Most of us are familiar with the suburban landscape, often not willingly. Painted as an impenetrable home of the blissfully happy nuclear family (thanks, Norman Rockwell), it didn’t take long for artists to point out the detriments that the so-called American Dream has on each member of a family, and ultimately the family as a whole.
Where there are people, there is drama, and suburbia is no exception, in fact it’s a prime example. A lot of effort was put into marketing suburban life as a utopia, but the truth is these neighborhoods often have a dark underbelly (something most of us can attest to). Luckily for us though, there are filmmakers in the world, and many of them did a spectacular job at bringing the suburban underbelly to light.
‘American Beauty’ (1999)
Sam Mendes’ American Beauty was revered when it was released, earning rave reviews and multiple Oscar wins. The film is told from the perspective of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) a frustrated suburban father who hates his wife and doesn’t understand his daughter. Inspired by his daughter’s beautiful friend to break free from the monotonous life he leads, Lester begins to realize that nothing really matters, and the distress he felt before melts away into newly discovered bliss.
American Beauty hits various taboo topics, masterfully creating the dramatic irony that in a place where nothing is supposed to be inappropriate or distasteful, there is often the most toxic chaos. The tagline of the film invites us to “look closer”, and discover the dirt hidden underneath. Loveless marriages, grown men lusting after teenage girls, drugs, homophobia, repressed emotions, and struggles of growing up are all explored in the film, and the picture-perfect image of suburban life is shattered.
‘Suburban Gothic’ (2014)
Kat Dennings and Matthew Gray Gubler star in this campy comedy about a young man forced to move back in with his parents, which may be the real horror of the film, despite it being a ghost story. Primarily, the film is about Raymond’s (Gray Gubler) rocky relationship with his parents, especially his father. Raymond struggles with his parents’ ignorant views on life, including sexism, blatant racism, and classism, all while trying to battle a demonic presence in his home.
This film is more of a fun time than it is a critique on suburban life, but it does have some relatable moments when it comes to dealing with parents and living life as an outcast. It also follows in the footsteps of Poltergeist by placing a ghost story in a suburban home, which is frankly a brilliant artistic move.
‘Revolutionary Road’ (2008)
Fans of James Cameron‘s Titanic were ecstatic to hear that the acting dream team of Kate and Leo were coming back together for another romance, but many were disappointed to discover that in this honest and disturbing look at 1950s suburbia, the “romance” is toxic, abusive, and beyond unstable.
The film explores the suffocating life of suburban housewife, April (Kate Winslet) as she drowns in the boredom of her daily routine while coming to terms with the fact that she will never be able to fully chase any dreams her younger self may have had. Meanwhile, her husband Frank (Leondardo DiCaprio) struggles to cope with the mounting pressures of feeding his family by working a job he despises. The marriage sees multiple infidelities, on both sides, and alcohol-induced emotional abuse, toxic and controlling behavior, and a general instability that eventually radiates to the whole family, and even a few neighbors. Let’s just say we prefer Jack and Rose over Frank and April.
‘Imaginary Heroes’ (2004)
Unpacking the baggage of the modern American family is often unpleasant, but there are a few movies out there that manage to create a positive experience out of it, rather than a negative one. Imaginary Heroes is one of these films. The film itself is quite heavy, but the witty writing and the exceptional performances help the comedy come through beautifully.
Sigourney Weaver stars as Sandy Travis, the matriarch of a family struggling to cope with the death of the oldest son. The story focuses primarily on Sandy and her younger son Tim (Emile Hirsch), whom she has a special bond with. Many difficult topics come to light within the film, such as physical abuse between family members, long-term depression, drug dependence and of course, infidelity. Despite that though, there is a light at the end of the tunnel with this one, and it is a good exploration of the detriments of suburbia while still having somewhat of a happy ending.
‘The Girl On The Train’ (2016)
Everyone’s life looks better on the outside, and The Girl on the Train does an excellent job at shedding the pretty skin and revealing the grime underneath. Adapted from Paula Hawkins’ novel of the same name, the film focuses on the interwoven stories of three different women in a suburban neighborhood, one a happily married housewife, one unhappily married and extremely self-destructive, and one recently divorced alcoholic.
As can be expected, alcoholism and infidelity are heavily explored, as well as the detriments of women being wholly defined by their roles as mother or wife. However, this film is first and foremost a thriller, so there’s a bit of murder and more than a bit of mystery. All in all, it’s a solid look at the darker side of suburban living and above all, it will keep you guessing.
‘The Ice Storm’ (1997)
Ang Lee takes on the family dysfunction genre in this drama about two neighboring families in 1970s Connecticut. The story takes place in the span of a week, which happens to be Thanksgiving break and the moment of a severe ice storm that will rock the area, forcing members of each familial unit to seek shelter wherever they can.
The film focuses primarily on the dysfunctional marriages of the two leading couples (and the infidelity that arises from such dysfunctions), as well as burgeoning sexuality and drug use that appears among the children of the families. The film is an honest look at the societal boundaries that are put in place in terms of sexuality, especially female sexuality. If nothing else, the cast will make it worth the watch, with Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, and Elijah Wood all in leading roles.
‘Gone Girl’ (2014)
Last but definitely not least is quite possibly the most brutal entry on this list, David Fincher‘s disturbingly cynical look at married life, adapted from Gillian Flynn‘s acclaimed novel. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike play Nick and Amy Dunne, the couple from hell that did to marriage what Jaws did to the ocean.
When Amy Dunne goes missing, her husband’s apathetic behavior begins to garner suspicion and before long the media has delved its way into the messy lives of the two protagonists, leading to some pretty nasty truths coming to light. All the films on this list are somewhat dark and disturbing, but this one is probably the most difficult to watch. For all the pessimists out there though, this is a great pick, as there is no hope in sight for any of the characters.