Neither the rock band nor J.J. Abrams needed fantasy thrills to portray growing up
In somewhere U.S.A., at sometime post-2011, suburbia is at war. Patches of tract-home sprawl have incorporated into private companies. Militarized barricades separate them; night raids by ski-masked soldiers recur. What's the fighting over? Light pollution from shopping centers. The placement of golf courses. In other words, the NIMBYs have picked up guns.
This is the reality imagined in Scenes From the Suburbs, the short film "presented by" Canadian indie-rock act Arcade Fire and directed by Oscar-winner Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich). Jonze has taken a literal reading of lyrics about "suburban war" from Arcade Fire's 2010 Grammy-winningThe Suburbs—even though vocalist Win Butler had been using the metaphor to talk about battles over culture and age, not zoning. But war really isn't the focus of the 30-minute clip, which premiered online Monday after a few film festival showings. Rather, the action lies with a band of kids. Around 15 years old each—impossibly pale and gaunt, the picture of Arcade Fire members-in-training—they bike and skate and tote airsoft guns around town. They party, they fight, they bullshit, they stare yearningly into the sky.
In Jonze's capable hands, the tale is beautifully—though perhaps too preciously—told. And it's a simple tale: One friend falls out with the others, for reasons as inexplicable as reasons for such things often are. Dystopia merely serves as a handy backdrop for a straight portrait of what it's like to grow up in a tribe. Time passes, people change, friendships are savored, and politics are forgotten. "When I think back about that summer, I don't think much about the army," narrator Kyle says in the short's first few moments. Viewers may just say the same when they think back about the clip.
But isn't this what always happens with fictional kids in fictional sprawl? It's impossible to watch Scenes From the Suburbs without being reminded of Super 8, the wide-screen J.J. Abrams/Steven Spielberg joint that opened to acclaim and box office success earlier this month. Like the Arcade Fires flick, it lovingly documents a clique of suburban children and their foul-mouthed banter with one another. We know the kids, we recognize the kids, we like the kids. And then a supernatural beast comes along, soon followed by camouflage-wearing troopers. Suburbia is again at war, but as audience members, we wish it weren't. We just want to hang out with those kids more. As The Atlantic's Chris Orr wrote in his review of the film, "The further the central mystery unfolds, the more you may wish you could fold it back up again."
In both cases, realistic depictions of youth holds far more interest than fabrications of the otherworldly; the monsters and soldiers merely provide a cheap way to inject some conflict into the scene. This is both the promise and problem of sci-fi childhood nostalgia mashups: They often work as emotional pornography, wholly indulging the viewer's desire to regress, to the exclusion of all else. The regression can be for a time and place (in Super 8, that'd be the late '70s housing-tract Ohio), a life period (a high school summer in Scenes From the Suburbs), or, of course, both. In 2001, Donnie Darko spawned a cult following when it married brain-teasing metaphysics with a smart recreation of John Hughes-style '80s teenagehood. But 10 years out, what's more memorable: The intricacies of the time-travel fable that drove the plot, or Jake Gyllenhaal's misfit high-schooler persona and the dinner-table argument about Michael Dukakis?
Of course, science fiction at its best highlights timeless aspects of human nature. Certainly, childhood is fair game. And Super 8 producer Steven Spielberg has proven that the supernatural can feel integral to movies that are largely about what it's like to be a kid. But with E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even Gremlins, the otherworldly elements felt like starting points for the plots instead of detours. Those films got joyously lost in their own mythology, in the same way that daydreaming children do (Jonze's own 2009 adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are was about this very phenomenon). Perhaps that's why this new crop, while transporting, comes across as disjointed: We never forget that behind the camera, the adults are still calling the shots.