In what's intended to be an ingenious twist on the documentary form, Gary Burns and Jim Brown's Radiant City splits its time between real-life experts pontificating on exurban sprawl, and the ruminations of none-too-convincing actors, playing a typical middle-class family ambivalent about their choices. The faux-documentary aspect of Radiant City is a huge gamble that doesn't pay off. If anything, the movie's observations about the corrupting social influence of cluttered mall spaces get undercut by the fact that Burns and Brown feel the need to invent characters to prove their truth.
This is especially frustrating because there's a real story to be told here, about the increasing distance in the U.S. and Canada between where people work and where they live, and about what people in the '00s expect from a house and a neighborhood. Burns and Brown try to be sympathetic to the concerns of suburbanites, by painting their fictionalized subjects as well-meaning, intelligent folks, fully aware of the compromises they've made in the name of a little cleanliness and security. But the "we know how these people think" approach becomes increasingly condescending, because even though the cast contributed their own ideas to the script—as outlined in a too-brief coda where they break character—they're no substitute for real real people.
The best parts of Radiant City examine the inherent surrealism of the suburbs, where faux-stone replaces real stone, church congregations meet in strip malls, and park committees stick benches next to busy interstates. The worst involves Burns and Brown's clumsy attempts to develop something like a plot, having to do with two bickering parents whose differing philosophies on suburban life blind them to the way their pre-teen son has begun to run with a pack of hoodlums. Radiant City's legitimate talking heads explain the sociological reasons for this fictional family's problems. And the family—being fictional—follows form, while always being sure to look into the camera periodically to deliver the kind of ironic one-liners that get big laughs at film festivals.