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Richard Linklater's Suburbia 1996
Image: Sony Pictures Classics

Film

25 Years Ago: Suburbia Was a Dark Variation on the Linklater Formula 

A group of suburban teenagers try to support each other through the difficult task of becoming adults.

Revisiting Richard Linklater’s SubUrbia

Richard Linklater made quite a few films in the 1990s that followed one night in the life of young people who spent a lot of time talking. Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise all met that description, and there was one other film too: Suburbia, which arrived in early 1997. 

Suburbia, which was written by actor Eric Bogosian and based on his play, probably owed as much to Kevin Smith’s Clerks, which arrived three years earlier, than it did to Linklater’s oeuvre. Like Clerks, it’s the story of an aimless guy in his early 20s, struggling with his future and with a girlfriend who’s out of his league, with much of the action taking place in and around a convenience store. 

The biggest difference, though, is that Suburbia is dark as hell- much darker, in fact, that I remembered it being, having not watched it since it was new. (The film is often listed as a 1996 release, but its wide release came in February of 1997, 25 years ago this week; the title was also sometimes styled as SubUrbia.)

The action is set on a single day in Burnfield, a suburb of undetermined geographical specificity, although it was shot in Austin and feels very much like the Linklater Austin of Slacker and Dazed and Confused

SubUrbia
Image: Sony Pictures Classics

Suburbia centers on a group of friends in their early 20s, led by Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi) whose girlfriend is aspiring Riot Grrrl performing artist Sooze (Amie Carey.) They’re joined by recovering alcoholic Bee-Bee (Dina Spybey), wild man Buff (Steve Zahn), and Tim (Nicky Katt), a military washout who’s since sunken into alcoholism, hostility, and racial prejudice. 

They’re waiting on Pony (Jayce Bartok), a classmate who has since become a successful rock star, who shows up in a limo along with his publicist (Parker Posey.) They’re hanging out outside a convenience store run by Namer (future Office Space co-star Ajay Naidu), a Pakistani immigrant who doubles as the conscience and moral center of the film.

It’s very much a film of the ’90s, with lots of ennui, aimlessness, and slackerdom, even at a time when the economy was good, and there were no wars or pandemics. But Katt’s character was like a proto-Proud Boy, and especially prescient from 1997.   

The central conflict is that Jeff doesn’t want his girlfriend to leave him to pursue an artistic career in New York. In the film’s most memorable scene, he takes it out on her by mocking her performance piece, “Burger Manifesto, Part One The Dialectical Expression of Testosterone,” which begins with her calling out a mid-’90s-period-specific list of men (“Fuck Oliver Stone. Fuck Bill Clinton. Fuck Howard Stern. Fuck Michael Bolton. Fuck O.J. Simpson. Fuck Pope John Paul. Fuck my dad. Fuck all the men.”)

SubUrbia 1996
Image: Sony Pictures Classics

The other big plot at play is that Pony is coming to town, leading to possible jealousy on the part of his friends who haven’t even begun to have success in life. Limo notwithstanding, Pony turns out to be a pleasant, down-to-earth guy, although that doesn’t put a stop to the jealousy. Having him around also leads Sooze, who we’d pretty much only seen angry up to that point, can do nothing but moon over him. 

The film gets even darker in its final 15 minutes, hinting at one tragedy but then concluding with another entirely. 

Suburbia, while it got more positive reviews than not, had a minuscule box office performance, and it’s not generally looked back on as one of Richard Linklater’s more notable films. But it’s got a lot to recommend it, including that manic performance by Steve Zahn, who’s been doing first-rate, versatile work in movies and TV for almost 30 years. 

There are also strong performances from Katt and Ribisi, both Dazed and Confused veterans who would star together a few years later in Boiler Room; Posey was in Dazed as well. And Amie Carey hasn’t done much acting of late, but she’ll always live on in “Burger Manifesto, Part One.”

Watch Suburbia

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Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Frank

    April 15, 2022 at 6:47 am

    Ribisi wasn’t in Dazed and Confused. His sister was, however. Also, WTF is with the comparison of Katt’s character to Proud Boys? That’s ridiculous and stupid.

  2. M

    May 18, 2022 at 6:59 am

    this person should not be writing film reviews. this is actually a harder pill to swallow than the film.

  3. Film fan

    January 17, 2023 at 11:21 am

    Good write-up re: Linklater’s underrated film SubUrbia (1996). I only saw a decent print of this several years back, and found it surprisingly disturbing. Linklater was able to give the film a compelling tone/vibe. This is also an interesting commentary on the cynicism of mid ’90’s suburban youth, and is also now a time capsule into that era as well. I.e., it was refreshing to see the lack of cell phones (a beeper was mentioned, but that was it), no mention of Social Media, etc.

    The city of “Burnfield” was obviously supposed to be an example of “Anywhere, U.S.A.”. And, there were many examples of the “Uniform American Landscape” re: the many convenience stores/gas stations, fast food places, retail stores, etc. that littered the suburban landscape.

    I think this is a fairly “forgotten” film these days for a couple of reasons:

    -When most film fans think of the film “Suburbia”, they almost certainly first think of Penelope Spheeris’ iconic 1984 punk rock/independent film of that name. Conversely, Linklater’s “SubUrbia” is not nearly as well-known – even though these two films are completely unrelated & are not similar at all.

    -SubUrbia wasn’t really available on modern physical media for many years. The first time I saw this via a decent print was on the 2018 DVD-R. This disk had solid Picture Quality (PQ), and IMHO this is probably the best way to watch the film – at least at this time.

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