my favorite albums of 2010—Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs—nor the fact it’s directed by Spike Jonze, but because it really hits upon the jaded cynicism of our current world. No longer do we live in an environment deemed safe. My childhood of leaving the house to walk the neighborhood, a simple “I’ll be home for dinner” all that’s necessary to assuage parental worry, is long gone. We now build fortresses in which to reside, cultivate paranoia towards anyone unknown, and reside in a social military state of consciousness.

The only escape from this world is to either live despite it, carefree and joyous in the face of oppressive forces, or to join in by descending into its hellish world of anger and violence. Jonze creates a dystopic, gated community much like the ones we drive by on the way to work every morning, but instead of just the sterile, closely cropped lawns and blank, fabricated smiles of automatons blindly waving hello, the suburban residence here holds a darker evil at its borders. Town militias defend borders on adjoining lands, malls in one are made unavailable to outsiders if a feud has begun, and literal wars ignite when ‘pollution’ threatens to harm another’s community. But as Arcade Fire band member and co-writer of the film Win Butler said in NME Magazine, the album on which the film is based “is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs.”

This Orwellian world created by Win, his brother Will, and Jonze is too familiar to be false—it is reality taken to an extreme. But in the middle of it all is a group of friends existing despite the chaos and fear surrounding them. Young Kyle (Sam Dillon) and his comrades take to the streets without worry, riding their bikes, shooting off BB-guns, and joking with the police. It’s as though they have it all figured out in the microcosm that is their friendship, a clique devoid of cell phones or the technology that threatens to turn our world into the warped, government controlled nightmares of classic literature. Their summers are a time to unwind with the unabashed freedom of youth, questions about when it’s right to kiss a girl or easy-going arm wrestling matches the norm.

But all of that must at some point come to an end. Through the pains of growing up and finding oneself, we oftentimes lose the ones we hold close. As Kyle speaks in voiceover at the start, this was the last summer they all had together and above the police state bottling them up inside are his memories of people he shared it with. A lot is a blur but pieces remain to create a slideshow, flickers through the black of time possessed of both the good and bad within a two months span that completely altered his fabric. To he and best friend Winter (Paul Pluymen), inseparable and forever in a state of glee, life appears bearable. Winter has Zoe (Zoe Graham) and Kyle has them both—three against the world, capable of anything. Except the world cannot be blocked forever, suburban sprawl’s necessity for protection, the evil manifested in its citizens through persecution and abuse too much to forget.

And so we experience glimpses of the breakdown—society punishing the free with fear and rules. The return of Winter’s brother Terrance (Justin Arnold), from jail or the military, only adds fuel to the fire burning within this boy, his need for a blood relationship conflicting with the bond foraged through years of happiness with Kyle. The pressures trap the boy in a tightening vice, shutting off his capacity to feel, leaving a shell-shocked vessel of steely ambivalence when both Kyle and Zoe attempt to find a way back in. It’s the pain of seeing the horrors around him, the lack of will to overcome the struggle, that turns him into a defeated soul beginning to philosophize everything around him as just a dream. He needs to wake up, to shake the filth of a jaded country no longer able to love. Winter becomes a casualty of suburbia as Kyle fights tooth and nail to survive—its claws of destruction unbiased and unforgiving.

This is the society in which we currently live. No more is it the trials of city living and poverty that must be overcome; the suburbs have become a place of stress, of entitlement, and abandonment—children being left to fend for themselves, impressionable minds defenseless to either become stronger despite everything or perish underneath. Shot with a dreamlike quality as kids soar through the streets, an extended music video for an album that defines a generation’s confusion in a world appearing hellbent on destroying itself, Jonze and company portray the emotions present on the cusp of boys becoming men through powerful vignettes, many drowned out by the lyrics of Arcade Fire. These are scenes of suburban life taken to the polar end of where we are heading, a society built to fight with civil wars consuming loved ones on opposite sides. When men are shot in the streets and children become victims of police brutality, everyone must choose a path for which to travel. In such a world we ultimately lose those closest and oftentimes lose ourselves.

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