The Rick-trospective: subUrbia
A salute to Richard Linklater's body of work, one film at a timeMovies Features
In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.
Richard Linklater’s always been something of a modern day documentarian, dredging that banal everyday which is formed by technology and culture, and unearthing the explorative, self-reflecting fossils of the individual adrift in the societal sea. Linklater’s first few movies, Slacker and Dazed and Confused, were tales of youth and the young muddling about—full of ennui, little forward motion and unpromising future prospects. Granted, Before Sunrise hit theaters in 1995, but it’s subUrbia, released a year later, that’s the apt conclusion to what one might call Linklater’s Austin slacker trilogy.
subUrbia, however, was not penned by Linklater, but playwright, social satirist and Law & Order regular, Eric Bogosian. Linklater’s transposition from Bogosian’s Woburn, Mass., roots and New Jersey set, to sleepy Burnfield, Texas, a neighborhood of Austin where five young people occupy the limbo after high school by loitering outside a convenience store, drinking and grousing about the ruts they’ve become stuck in, aligns seamlessly with where Dazed and Confused left off. As any of the five would have it, the American Dream that evades them has been hijacked by the Pakistani couple who own and operate the store as a stepping stone to higher education and a happy white-collar existence.
The fusion of Linklater’s Austin and Bogosian’s biting social commentary remains potent and relevant two decades later. For those unfamiliar with Bogosian’s staged works like Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll and Talk Radio, they’re in-your-face satirical plumbings that shame, deprecate and provoke. The adaptation of subUrbia couldn’t be more of a natural fit for Linklater, who relishes contemplative dissections of the mainstream and those disenfranchised by it. While the convenience store owners labor to realize the American Dream, that ideal for the five inerts has morphed into a nightmare—dreams with dead ends and zero gumption to do anything more than wallow in the tantalizing misery of what could be. Tim (well-employed character actor Nicky Katt) becomes the epitome of failed future promise as a former star quarterback who joined the Air Force only to get an honorable discharge for lopping off the tip of his finger while on salad duty and now bides his time on the corner drinking away his severed severance checks. Most telling however, is when the cops arrive to pinch him for creating a public disturbance and the officer in charge is a former teammate who Tim belittles as having been “lousy lineman, too.”
The force driving the slackerly in subUrbia is the anticipated arrival of Pony (Jayce Bartok), a nerd in high school who’s made it big on MTV and is back in town for an arena gig. It’s an effective Waiting for Godot-esque device, though eventually Pony does swing by the convenience store to “keep it real” with his former pose. Tensions of envy and rue quickly rise, especially from Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), a stalled want-to-be writer at a crossroads with his girlfriend, Sooze (Annie Carey), who wants to move to New York to go to art school. “I don’t need a limo to know who I am,” he snarls at Pony, while others like the party-hardy Buff (Steve Zahn) and Sooze, less angry at the world, giddily embrace Pony’s success and generosity with hopes of some of it rubbing off on them.
Pony’s more plot spur than character, but he’s not one without soul. Quiet, reflective and a bit out-of-touch, he’s as kind and humble as one can be when reaching such heights at such an early age. You can almost see him as a stand-in for Linklater, who as a self-taught filmmaker, became one of the elite best which grew out of the indie film movement in the early ’90s.
At the time subUrbia was released, I had the opportunity to interview Linklater in a roundtable setting in Boston. I had just seen Bogosian’s staged performance of Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead, and noted such, but few of my colleagues knew much about Bogosian and were mostly interested in the hip counterculture embossed in Slacker and Dazed and Confused, subjects Linklater was happy to entertain, but he was more interested in focusing on his new film and the other artist involved. Subtly and with great courtesy, Linklater would redirect the conversation back to Eric and subUrbia by casually asking me a question about my experiences at Bogosian’s performances. It was through such calm, quiet assuredness, you could see a vestige of Pony, sans the caught-up-in-success cluelessness, shine through.
subUrbia will likely go down as lesser Linklater’s fare, which is too bad because it’s one of his more accomplished works and certainly better than Tape (Linklater’s other play adaptation), The Newton Boys and the no-reason-to-do Bad News Bears remake. The film boasts an impressive ensemble performance by a cast that should have gone on to greater individual successes, especially Ribisi with his brusque simmering and the bubbly Carey, who along with Zahn, appeared in the stage version, as well. Katt brings the brooding muscle and as the transplanted store owner, Ajay Naidu delivers passion, tenacity and Greek chorus wisdom.
In 1996, subUrbia poignantly captured a generation and cemented the reputation of a rising talent; today, the film’s reflection of a young generation struggling for identity in a world driven by changing technology and a shifting cultural landscape remains especially relevant.
21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, Mass. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.