directed by Richard Linklater
(Sony Pictures Classics, 1997)

The opening shots tell all, or seem to: rows of cars, rows of stores, rows of signs, rows of homes, rows of garages. It's a town designed with boredom in mind.

Watch out. There's a sign post up ahead. You're entering Burnfield, the town that put the small "s" in subUrbia.

As soon as director Richard Linklater's name appears on the screen, you know what to expect: an ensemble cast of young performers acting out the inanities and frustrations of youth raised in the sterile environment of convenience stores and the Home Shopping Network. subUrbia is Linklater's third variation on the theme which began with Slacker and continued with Dazed & Confused.

This time he tells the story of six high school friends and a lawn elf who spend the night, or most of it, hanging out in a convenience store parking lot.

There's Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), a college dropout whose goal in life is to do nothing; Tim (Nicky Katt), a disabled vet who helped himself to a discharge by chopping off a fingertip while he was on K.P.; Buff (Steve Zahn), a walking libido who's half James Dean, half Jed Clampett; Sooze (Amie Carey), a performance artist whose routine, "Burger Manifesto Part I," consists of a couple of dozen nouns and one verb that starts with "f"; Bee-Bee, a rehabbed nurse's aide; and Pony, a geek who made good in a touring rock band.

It's Pony who provides the dramatic tension, returning to Burnfield, for the first time since graduation, in a chauffeur-driven limousine with the band's publicist at his side. Pony's appearance fuels the dreams of a few and the jealousies of the rest, and inadvertently raises the stakes in the ongoing warfare between the white kids from the 'hood and the Pakistanis who opened a convenience store on "their" corner.

Along the way there are endless laments by the Burnfield six, the best of which is Jeff's: "Nothing ever changes, man. Fifty years from now we're all going to be dead and there'll be new people standing here drinking beer, eating pizza, bitching and moaning about the price of Oreos. And they won't even know we were ever here."

Add to this Linklater's talent for capturing the bleak landscape of suburbia -- Jeff calls it a "tar pit of stupidity" -- and you have all the makings of a scathing satire.

But Linklater, working from a play by Eric Bogosian, goes one giant step further. This time the scathing -- fueled by alcohol and envy -- escalates to seething. And soon Burnfield is the scene of armed confrontation between two diametrically opposed forces, each doing its best not to be reasonable.

This gives subUrbia the kind of dramatic punctuation Slacker never had, and, if you're not careful, it may stop your heart for a minute or two.

Street corners have come a long way since Marty and his friends hung out in Brooklyn circa 1955, asking one another what they wanted to do ad nauseum. The new squatters drink heavily, romanticize their own cynicism and rationalize in ways Marty never would have thought of.

Jeff was wrong. Things do change: rows of cars, rows of stores, rows of signs, rows of homes, rows of garages. We have externalized Marty's boredom.

Linklater and Bogosian have handed us the celluloid proof. It's called subUrbia. With a small "s."

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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