Cinema’s Darkest Suburbs: 50 Films That Venture Beyond the Picket Fence

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David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, about a young man who gets caught up in a surreal mystery when he returns to his small hometown, turns 30 this year, and New York’s Film Forum is screening a newly restored print of Lynch’s bloody picket-fence masterpiece through March 31. The filmmaker has a unique ability to capture the uncanny side of life in the suburbs, as he also demonstrated in his 1990’s TV series Twin Peaks. Inspired by Lynch’s vision of dark suburbia, we present 50 other films that prove tree-lined streets and cookie-cutter houses often hide something more sinister.

Happiness

Roger Ebert nailed the most disturbing aspect of Todd Solondz’s 1998 film Happiness — about the intersecting lives of a neighborhood pedophile, an obscene phone caller, an unlucky dreamer, and an unhappily married couple — in his review:

The depraved are only seeking what we all seek, but with a lack of ordinary moral vision? In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity.

Halloween

In John Carpenter’s 1978 film, the bogeyman is alive and well in Haddonfield, Illinois, where sex, drugs, and family secrets threaten the idyll. It’s impossible to ignore the evil menace when it walks through your front door

American Beauty

In director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball’s 1999 film, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), keenly aware of his failings as a husband and father, finds solace with the object of his midlife crisis, a bouncy cheerleader half his age (Mena Suvari). But chasing after beauty still blinds him and doesn’t save Lester from his own undoing.

Rebel Without a Cause

Parents just don’t understand. “You’re tearing me apart!” screams James Dean’s Jim Stark. Leather jacket and angsty expressions be damned, the emotional line gave a gut punch to hard masculinity — at least for the white kids of mid-20th-century America, who were starting to see a shift in the nuclear family.

Serial Mom

A potty-mouthed, serial killer-obsessed mom goes on a murder spree in the ‘burbs — because she loves her family that much — in John Waters’ savage satire. PTA meetings never seemed so exciting.

The Stepford Wives

A grotesque caricature of the plastic, perfect woman made for a man, adapted from Ira Levin’s 1972 novel of the same name.

The Ice Storm

Life during the turbulent ’70s doesn’t seem to touch the dysfunctional families of Ang Lee’s movie, who are too busy drinking and screwing to care about much. But his portrait of upper-middle-class America takes a somber turn as a dangerous ice storm changes lives forever.

Over the Edge

Jonathan Kaplan’s coming-of-age film, about neglected teens whose lives are squashed as a rec center, their safe haven, faces closure, features Matt Dillon in his debut role. The pissed-off kids take to the streets to rebel — a move based on a real-life crime spree that took place in ’70s California.

Suburbia

Read our interview with director Penelope Spheeris about her teen runaway film. “The reason it has that exploitation vibe is because Roger [Corman] has a rule. And the rule is: he wants sex or violence every ten minutes,” she told us.

Strangers When We Meet

“Any place you’ve got a housewife, you’ve got a potential mistress.” Bored and neglected spouses (Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas) find comfort in each other’s arms, and things get steamy.

Peyton Place

Mad Men took a page from director Mark Robson’s book about the tawdry lives of small-town New England couples, whose actions have a profound effect on their children. Star Lana Turner’s real-life tragic relationship boosted the movie’s salacious reputation. Her daughter, Cheryl, killed Turner’s abusive lover, the mobster Johnny Stompanato, in 1958.

Lymelife

“Unhappy suburban families are more familiar in the movies than real ones — perhaps because, as Tolstoy believed, all happy families are the same,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review of Derick and Steven Martini’s 2009 indie starring Rory Culkin.

La haine

Life is hard in the banlieues of Paris, where a riot breaks out and three angry young men do whatever it takes to stay alive. From Scott Tobias’ review:

La Haine builds to a shocking (and deeply contrived) finale, but it’s mostly composed of thrillingly unpredictable scenes of the boys hanging out, spitting rapid-fire dialogue loaded with pop-cultural references and chest-thumping braggadocio, and generally getting into trouble. In another world, these kids would be like the clique in Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni, restless and jovial, prowling the streets for girls while pondering what the future might bring. In this one, they don’t know if their future will include tomorrow.

The Babadook

The lives of a grieving widow and her troubled, overly imaginative son fall apart after a bogeyman is seemingly summoned from a storybook. Jennifer Kent’s Australian horror tale brings to light the complex, ambivalent feelings about motherhood that are often kept hidden in portrayals of cinematic families.

Bully

Read J. Hoberman’s review of Larry Clark’s 2001 film, based on a real-life murder case:

Based on a published account subtitled “a true story of high school revenge,” Bully was shot in the south Florida suburb where, eight summers ago, an overbearing 20-year-old deli clerk named Bobby Kent was lured to the edge of the Everglades to be stabbed and beaten to death by a group of his friends and acquaintances, including an old girlfriend and his best bud, Marty. When caught, everybody blamed everyone else. It was, as one lawyer cynically put it, as though the cast of Leave It to Beaver had ganged up to murder the obnoxious Eddie Haskell.

Revolutionary Road

Keith Phipps on Sam Mendes’ Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet-starring saga in the suburbs:

It’s keenly observed, handsomely mounted, supremely well-acted, and distant in a way the period trappings can’t quite explain away. Winslet and DiCaprio’s many scenes together have a volatile, lived-in chemistry, but Mendes never really lets us know them. The film’s best moments come when they’re forced to interact with their fellow suburbanites, particularly a pair of scenes involving nosy realtor Kathy Bates’ institutionalized son, played with unsettling intensity as a truth-telling holy fool by Michael Shannon.

The Virgin Suicides

The New York Times on Sofia Coppola’s teen-sister suicide film and its swoony visuals:

To read “The Virgin Suicides” is to succumb to a hazy linguistic daydream. Its narrator is a collective pronoun; its ending is given away in the first sentence. And its main characters — the five sisters who take their own lives for reasons that remain mysterious — are sacramental, sacrificial figures, more like creatures of fantasy or legend than American teenagers. All of this has required Ms. Coppola to create a feature film essentially without characters or a story, and to hold the viewer’s interest through moods, associations and resonant images.

E.T.

Steven Spielberg conceived of his 1982 film with the memory of his own parents’ divorce still fresh in his mind. During his childhood, the director invented an imaginary alien friend who eventually became the basis for his tale about an extraterrestrial who falls to Earth and changes the lives of a struggling California family.

Little Children

From critic Marc Savlov:

Little Children is emotionally riveting, with converging storylines and some of the best acting of the past year. [Kate] Winslet’s portrayal of a smart woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is a powerful, affecting work, and [Jackie Earle] Haley’s bizarrely stunted manboy is by turns pathetic, chilling, and just flat-out sad. His performance here will give you the creeps for longer than you’d like, but it’s Winslet who is the heart and soul of Little Children, and when she makes a desperate, final bid to reclaim her soul, it’s both horrifying and heart-rending. To its credit, the script (by Field and Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel) never takes the easy way out, chiefly because for these characters there is no easy way out. They may be trapped in prisons of their own devising, but no one seems to have much of an escape plan. Which only makes it that much more painfully true to life.

Pinprick

A teen girl hides a (half-naked) criminal inside her bedroom closet, and the relationship becomes increasingly twisted as the thug seduces her mother and enters the family’s life with dangerous intentions.

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko has the conventional leafy-suburbia-plus-high-school setting of films such as Carrie and Halloween, to which it glancingly alludes. But none of these quite nails the genre, and perhaps more importantly the tone of this very strange movie,” writes the Guardian. “It is when Donnie starts seeing, or hallucinating, the ‘wormholes’ in time that his physics teacher has told him about that the movie becomes slightly unmoored from the very sharp and unsettling mixture of psychological nightmare and astute social comment, and moves into a slightly cheesy fantasy world, complete with the speeded-up visions of skies beloved of pop videos.”

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Read our interview with Fast Times at Ridgemont High director Amy Heckerling. “I felt like there was a lot of freedom and serious subject matter laced into these comedies or movies with high school hijinks,” she told us.

The Sweet Hereafter

A fatal bus crash brings the dark secrets of a small town to light as the lives of the survivors start to unravel during one lawyer’s investigation into the case. No one does poetry and tragedy quite like director Atom Egoyan.

The Truman Show

One man discovers that his entire life is part of a television show. Peter Weir’s film is what a city kid probably imagines life in the suburbs really feels like.

Ordinary People

From critic MaryAnn Johanson on Robert Redford’s six-time Academy Award winner:

Characters like Beth have become clichéd in the almost twenty years since Ordinary People, but [Mary Tyler] Moore did it first and best with an understated performance that defines her character by all the things she isn’t — affectionate, warm, “motherly.” Also notable is the natural, emotional performance from Hutton. It’s unfortunate that he hasn’t had the opportunity to be this good again. Exploring in an excruciatingly frank way the one emotion we’d probably all like to avoid — grief — Ordinary People is an uncomfortable film, one that leaves you aching for its characters. Expect a bit of a funk afterward.

Blue Valentine

The dissolution of a marriage in working-class Pennsylvania. We watch the pain and resentment build between Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling’s heartbroken characters over time in an intimate, stunning set of performances.

The Graduate

Aimless recent college grad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is seduced by an older woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), but ends up falling in love with her daughter (Katharine Ross). The closing scene in Mike Nichols’ 1968 film should be required viewing for anyone walking blindly toward an uncertain future.

The Chumscrubber

“Moody teenagers rule in The Chumcrubber, starring Jamie Bell. He’s the school loner and the remote arm with which indie filmmaker Arie Posin takes a swipe at the suburban drones raising their kids on a diet of video games and Ritalin.” Read the full BBC review of the 2005 film.

Running with Scissors

Based on Augusten Burroughs’ bestselling memoir, about a bright boy under the care of his mother’s therapist during his parents’ divorce. Directed by a pre-American Horror Story Ryan Murphy.

Imaginary Heroes

From critic Scott Weinberg:

Join me on another trip down Suburban Hell avenue. Over there are your drug-addicted (yet always wise beyond their years) teenagers; right next door are the lyin’ cheatin’ parent-folk and their deep, dark secrets. You’ll notice an omnipresent haze of sarcasm and irony in the air, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a few quick doses of sex, physical abuse, and (maybe) just a little incest. Bring a coat.

Igby Goes Down

“An engaging little oddity made up of quotable dialogue, idiosyncratic characters and plum performances — especially from Kieran Culkin. One to relish and to cherish,” writes Total Film of Burr Steers’ 2002 film.

Snow Angels

Based on Stewart O’Nan’s 1994 novel of the same name. SFGate writes about David Gordon Green’s interwoven story of loss in a small town:

“Snow Angels” offers up an excessively glum slice of small-town American life. Bad things happen to good people and to bad people as well, and you anxiously await the next victim to be felled. But the feeling of dread running through the movie isn’t the turnoff it sounds like. David Gordon Green, among the most gifted of the young independent filmmakers, creates a mood that engulfs you in the lives of his characters. He and his pitch-perfect cast, led by Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell, make you care about the denizens of a small Pennsylvania town, circa 1980s.

Young Adult

What not to do when you’re a sociopathic alcoholic:

1. Return to the small town you love to hate. 2. Try to reclaim a relationship with your married-with-child ex. 3. Attend your ex’s daughter’s naming ceremony and get drunk. 4. Everything else.

This Is England

Shane Meadows’ troubled coming-of-age story, about a boy who befriends a gang of skinheads, was shot in the residential alleys, homes, and fields of Nottingham. From DVD Talk:

Bolstered by a ska-heavy soundtrack, nostalgic period details, and a thematic tying of the film’s events to a scathing historical backdrop, “England” achieves a startling you-are-there atmosphere that emboldens every moment of drama. It’s a complex, highly visceral web of social terror, misplaced faith, and violent manipulation that is pulled off incredibly, making “This is England” a must-see viewing experience.

Gummo

Harmony Korine’s directorial debut finds the dirt-poor denizens of small-town Ohio deeper in limbo following a destructive tornado. From critic Jeffrey M. Anderson:

Its inhabitants include bored teenagers who shoot cats to sell to Chinese restaurants. Most scenes are shocking and unforgettable, including a horrible drunken card-game brawl, and the triumphant return of Linda Manz (Days of Heaven, Out of the Blue) doing a soft-shoe shuffle in the world’s most disgusting basement. Chloe Sevigny co-stars as seductive teen with tape on her nipples. But for all its unsettling imagery Gummo also abounds with strange beauty. You will never forget seeing it.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

A booze-soaked rager from director Mike Nichols, starring screamy Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as a bitter couple in small-town New England. The dinner party entertainment includes the duo hurling painful barbs at one another like daggers through the heart.

Gone Girl

David Fincher’s dark psychological portrait of murder, betrayal, and deception within a marriage — or what happens when the “cool girl” is forced to move to the ‘burbs. From our own Jason Bailey:

Most of all, it’s funny. Unexpectedly, unapologetically, and darkly funny, borne out of the view that, basically, it’s surprising husbands and wives aren’t all murdering each other. And that’s also its more serious subject—the “narcissistic armor” that we don, “the vision of ourselves that we all project and construct, for our parents, for our teachers, and as we go out in the world and try to mate,” as Fincher explained, at the press conference following Friday’s New York Film Festival press screening.

Better Luck Tomorrow

From the New York Times on Justin Lin’s teen power-trip tale:

Justin Lin, the writer and director of the teenage-wasteland drama “Better Luck Tomorrow,” a shrewdly tense piece of storytelling, recognizes that sometimes it’s good for a filmmaker to stir up trouble. He does so by focusing on the group most often orphaned into stereotypical behavior by teenage films, Asian-Americans, who were even left out of the joke-compilation “Not Another Teen Movie” a couple of years ago. In the swift, compelling “Tomorrow,” these young people are savvy enough to trade culturally on the box into which they’re supposed to fit.

Poltergeist

Don’t buy the house with a white picket fence if it’s on top of an Indian burial ground. More on Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film, co-written and produced by Steven Spielberg, from writer Peter Rainer:

Buried within the plot of Poltergeist is a basic, splendid fairy tale scheme: the story of a little girl who puts her parents through the most outrageous tribulation to prove their love for her. Underlying most fairy tales is a common theme: the comforts of family. Virtually all fairy tales begin with a disrupting of the family order, and their conclusion is usually a return to order.

The Birds

Alfred Hitchcock’s high-anxiety horror classic gives us 1,001 reasons not to move to any sleepy coastal towns — and all of them have wings.

An American Family

PBS created what many consider to be the first reality TV series, about the daily lives of the well-to-do Louds family in Santa Barbara. But things didn’t go quite as planned, and the network wound up filming the breakup of a family and the divorce of parents Bill and Pat. From the New York Times :

For the viewing public, the controversy surrounding An American Family doubled as a crash course in media literacy. The Louds, in claiming that the material had been edited to emphasize the negative, called attention to how nonfiction narratives are fashioned. Some critics argued that the camera’s presence encouraged the subjects to perform. Some even said it invalidated the project. That line of reasoning, as Mr. Gilbert has pointed out, would invalidate all documentaries. It also discounts the role of performance in everyday life, and the potential function of the camera as a catalyst, not simply an observer. The show included footage, including of intimate family interactions, including an on-camera separation demand from wife Pat to her husband, and the coming-out of one of the children who was gay.

Palo Alto

From critic Sheila O’Malley on Palo Alto, directed by Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, Gia Coppola (her big-screen debut):

“Palo Alto” has a contemplative feel of darkness and languor, and the score is woven beautifully into the action. The music feels like an integral part of the mood of the film, as opposed to indie hits being imposed on the narrative from the outside. “Palo Alto” is not like other, current films about teens, films that ache with hopelessness and alienating nihilism. “Palo Alto” sees the sweetness that is there, too, struggling to express itself, and to survive.

Upstream Color

Critic Manohla Dargis sets the scene for Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color:

Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color,” a deeply sincere, elliptical movie about being and nature, men and women, self and other, worms and pigs, opens with two scenes: Two teenage boys biking around a leafy suburb, and elsewhere, a man harvesting little white worms from orchid root balls. The teenagers slowly tracing circles on the pavement are so attractively framed by the soft, shimmery light and blurred background that they look as if they could have biked out of a Terrence Malick movie. The teenagers join the man, who does nasty things with worms and could be a concerned florist, an experimental entomologist, a budding serial killer or just a run-of-the-mill science-fiction freak.

Ghost World

Life gets complicated for two bored friends with no direction in life after they respond to a lonely-hearts newspaper ad. From Pop Matters:

We get the impression, given the sprawling shopping malls and big-box stores, that we’re in an American suburb. The anonymity with which the setting is delineated makes a point in itself. A minor theme of the film is the commodification and standardization of American culture. The suburbs of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston look eerily identical, peppered with the same chain restaurants and humdrum strip malls. Enid and Rebecca are suburban kids disheartened by their town’s lack of character. While walking through a video store, they roll their eyes at the lack of variety found on its shelves and the clerk’s unfamiliarity with the works of Federico Fellini. They engage in a snarky discussion about the phoniness of a supposed 1950s-style diner. The characters’ colorful, hipster-inflected fashion choices stand in contrast to the ghost-like environment in which they find themselves. By refusing to inject the film’s visual palette with “local color” that might identify it with a particular region or metro area, the filmmakers establish Enid and Rebecca as cultural miners, searching for signs of life amongst a sea of anonymity.

It Follows

Read our interview with It Follows director David Robert Mitchell. “I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit,” he told us. “That’s where my family still lives. It’s a place that means a lot to me. The theme of separation in the film is one that is important to me in terms of placing the film in the suburbs of Detroit and in the city.”

Pink Flamingos

“Kill everyone now! Condone first degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!” John Waters really knows how to write a pitch for Phoenix, Maryland.

Me and You and Everyone We Know

Senses of Cinema on Miranda July’s portrait of lonely contemporary life:

Christine and Richard, on the other hand, meet not in the modern city crowd but the postmodern suburban department store, characterized not by a rush of sensation but monotony and boredom. Within this garish and repetitive collection of commodities and individuals, Christine can be certain of finding her beloved; she can give him her cell phone number, into which she has programmed the number of the department store so that she will even know that he is calling ahead of time. The digital signifier of her love is the name of the department store, which she waits to see in the atomistic solitude of her apartment – a private life that is nevertheless plugged in to society.

Ginger Snaps

Puberty is a beast for sister outcasts trying to find their place in a small town. A sexual awakening summons something wild, threatening to tear the siblings apart. John Fawcett’s 2000 film captures the monstrous feminine with humor and heart.

Heathers

Roger Ebert on subversive high school story Heathers:

I approach “Heathers” as a traveler in an unknown country, one who does not speak the language or know the customs and can judge the natives only by taking them at their word. The movie is a morbid comedy about peer pressure in high school, about teenage suicide and about the deadliness of cliques that not only exclude but also maim and kill. . . . Is this a black comedy about murder or just a cynical morality play? The traveler in the foreign country is not sure, but he knows the film inspires thought, and has the ability to shock – two qualities that make it worth considering. Maybe it’s true that teenagers will understand it best. Maybe it’s even true that they deserve to.

The Swimmer

Critic Clark Douglas on the Burt Lancaster-in-swim-trunks vehicle:

At a certain point, it becomes clear that The Swimmer isn’t meant to be taken at face value, but is rather presented as a Twilight Zone-esque parable on the hidden horrors of suburbia and the tragic side of the American dream. This premise will sound familiar (perhaps tiresomely familiar) to those who have seen the likes of American Beauty, The Ice Storm, Mad Men, Little Children, Revolutionary Road, etc.—but what’s astonishing is that The Swimmer predates all of those films by at least three decades, yet it’s as hard-hitting and insightful as any of those efforts. While the other aforementioned titles examine a certain American subculture in hindsight, The Swimmer is a film of its time and about its time.