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10 Best Movies About Suburban Life

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By now, no one needs convincing that suburban life is fraught with emotional repression, boredom, and the occasional sense that things are more interesting everywhere else. In other words, the ‘burbs are just like every other neighborhood. Movies and TV haven’t been able to successfully peddle the image of suburban existence as an Ozzie-and-Harriet one since, well, the days of Ozzie and Harriet. The best films about the suburbs are inherently going to be those that peel back the veneer made of clean lawns and nice cars to investigate the real emotions beneath the surface, whether tragic, comic, wistful, or some mercurial mix of all three. Narrowing that field to just 10 movies is almost impossible — someone’s favorite always gets left out — but the movies listed below remain the best of the best, representing a whole host of stories that dig into the weirdness, the wonders, and the general confusion that come with suburban life. Pull up some patio furniture and get to watching:

  1. Little Children: Based on Tom Perotta’s novel, Little Children is a powerful look at suburban life that captures the whiplash between humor and horror better than almost any other film on the subject. It’s not quite a dark comedy; it’s more like a melodrama that gets a little out of control at the end. Kate Winslet is a perfect representation of the upwardly mobile modern mom who finds herself totally adrift in adulthood, struggling with a kid she doesn’t understand and a husband who’d rather get lost in Internet porn than spend time with her. She strikes up an affair with Patrick Wilson’s character, and they become the little children of the title, shirking their responsibilities to get lost in that Gen-X fog that turns adulthood into late adolescence. A smart, engaging film that’s worth revisiting.
  2. The Graduate: The Graduate is usually reduced these days to handful of catch phrases ("Are you trying to seduce me?" and "Plastics" sure aren’t going anywhere) and some Simon and Garfunkel tunes, but the movie’s so much more than that. Released in 1967, it became a statement for the youth of the time about the death of their parents’ version of the American Dream. Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is fresh out of college and fresh out of ideas, and he spends the summer idly sleeping with his neighbor and dating her daughter in a story that’s by turns wistful, melancholy, and sharply incisive. He’s a well-bred kid from an affluent family, but the film takes pains to show that those material gains aren’t enough to make him happy; are, in fact, what makes him so sad in the first place.
  3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Here’s a lighter take on the ‘burbs, one that mixes John Hughes fascination with upper-class white anomie with, well, Wayne Newton and practical jokes. Hughes’ major 1980s movies deal with a lot of the same issues, especially in terms of class divides. The Breakfast Club hinged on a poor thug hooking up with a rich princess, and Pretty in Pink was just a brutal blast of angst about a poor girl who hated herself for wanting to be rich and get with the rich guy. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off deals with comparatively less harmful stuff: the biggest moments of self-discovery come as Ferris (Matthew Broderick) and Cameron (Alan Ruck) think about what life will be like in college, when they have to start growing up. But at 18, that’s a monumental decision, and Hughes doesn’t blow it off. The film is a look at suburban life that scoots by the bad stuff and lets the kids be kids for a while longer. Nothing wrong with that.
  4. Ordinary People: Ordinary People made plenty of critical waves in 1980, especially when it beat out two other modern classics for the best picture Oscar (Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man). Robert Redford won an Oscar for directing the movie about an emotionally stilted family dealing with the death of a child. The film was set and shot in Lake Forest, Illinois, an upper-class suburb near Chicago that will look familiar to fans of John Hughes, who set many of his films in similar areas and who filmed part of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the same town. As the mother, Mary Tyler Moore is both amazing and terrifying as a woman hell-bent on maintaining a semblance of respectability even as the family rots from within, while Donald Sutherland is equally impressive as the father who can’t figure out how to connect with his family through his grief. But the film is anchored by Timothy Hutton as the young son wracked with guilt at losing his brother, and it’s his story of pain and emptiness that Redford uses to discuss how many ordinary-looking people in the superficially perfect suburbs are actually dealing with major problems.
  5. Grosse Pointe Blank: "You can never go home again … but I guess you can shop there." Easily one of the funniest and smartest movies John Cusack will ever be associated with, Grosse Pointe Blank is a pitch-perfect black comedy that manages to skewer everything about the suburbs and your 20s but still end on a happy note. High school reunions are as universally dreaded as actually going to high school, which is why they tend to make for solid entry points for filmmakers looking to exorcise their own demons while also maybe scoring a few more points than they did in real life. Cusack’s Martin Blank is an assassin who finds himself back home 10 years after he escaped, and the film is filled with touches that underscore both the artificiality of the suburbs and the fact that your home will never be quite the way you remembered it. (Both those lessons come screaming home when Martin finds out that his boyhood house has been turned into a convenience store.) Brilliant and totally undervalued.
  6. The Virgin Suicides: Speaking of Grosse Pointe: Based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, Sofia Coppola’s first feature is a beautiful examination of life in the affluent Michigan suburb in the 1970s. Told with a minimum of dialogue and an emphasis on music and atmosphere, the film follows a group of sisters as they slowly succumb to their parents’ emotional abuse and repression and eventually kill themselves. (Spoiler for those who didn’t read the title of the movie.) The film digs into themes that Coppola would revisit in later works, notably the feeling of being alone in a crowd of people, and it does so in a way that takes an honest look at how life in suburbia is usually a lot darker than you’d like it to be.
  7. The Stepford Wives: It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact that The Stepford Wives had on pop culture when Ira Levin’s novel appeared in 1972, followed by the 1975 film adaptation. (There was also a feature version made in 2004, but the less said of that, the better.) The Stepford Wives is the ultimate satire of suburban conformity, casting its submissive women as automatons in a dark fantasy that feels only slightly removed from reality. This is suburbia as the ultimate hell, a place where dreams go to die and where no one ever says or does anything to upset the community. This approach to suburban disconnection colored every comedy and drama to come after it, and we’re still using it as a template today.
  8. Suburbia: Written by Eric Bogosian and directed by Richard Linklater — who knew a thing or two about modern drifters thanks to Slacker — the 1996 film Suburbia is a dark take on the existential crises that seemed to plague Gen-Xers in droves in the mid-1990s. The story revolves around a group of friends who hang out next to a convenience store dumpster every day and gradually watch their lives drag on as they remain resistant to change. The cast is packed with actors who would go on to higher-profile roles, like Steve Zahn and Giovanni Ribisi, and it offers a sobering look at disaffected youth on the outskirts of town.
  9. Pleasantville: Pleasantville goes the extra mile by using the 1950s tropes of an idyllic suburbia to satirize the very oppression that led to the creation. In other words, it’s a drama about how perfection is impossible, and the only way to even attain what looks like perfection is to smother all emotion and discord. Written and directed by Gary Ross, the film uses the framing device of a fictional 1958 sitcom to make its points about the dangers of suburban monotony. It’s one of the few films to state its case by actually calling back to the way the suburbs used to presented in media; rather than re-create the ’50s, it re-creates our imagined version of the ’50s, which underscores just how fake it was. A smart movie that definitely holds up over time.
  10. Blue Velvet: Just about any David Lynch work could be used as an example of how things in the suburbs aren’t always what they appear to be — Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive are especially good at this — but it’s his 1986 film Blue Velvet that most powerfully deals with Lynch’s desire to pull up the floorboards and explore the dirt under our feet. Revolving around Kyle Maclachlan’s Jeffrey Belmont, the film is a dark and often disturbing tale about a boy who gets drawn into a murder investigation only to discover the seedy side of the town he’d thought was so clean and special. It’s a stylistic, haunting neo-noir that’s among Lynch’s best stuff, and it twists the concepts of suburbia as only he could. If you haven’t seen it, do; you’ll never look at Dennis Hopper the same way again.

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