Director: Spike Jonze
Is it possible for a film to arrive at a time that’s emotionally inconvenient?
That’s the question I’m pondering as I sit here, having just watched Spike Jonze‘s collaboration with Arcade Fire, the short film Scenes from the Suburbs. This needs to be established upfront: I’m what you would call a younger fellow. As of this writing, in fact, I graduated from high school two days ago, and got back from two graduation parties right before I sat down and watched this. At said parties were a few of my best friends, some of whom I’ve known since I was five or six. In about two months, I’ll be going off to college, living somewhere different, and meeting new people.
I’ve recently been asking myself a question I don’t want to face: Am I going to see these people after I go away? Sure, there might be the occasional meetup (or something of that nature) but, deep down, I know that things won’t ever be the same.
Scenes from the Suburbs is all about that — growing apart from your friends as you grow into adulthood. Our teenage years are some of the most formative we’ll ever have; it’s where we find our interests, when we meet people we’ll know for the rest of our lives, and where we lose those we’ve known since childhood.
Narrated by Win Butler, Arcade Fire‘s frontman, the movie is told from the perspective of our lead character, Kyle (Sam Dillon), who is reflecting on his time as a teenager in his suburban community. The main story — which is mostly told through flashes and fragments — is structured around Kyle and his friend, Winter (Paul Pluymen), and how they grow apart over one summer. We’re thrown into the middle of their life, as they’re doing typical things of that age: riding around on bikes and in cars with other friends, talking about sex and girls, all things most of us know. Winter has a girlfriend, Zoe (Zoe Graham), someone who has a small town beauty and quality to her, and someone who Kyle is clearly pining after. His friendship isn’t something that he wants to lose, though, and therefore he has feelings that he can’t really do anything about.
Things change for the worst when Winter’s brother, Terrance (Justin Arnold) “comes home.” (It’s implied through lines of dialogue and his general appearance that he’s returning from war.) He wants Winter to go to a different school in a different town, one where he wouldn’t be around any of his friends. There’s nothing Winter can do about it — Terrance is physically intimidating, and there’s always an air of authority hanging around him — so he has to go along with his sibling’s plans. If that weren’t enough, there happens to be a military lockdown on their town, and it’s one where mouthing off to a soldier can get you killed. From there, things begin to unravel.
There were moments while watching this — many, many moments — where I kept wondering how the filmmakers knew the exact way me and my friends acted around each other. One scene, for example, has the two boys and Zoe in Kyle’s room; they’re simply talking about approaching a girl for a kiss, and the rules that come with this. There’s a reference to Will Smith‘s Hitch, and while me and my friends talk about film a little more sophisticated than that one (allow me a few seconds to put on my monocle), we often relate our cultural experiences to our real lives, and the way the dialogue is delivered — in terms of tone and rhythm — is perfect. It’s a minor exchange, but one where as much as said through gestures and facial expressions as words.
In that same sequence, Zoe has her back up against Winter, the latter of whom is leaning against the bedroom wall — it’s such a small detail, and one that many people may not think twice about. The thing is, this is something that I see almost every time I’m with a friend and his significant other, and the awkward glances that bounce between the three of us as we talk are perfectly replicated here by Jonze‘s direction and editing.
The kids go around town in a way that gives the sense that they’ve been here just a little too long; they know every turn to take on their bikes, or the exact place to run to when they play a prank on a trucker. They want to get out of this place, but they don’t want to leave each other behind, and this is reflected in the music of Arcade Fire.
And here’s another place where this short hit an emotional center with me: its music. I’m a massive fan of Arcade Fire, and they’re a band that means more to me than just good songs — they’ve also helped me get through some of the worst times of my life. Over the past several months I’ve been dealing with a sense of depression that I’ve never felt as intensely before, one where I constantly wondered if life was worth living. The support of my friends got me through this period, and Arcade Fire is one of the biggest things that helped keep me afloat.
The album upon which this is based, The Suburbs, happened to be released a little over a month before my senior year of high school began, and many of the songs on the album expressed the emotions I would end up going through. Whether it’s feeling constrained by my surroundings, not having confidence in myself, being afraid of a life without a sense of security, or being frustrated with so many people around me, it was in the music. It’s an album that — and I know plenty of people have already said this — feels like it was made just for me. I know that when I look back at the past nine or ten months of my life in a few years, those songs will be in the soundtrack to my memories. And that’s just what’s happened with Kyle; lyrics match the situations the characters endure, and it often seems as if their thoughts are slipping out through them, like some form of expression they don’t even understand. Whether it’s the playing of “Half Light I” during a pivotal moment, or hearing “Suburban War” over the end credits, this has some of the best use of music I’ve seen in any movie in years.
So, when I hear “Modern Man” — a song that almost makes me tear up by itself — playing over the aforementioned scene of the three leads talking in the main character’s room, you’ll have to excuse me if I become emotionally overwhelmed. I may not dress like the lead character, and I may not say the same things, but there’s my life, right on the screen!
Even if this almost unbearable connection wasn’t present, the film would still be splendid as a work of art. The kids here are extraordinary actors, getting across so many feelings simply through their facial expressions and body motions; they capture feelings of angst in a way that tells me they’ve gone through this themselves. Jonze, meanwhile, isn’t taking things easy because this is a “smaller project.” He’s made something that basically comes off as a long, scattered thought, and it’s a beautiful feeling. The shots he chooses and the way he cuts them put us right in the place of our main character, giving the sense of a fleeting memory of a time that’s gone by.
Kyle says over the film’s start that, when thinking about that summer, he doesn’t reflect too heavily on the army — who would be deployed whenever a petty conflict between two towns arose — but on his friends, because that’s what he wants to remember. Those opening lines encapsulate why I’ve only mentioned the military presence in a passing fashion; it’s the kids who really matter. The script by Jonze and Win & William Butler employs this force as a metaphor, and it does so beautifully. More than anything, they’re the physical manifestation of both the conflict that’s arising between these two friends, and problems that, in the end, probably don’t matter as much as they think right now. Yes, their friendship is disintegrating before our very eyes — and it can be hard to watch — but by not knowing how to handle it, these kids are only making things worse for themselves.
What’s particularly interesting is the fact that the music video for “The Suburbs” — which we posted all the way back in November — acts as more of a companion piece to this final product than anything else. There are certain moments present there that aren’t shown here (and vice versa, obviously), and they actually answer some questions that you’re likely to have when the film ends. It doesn’t dilute the power of this piece; not in the slightest, actually. What it really does is further connect the album to the short, and it makes it feel more thematically related than before.
Scenes from the Suburbs affected me in a personal way that nearly brought tears throughout its approximately 30-minute run time, but it’s also a great film in its own right. Even those who don’t connect with the music that serves as the story’s foundation should be captivated by what Jonze and his team of actors & musicians have constructed: a beautiful reflection on growing up, but one that isn’t afraid to show the tragedies that come with the wonders.
You can stream Scenes from the Suburbs here, or on DVD when it hits with The Suburbs Deluxe Edition on August 2nd.
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