“I wake up happy, feeling good… but then I get very depressed, because I’m living in reality.” Welcome to the Dollhouse director Todd Solondz painted a twisted portrait of American suburban angst by peeling back the skin on the tangled lives of a housewife, a doctor, a teacher, and other familiar faces. Connected by their desire for happiness and the failures that prevent them from obtaining it (if it even existed to begin with), Solondz reminds us that broken people basically want what we all want. The challenging drama dwells in many gray areas, teetering between disaster and irony, in an environment that feels uncomfortably close to home.
Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham gives new meaning to the midlife crisis. He hates his job and can’t hold a candle to his overly ambitious wife. His own daughter hates him as much as he hates himself, and he’s infatuated with a high school cheerleader. The frustrated, suburban dad trips through his hollow existence grasping at straws, and his despair ultimately leads to his undoing. Director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball’s satirical take on beauty and fulfillment is a blueprint for what not to do in order to be happy.
The Ice Storm
Dysfunctional relationships abound in Ang Lee’s somber portrait of life in the Connecticut suburbs. Mundane, middle-class American meets the radical sociopolitical climate of the 1970s — and Lee’s characters wander aimlessly trying to make sense of it all. Sex, alcohol, and adultery are the pillars of their community. A dangerous ice storm baptizes the weary, but lives are forever changed.
Over the Edge
Baby Matt Dillon made his feature debut in Jonathan Kaplan’s coming-of-age film about neglected, suburban teens. While families are sweating over the future of their planned community, the kids occupy their bored lives with the usual: sex, drugs, and violence. When the teens are faced with the loss of their safe haven — a rec center run by the only person in town that understands them — mass chaos ensues. The 1979 movie is based on a real-life kiddie crime spree that took place in California. With Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring in theaters, now would be a great time to revisit Kaplan’s tale of child woe.
The Stepford Wives
Welcome to your past, present, and future, Betty Francis.
David Lynch frequently explores the sinister underbelly of sleepy, small-town America. Twin Peaks and the filmmaker’s 1986 movie, Blue Velvet, are the pinnacle of the idyll turned on its head — or in the case of Blue Velvet, it’s severed ear. All the well-kept lawns in the world can’t disguise the sadness and sickening acts that take place behind closed doors. Blue Velvet’s ugliness seethes through the flower beds.
Super producer Roger Corman created this 1984 take on the teen punk runaway that bolts from suburbia and falls into the arms of a motley crew. Parents just don’t understand, man. In the Corman tradition of cheap — but true — the producer cast real Los Angeles street kids and musicians in the film, like Wade Watson (U.S. Bombs) and Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers). There’s also live footage of bands like T.S.O.L., D.I., and The Vandals performing. Director Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization) created a fairly authentic portrait of angsty punk rock life and the sentiment that propelled it.
Strangers When We Meet
“Any place you’ve got a housewife, you’ve got a potential mistress.”
It’s a somewhat soapy affair, but Richard Quine’s 1960 infidelity drama has the draw of a steamy Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas drowning their marital sorrows in a torrid, suburban fling. Make no mistake, this is a love story, and watching the film’s poignant moments through the eyes of the adulterers was a pretty big deal for the time when repressed relationships were the norm. The cast might be better than the material (including Walter Matthau as the baddie), but there are striking moments of sincerity and depth.
Mad Men has referenced this 1957 relationship melodrama more than a handful of times. Based on Grace Metalious’ bestselling 1956 novel, the tawdry lives of small-town New England residents — and the effect their moral hypocrisy has on their children — are examined, before and after the war. Metalious hated the adaptation, which omitted the juiciest parts of her story to comply with the restrictive Hays Code. The Oscar-nominated film’s popularity was later boosted by a real-life crime case. Star Lana Turner’s daughter, Cheryl, killed her mother’s abusive lover, the mobster Johnny Stompanato, in 1958.
Spirits are crushed and a marriage gasps for air in Derick and Steven Martini’s 2009 indie (based on their high school days) set in 1970’s Long Island. Martin Scorsese executive produced the movie. His influence is perhaps most obvious in the evocative soundtrack. As is the case with most of the dysfunctional suburban families on our list, the turmoil has a profound effect on the lives of the children (Rory Culkin and Emma Roberts delivering strong performances).
Roger Ebert summarized the heart of these familiar stories in his review of Lymelife: “Unhappy suburban families are more familiar in the movies than real ones — perhaps because, as Tolstoy believed, all happy families are the same.”