While technically not a full-length feature, Spike Jonze‘s Arcade Fire music video/short film/spin-off/thingee “Scenes from the Suburbs” is one of the most hotly anticipated and frequently discussed entries in this year’s SXSW line-up, so much so that they paired it with three other medium-length “shorts” and created a whole new distinction for them. (Since they’re longer than shorts but shorter than features.) “What is it?”, is the biggest question, but “Will it work?” was just as pressing.
The film opens up with narration, provided by Arcade Fire mastermind Win Butler, setting up a kind of alternate history in which suburbs, instead of merely being annoying reminders of post-war urban sprawl, are tiny, warring states. There are then a succession of scenes establishing the core group of kids (and when we say kids we mean “young adults in their early teens” of course) as they play around and goof off as kids do. If you’ve seen the “Suburbs” music video, then you get the basic gist of these scenes — they’re skateboarding around while military planes zoom overhead and armored vans rumble by. There’s a loose, freewheeling sensation in these early sequences that perfectly captures the aimless abandon of you. Jonze demonstrates, for the first time since “Where the Wild Things Are,” his complete comfort with young actors (if they even were actors) and his ability to place himself and his audience in that singular state of mind.
Slowly but surely the story of “Scenes from the Suburbs” emerges, which basically centers on the fractious relationship between the two young boys. One, Winter, is scarred by his drunk mother and the return of his war ravaged brother, and starts to slowly drift away from the innocence of his childhood, into an emotionally dead state. The other — and also our narrator — has to look on in horror as he starts to lose his friend both literally and figurativelyas Winter is also planning to move away with his family to a different suburb at the end of the summer.
This is where the metaphoric weight of the short film kicks in and really, really works. Because in the alternate reality of “Scenes from the Suburbs,” moving away to another suburb doesn’t mean that your mom is slightly more annoyed with you because she has to drive a little bit further to meet your friend, but it means armed border patrols and a possible deathly trek. It’s the melancholia of youth intensified and amplified, and it’s totally heartbreaking and haunting.
It should be noted that “Scenes from the Suburbs” is absolutely fucking gorgeous, with lush widescreen photography and a slick combination of handheld camerawork and slicker, more sophisticated shots (courtesy of the fantastic DoP Greig Fraser). And if you’re curious about how the songs are woven into the fabric of the movie, they’re done so organically and without a lot of thematic or narrative portent. The songs just appear, serving mostly as background, although coming to the forefront when necessary. It’s beautifully done and adds an almost lyrical quality to the film. We’re sure parallels can be drawn to the album, especially if you read it as a concept album, but those aren’t made explicitly clear, and the film is all the better for it.
As the film reaches its shattering climax, things in the suburbs intensify, and we see flashes of extreme violence; there’s brutalization aplenty, both literal and emotional. And in its conclusion, there is a brooding sense of apocalyptic dread, but it’s less about the sci-fi-ish premise and more about the creeping sense that childhood is nearing its end, and it just might go down in flames. Or in a pluming mushroom cloud. [A-]