Penelope Spheeris knows youth culture. From her notorious Punk and Metal docs to big studio successes like Wayne’s World, she has made a mark as a filmmaker with an eye for the looks, tastes and attitudes of America’s young. Her second full-length film, the unjustly overlooked Suburbia, is anchored to this milieu with its spotlight on the Southern California Punk scene in the early 1980s and the alienated youth who called it home.
The familiar melodrama follows a teen who flees his abusive suburban home for a life on the streets. After a rough evening at a Punk club, he’s rescued by a gang of runaways who live in an abandoned house on the city’s outskirts. Calling themselves T.R. (short for The Rejected), the kids form an ad-hoc family in the filthy communal dwelling, stealing to eat and idling away time with beer, drugs, Punk rock and occasional violence. Their riotous, anarchic lifestyle raises the ire of surrounding neighbors, of course, which leads to tragic confrontations.
Spheeris cast the kids directly from the Punk scene, and their lack of acting experience is painfully obvious. The monotone line-readings are cringe-worthy. However, what they lack in chops, they make up for in authenticity. Moments where they dictate the action — when they’re hanging out just being kids — are the film’s most effective. A particular standout is a young, charismatic Flea, years before he found fame as a Red Hot Chili Pepper.
Though Suburbia is firmly a Spheeris film, the influence of producer/exploitation legend Roger Corman is strong. A toddler is viciously ripped apart by wild dogs. Characters hash plans in a strip club. The strongest such element is Suburbia’s biggest draw — the music. Corman saw cash in Punk and the film is packed with its sounds, including performances by D.I., The Vandals and T.S.O.L that capture the electricity, theatrics, angst and nihilism that propelled the scene.
Released as a part of Shout Factory’s Roger Corman’s Cult Classics collection, Suburbia is short on bonuses, though two commentary tracks with Spheeris and Co. reveal interesting anecdotes. A short featurette or two on the early days of So-Cal punk would have provided wonderful context. Grade: B-