Few films have dared to explore the suburban American psyche. Most of the great American films take place in dense cities, fruited plains, foreign ports, or imaginary worlds. Suburban environments simply lack realistic representation on the movie screen.
    Until the 1990s, most filmmakers who entered suburbia treated it either as parody or as the springboard for an extraordinary tale.1 When a hyper Jennifer Grey karate-kicks the school principal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, we do not take it as an accurate portrayal of suburban America. And when E.T. befriends Elliot, the film's convincing depiction of suburbia quickly disappears.
    However, the 1990s represent a revolution for the "suburban" film. Independent filmmakers born and raised in the suburbs are pointing their cameras homeward. From Kevin Smith to Todd Solondz, they know the nuances of the suburbs, and most importantly, they don't need to sensationalize it with parody or fantastic plots. The characters are the story. By realistically portraying suburbanites ranging from convenience store clerks to faithful housewives, these filmmakers deliberately avoid narrative hyperbole.
    Three films in particular approach a broad consensus about suburban life. Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990) follows the lives of a husband and wife in suburban Kansas City; The Ice Storm (1997) gives us New Canaan, Connecticut during a frigid Thanksgiving; and Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996) tells the story of Dawn, a junior high school geek toughing it out in suburban New Jersey.2 These three films suggest that beneath the ritualized lives of suburbanites lies an emotional vacuum. And at the core of the vacuum lies the nuclear family (consisting of mom, dad and two or three children). "Nuclear," according to these films, is a misnomer. The nuclear forces that are supposed to keep everyone together have dissipated, leaving a bunch of chaotic quarks that live in the same house, but never interact.

Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, The Ice Storm, and Welcome to the Dollhouse all attack family rituals. These films are not so much concerned with what rituals suburban families perform but rather with how those rituals are performed.
    These films suggest that the family ritual never looks or feels valuable for its suburban participants. The on-screen families are tired of enacting the same orderly rites year after year, of showing enthusiasm when they feel none. To reflect their disinterest, the scenes depicting rituals are shot with an appropriately staid, even static camera. When the camera does move, it does so slowly, almost imperceptibly. The intent is to create as calm a surface as possible through which we, the viewers, can watch the characters wriggling uncomfortably. Glances, facial tics, and vocal inflections become greatly amplified. Because we can see through the rituals, they become artificial. In particular, the "enthusiasm" that the characters display begins to look and sound strained. The stationary camera acts again as a critical eye, recording everything with a cool detachment. Artificiality and transparency are therefore the two defining characteristics of the suburban family ritual.

The opening sequence from Welcome to the Dollhouse.

    The opening credits of Welcome to the Dollhouse attack the annual rite of family portraits. Interestingly, we do not see the portrait session itself, only the result. As the credits roll, the camera lingers on the portrait of the Wiener family. The camera moves in on one of the kids, Dawn (played by Heather Matarazzo), who wears thick glasses, has bucked teeth, and shows too much gum when she smiles. The camera zooms in gradually until her entire face fills the screen, distorting her gawky features.
    By showing only the result of the ritual, writer / director Todd Solondz immortalizes the split second when Dawn's face becomes a mask. His camera, moving in ever so slowly, never actually lifts the mask away, but it does shine a probing light through the surface so that the unhappy pre-teen beneath is illuminated. The camera implicitly asks us, "Is her smile real?" Slowly, we realize that Dawn is concealing her distaste for the family portrait under a tense smile. And she clearly feels unattractive, though we could never guess it without the aid of the camera, which exaggerates her physical awkwardness. If the camera had moved in too quickly or had kept its distance, Dawn's face would have remained curiously opaque. The subtle camera allows her uneasiness to become visible and stay hidden at the same time.

The Hoods prepare for their Thanksgiving meal in The Ice Storm.

     The Ice Storm criticizes the way the Hoods, a suburban Connecticut family, celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. Their Thanksgiving dinner is filmed in a cold, static style. The camera hardly moves. The color scheme is dominated by blues and greys, as opposed to the browns and oranges we normally associate with the holiday. Like the opening sequence in Welcome to the Dollhouse, the camera externalizes the mindset of the ritual's reluctant participants.
    As the Hood family prepares the Thanksgiving table, director Ang Lee captures their movement from a single angle. The camera deliberately does not move, as if to keep our pulses as low as theirs. And it maintains its distance from the physical action, reflecting the Hoods' own mental detachment from the ritual at hand. In the scene, Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) carves the turkey while his son Paul (Tobey Maguire) sets the table. His wife Elena and his daughter Wendy (Joan Allen and Christina Ricci, respectively) busy themselves over the side dishes. All of this activity is performed in silence, like a factory operation.3

Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) says grace in The Ice Storm.

    When they sit down to eat, the bitter words they exchange across the table are surprising and jarring because we have subconsciously expected their conversation to compliment the subdued camera style. When Wendy Hood intones grace, she refers to Vietnam, Native American genocide, and capitalist greed. The camera allows her words to emerge like sharp barbs from a deceptively complacent (and even boring) veneer of civility.
    While The Ice Storm and Welcome to the Dollhouse attack specific family rituals, Mr. & Mrs. Bridge paints a broader panorama. The lives of Walter and India Bridge (Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward) consist of nothing but rituals. The filmmakers construct a series of vignettes (weddings, graduations, anniversaries), each portraying an aspect of the Bridge's lives.4 It is an anthropological study of suburbanites, like a suburban Nature.
    In one scene, director James Ivory criticizes the way suburban couples quarrel. To make the quarrel feel and look like a ritual, he films the scene primarily with static medium and long shots. This technique creates a theatrical or staged quality, implying that the Bridges are like actors who have performed the scene too many times and who can no longer convince themselves to feel their own emotions.

Mrs. Bridge (Joanne Woodward) pauses at the kitchen door before confronting her husband in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge.

    In the scene, Mrs. Bridge storms into the kitchen where Mr. Bridge is reading the paper. She accuses him of not loving her; he shrugs it off; they fight; she storms out, only to return seconds later in tears; he comforts her; they embrace and make up. The scene is deliberately mechanical. Their bodies and voices go through the motions, but their minds (like the camera) are removed. The understatement makes it easier for us to vicariously experience their disenchantment.
    While these films criticize the way suburban families perform rituals, they do not portray suburbanites as clueless individuals who don't know any better. On the contrary, they invest their characters with an unfulfilled longing to rebel. Their repression is never obvious, of course. But the sly camera is always there, guiding us, hinting to us, enabling the sad characters to rise above the mindless rituals that they force themselves to endure.

The dialogue in these films has two layers of emotion. When the characters speak, the literal meaning of their words points to an emotion. But there is a second layer of emotion that their words are hiding. Miscommunication occurs when the characters articulate their first layer of emotion, but not their second layer. The result is a kind of emotional double-speak.
    For instance, when Mrs. Bridge wants to see a psychiatrist in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, Mr. Bridge becomes uneasy and belittles the science of psychiatry. When she explains that she needs someone to talk to, he replies: "You can talk to me!" But then, feeling guilty for dismissing her so roundly, he offers to buy her a new car, which she kindly declines.
    Mr. Bridge's first emotional layer is his hostility towards his wife's suggestion. He wants to show his contempt for psychiatry, hence, his harsh criticisms. In Mr. Bridge's mind, however, he is experiencing fear-- the second layer. Psychoanalysis represents "the unknown" to him and he feels that his role as his wife's protector is being threatened. Unsure of how to respond, he hides his own uncertainty by verbally beating his wife into submission. He does not mean to hurt her, as shown when he repents by offering to buy her a new car. But he chooses to show only hostility instead of admitting his own insecurity.5

Mrs. Carver (Sigourney Weaver) tells Wendy "a person's body is his temple" in The Ice Storm.

     In The Ice Storm, miscommunication takes the form of bizarre discussions of sex. The day before Thanksgiving, Mrs. Carver (Sigourney Weaver) finds her son and Wendy Hood playing "I'll show you mine if you show me yours." Mrs. Carver pulls Wendy aside for a reprimand:

Wendy, a person's body is his temple. This body is your first and last possession. Now, as your own parents have probably told you, in adolescence, our bodies tend to betray us and that's why in Samoa and other developing nations, adolescents are sent out into the woods, unarmed, and they don't come back until they've learned a thing or two. Do you understand?

Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) and his son Paul (Tobey Maguire) discuss self-abuse in The Ice Storm.

    In a later scene, Ben Hood is driving his son Paul home from boarding school for Thanksgiving. The car ride proceeds normally until Ben starts lecturing:

On the self-abuse front, and this is important, I don't think it's advisable to do it in the shower. It wastes water and electricity and because we all expect you to be doing it there in any case. And not onto the linen. Well, anyway, if you're worried about anything at all, just feel free to ask and we'll look it up.

    The parents try to appear like authorities on adolescent sexuality -- that is, they want to command respect from their listeners (the first layer). But underneath their display, the speakers are hiding their own uneasiness about sex (the second layer), as shown when their speeches deteriorate into incoherent musings. As a result, they alienate their audiences instead of drawing them closer.

Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) in Welcome to the Dollhouse.

    Welcome to the Dollhouse contains the harshest language of all three films, and Dawn is the sad recipient of most of the insults. She is called a variety of names throughout the film: lesbo, dinghead, retard, asshole, cunt, bitch, ugly bitch, piece of shit, piece of ugly fuck, and above all, Wienerdog. Ironically, Dawn encourages the insults by flaunting her low self-esteem. She wears ill-fitting little-girl clothes; she is overly timid; and she only socializes with other social lepers. People insult her (at least in part) because they don't know how to respond to her self-loathing. They are scared of her, but they are even more scared of admitting it. To conceal their fear (the second layer of emotion), they use slander to push Dawn as far away as possible. The verbal abuse Dawn suffers is graphic, but it comes from the same fear Mr. Bridge tries to conceal from his wife.
    The insults fly at Dawn with such frequency that she recycles them on those closest to her. After a bad day at school, her friend Ralphy telephones her. Her little sister, Missy, tries to convince Dawn to talk to him. Dawn refuses, calling Ralphy a 'faggot' and 'asshole'.
    The words 'faggot' and 'lesbo' abound in Welcome to the Dollhouse. For sexually insecure junior high schoolers, an attack on one's sexual identity is perhaps the ultimate insult. Dawn is not a lesbian. She has a crush on her older brother's computer science partner, Steve. She even has a love affair with a local bully, Brandon. If Dawn is attracted to the opposite sex, why do the lesbo chants continue? As in The Ice Storm, the characters try to appear more knowledgeable about sex than they really are. Calling others 'faggot' and 'lesbo' is their way of hiding their inexperience.
    The dialogue in these scenes is not syntactically complex. The characters speak vernacular English and slang. The simplicity of suburban dialogue masks the true emotional thickness that the characters are experiencing. Melodramas, on the other hand, use dialogue that is ornate but one-layered; its purpose is to unequivocally communicate the characters' (often-shallow) thoughts. These three suburban films prove that their characters are definitely not shallow. While these films clearly indict the suburban culture that frowns upon emotional frankness, they reserve a peculiar empathy for suburbanites who aren't allowed to say what they mean.

If one were to view only the final scenes of these three films, one might think that suburbanites live in excruciating loneliness. The filmmakers have chosen, perhaps by coincidence, to devote the final minutes of their films to exploring different forms of isolation. Further still, each of the final shots takes place in an automobile. The automobile, which normally implies mobility, is used ironically as a symbol of confinement. Because suburbanites depend on the automobile to complete basic tasks, from commuting, to visiting the neighbors who live a few blocks away, these scenes succinctly show how suburbanites have accepted loneliness as an inseparable part of their lives.

In the final sequence from Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn sings during a school field trip.

    The last scene in Welcome to the Dollhouse shows Dawn on a bus trip with her school chorus, The Hummingbirds. They are singing their signature song ("We're the Hummingbirds of Benjamin Franklin Junior High! Hummm..."). On the film's soundtrack, the voices fade away until we only hear Dawn's. It recalls the first scene, in which the camera isolates Dawn's face in the portrait. The first and final shots deliberately separate Dawn from other human beings. Though she is physically surrounded by others, she smiles and sings alone.
    The loneliness in this scene contains violent undertones. In the sequence prior to it, Dawn caused the kidnapping of Missy, her sister. And prior to that, she considered murdering Missy with a hammer. With this context in mind, the image of Dawn singing to herself on the bus faintly suggests that she is a budding psychopath. She is, in pop culture terms, a suburban Travis Bickle. Like Travis, her loneliness is so intolerable, that she feeds on it because there is nothing else there. She could, at any moment, explode.

In the final sequence from The Ice Storm, Ben Hood begins to cry.

    In the last shot of The Ice Storm, the Hood family sits quietly in their Mercury Cougar. Ben Hood, the father, looks at his wife, Elena, and then at his two children, Paul and Wendy. He then starts crying. The others do not comfort him. "Ben... ," his wife says, barely audible. Ben continues crying, while his family, baffled by his display of emotion, looks on in silence. Ben's loneliness is ironic because at this point in the film, he is the closest he has ever come to appreciating his own family. That they choose to isolate him instead of embracing him turns his loneliness into a prison sentence.
    In the final sequence in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, Mrs. Bridge is backing out of the garage when her Lincoln coupe stalls in the doorframe, trapping her inside of the car. When she realizes her situation, she cries for help -- but no one can hear her. "Yoo-hoo! Anybody there?" she shouts hopefully. It starts snowing, and the car windows begin to white out. She tries wiping the glass but the snow is falling too fast. Several hours pass. Mrs. Bridge stares out of the windows. "Hello... anybody there?" she asks. A bored expression paralyzes her face as she absently taps the windshield. The scene is a concise summary of her life. It materializes her spiritual isolation, and shows, in a single episode, how loneliness progresses naturally to boredom and ultimately to indifference.6

Mrs. Bridge becomes trapped in her car in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge.

    Each scene uses the automobile differently in its effort to portray suburban life as a prison, or a form of solitary confinement, from which there can be no escape. Sometimes the prison is luxurious, like Mrs. Bridge's plush Lincoln. Sometimes it is unbearable, like the cloyingly cheerful motorcoach ride Dawn must endure. And sometimes suburbanites make their own prison, as in The Ice Storm, when the Hoods create a wall of stoic silence around the weeping figure of Ben.
    By placing these scenes at the end, the filmmakers defy our cinematic demand for a conclusive finale. We have come to expect a catharsis of some kind that will liberate the protagonists from their misery. But these suburban films never compromise their pessimism. Their characters cannot escape their claustrophobic lives. In the end, when we expect a climax, the characters just withdraw further into their isolation, resigning themselves to their perpetual suburban captivity.
    The "suburban" genre is essentially the family film gone awry. It takes pleasure in dissecting the nuclear family into its component members, and then analyzing each person through multi-layered dialogue. It critiques their rituals using subtle camera work. And finally, it explores the paradox of how suburbanites lead emotionally disconnected lives despite the family unity that surrounds them. By breaking free of the overstated suburban films of years past, suburban filmmakers of the 1990's have created an artistically rich, challenging film genre.7
    While these films unmistakably indict the suburban lifestyle, they stop just short of condemning suburbanites. The characters who populate their films are not loathsome monsters (even though their actions can be monstrous), but are disoriented individuals who have lost their way in the suburban void. This complexity of character allows us to empathize with them even though we condemn the lives they lead. As the United States becomes increasingly suburban, these films warn us of the tiny moral and emotional sacrifices we make each day for the sake of upholding a greater suburban good.