7 Suburban Movies to Prove Something’s Wrong with Suburbia

In no particular order, and full of spoilers:

1. The Chumscrubber (Arie Posin)

               What’s wrong with the picture? Well to start, suburban kids don’t mind kidnapping or being kidnapped. The neighbors are those strange friendly types who seem concerned, but really just want their casserole dish back. And a counter-top mountain of vitamins and prescription drugs turn a suicidal young man into a heroic real-life adaptation of his favorite video game game character. Did I mention the mayor is spiritually obsessed with dolphins and a car wreck sends a kid airborne–in slow motion? There is so much happening in this movie that a trip to the ghetto would be relaxing.     

2. American Beauty (Sam Mendes)

             It might be easier to start with what’s not wrong with suburban life as depicted through this movie. It has infidelity, murder, inter-family betrayal, distrust and dishonesty, socially inept children, immature parents, mature drug dealers, peeping toms, and a Nazi plate collection. With the tag line: “Look closer.” The movie really shows you have to do just that to see any kind of American Beauty. Again, the hero defines his world-view in his last thoughts before dying.



3. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly)

             Nothing wrong here. Just a talking bunny rabbit from the future’s past warning a psychologically disturbed teen about the end of the world on a golf-course. (Wait…what?) It sounds strange but it will make more sense once he travels back in time through his chest jelly and lodges a hand axe into a bronze sculpture at his school before committing arson and exposing a child pornographer. I’m beginning to see a pattern here. Hero learns ethical message and dies to save his family. This time in a much more cinematic way, a detached jet engine falling through the ceiling by means of carefully calculated “coincidence”. Thanks for keeping us all safe, Donnie.        


4. Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder)

            What could be more suburban than the local mall? Add in a large undead horde and a multicultural group of suburban townies trapped in said mall and you’ve got the fourth movie on my list. Despite the obvious communication problems and inhumane treatment among the group, they have to deal with their Saturday morning shopping crowd gone ravenous. At least they’re in the mall and not their suburban house (I Am Legend?). And right when everything looks okay, guess who dies? Trick question, the whole cast turns undead on an island they manage to escape to. If you haven’t seen this, you need to. 




5. Home Alone (Chris Columbus)

                  It is Christmas time in Chicago and time for a family vacation to France. Woopsy, they left a kid in the Chicago-land suburb. Luckily for Macaulay Culkin this is a family comedy, and he doesn’t die in the end. But he is forced to deal with two suburban thieves, Harry and Marv, via any means possible. The movie that made household booby traps okay.     


6. Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton) 

            Why does a suburban neighborhood have to be near a city? Why not at the foot of a creepy mountain topped with a creepy mansion inhabited by an even creepier half-robotic-recluse-hairdresser? It’s suburban gold because of the gossiping housewives, the manicured lawns, and the IDENTICAL houses. At least Ed is merely chased back to his mansion and not murdered. It is a love story after-all.      


7. A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen)

              The Jewish suburbanite movie. For the educated, it’s a contemporary story of Job. A cheating wife calmly talking of divorce, a 20×30′ blackboard of college mathematics, a lonely and attractive sun-bathing neighbor woman, a stoned son at his Bar Mitzvah, a message from God in a man’s teeth, a brother’s tax evasion, the FBI, and a man desperately trying to be serious. The movie that asks how far you will go to do what’s good, and then waits for the end to ask if it was worth it. Larry, the lead, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, dies at the end. Either by some disease–his doctor breaks the news over the phone, how nice of him, right?–or by a tornado that would kill everyone if the movie didn’t cut to black in wonderful Coen style.

Runner’s up:

Revolutionary Road (The “I’m too good for this” suburbia)

The Bonnie Situation (Scene from Pulp Fiction–the “gangster” suburbia)

Toy Story (The “child” suburbia)


What’d I miss? What suburban movie is your favorite? Did you notice how many of these films end in death? Leave me your thoughts, I’d love to read ‘em.

    • matthewkentpayne
    • May 30th, 2010

    It’s interesting how the post-Victorian pleasantness of modern suburbia is so often displayed as a surreal and disturbing phenomenon.
    Do you think suburbs are strange and un-natural? They make me uncofmortable.

    Anybody who has been reading the zombie-comic, “The Walking Dead” will totally know what I mean. The best surreal depiction of suburban wrongness I’ve seen were in the last few issues…

  1. It is interesting to think of movies that have “suburbia” as a character in the movie. (I suppose the same could be said for movies that have “the city” as a character, or the “military” as a character, or “government red tape” or “the church” or “School administration”.)

    Your selections are filled with a suburbia that most people will recognize as a composite of “suburbia” but not any actual suburbia, unlike say PAY IT FORWARD, which most would recognize as a believable portrayal of suburbia. I’m rambling.

    I like what you are doing here. Why do you think suburbia is such a frequent character in films?

    • I’d be interested in maybe doing a feature about “the church” used as a character. However, I’d have to really search my brain for movies, at the moment all I can think of is the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons.

      Suburbia makes a good character, because it has everything available to it. It’s virtually unlimited. I think the problem with it comes from having an overly familiar audience. To create a fictional suburbia you have two options, it has to be overly logical (every step must be made for the audience-like American Beauty) or it ends up with a magical/fairy tale blanket drapped over it (like Donnie Darko, Ed-hands, and The Chumscrubber).

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