The burgeoning Los Angeles punk scene in the early ‘80s found a natural ally in Roger Corman, a fellow fringe-dweller whose quick-and-dirty productions were naturally suited to the movement’s DIY aesthetic. All Corman appeared to require of Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia were a few gratuitous nude scenes and a little violence; beyond that, he seemed perfectly happy to let her do what she wanted. Three years after her groundbreaking 1981 documentary The Decline Of Western Civilization, Spheeris grafted an anecdotal, occasionally contrived, ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama to another tough yet compassionate snapshot of the city’s wayward punkers. At its best, Suburbia plays like an L.A. version of Los Olvidados, Luis Buñuel’s 1950 classic about delinquent street kids in Mexico City: Spheeris doesn’t shy away from ugly, desperate, criminal acts, but she does give their lives some context. These are lost children, and she sees them for who they really are, warts and all.
Looking to escape their drunken, abusive mother, a sullen teenager (Bill Coyne) and his little brother (Andrew Pece) fall in with a group of young punks called “The Rejected.” (“T.R.” on their brands and graffiti tags.) As the name implies, “The Rejected” are a collection of delinquents from broken homes, all squatting together in a boarded-up home owned by the county. With jerry-rigged electricity and meals improvised from whatever they can steal from other peoples’ garage refrigerators and pantries, the gang form a tight-knit surrogate family in a condemned neighborhood where packs of wild, vicious (and yes, metaphorical) dogs hold sway. But when the punks start infiltrating middle-class suburbia, they get some blowback from a heavy-handed community organization known as “Citizens Against Crime.”
Suburbia has the attitude and exploitation kicks of other films about youth rebellion, including more than a few Cormans, but Spheeris’ fidelity to the real L.A. scene—including performances by non-actors and musicians like Flea, who appears with a pet rat—compensates for some contrivances in the writing. Spheeris’ heroes are guilty of everything “Citizens Against Crime” accuses them of doing: Loitering, stealing, vandalizing, even busting up a funeral home. Yet there’s no extracting their behavior from the heartbreaking realities of their marginalization, either. Pushed to the squalid confines of boarded-up houses on the edge of town, they fight to keep from being wiped out altogether. Spheeris and Corman succeed in bringing the audience to the front lines.
Key features: Two commentary tracks—an older one with Spheeris and a newly recorded one with Spheeris, co-producer Bert Dragin, and actor Jennifer Clay—are full of fond memories of the production, at least when the players aren’t actively struggling for recollection. There are also trailers for this and a few other Roger Corman production, and a mostly useless photo gallery.