GREENER GRASS

★★★★

A DEEPLY ODD AND VERY FUNNY SUBURBAN NIGHTMARE

SYDNEY UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
13th November 2019

To inner-city dwellers, there is something unnerving about the seemingly endless sprawl of suburbia. But for most, home is that in-between realm of tree-lined streets and manicured lawns – the suburbs allow you to redefine yourself not merely through geography, but through a new socio-cultural way of life.

This comes at a price. The certainties offered by rigid gender roles, model households and families, and the pressure to attain normalised standards that supposedly guaranteed a happiness not granted to previous generations can take their toll. And the cracks, when they inevitably appear, can be lethal.

These divides have long been fertile ground for artistic exploration, particularly in film, with many directors keen to visually exploit this facsimile of day-to-day living. Whether through melodrama, comedy, science fiction or horror, "dark" suburbia often scarcely seems a necessary prefix. And while many films enjoy skewering the baby boomer-era (like Gary Ross' 'Pleasantville' and Sam Mendes’ ‘Revolutionary Road’), more contemporarily-set work like Richard Kelly’s ‘Donnie Darko’ reveals how little has really changed.

Written, directed and starring Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the demented deadpan comedy ‘Greener Grass’ takes place in an alternate reality where all adults wear braces, drive golf carts, and forbid their children from watching a toxic TV show called 'Kids With Knives'.

Jill (DeBoer) and her friend Lisa (Luebbe) live in an idyllic pastel-coloured suburban neighbourhood. In the very first scene, Jill is gossiping with Lisa about the murder of a local yoga teacher while watching Jill’s unathletic young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard, ‘Colour Out Of Space’), play soccer. Lisa suddenly notices Jill’s newborn baby (“Oh my gosh, I didn’t even notice, you have a new baby!”) and admires the child’s cuteness. In an immediate and unhesitatingly altruistic gesture, Jill asks Lisa if she wants to have the tot. When Lisa asks her if that’s okay, Jill responds with, “I’ve been her mom since she was born, she just has to get used to you.” The transference of ownership of the child seems to awaken a dormant hunger in the competitive Lisa.

'GREENER GRASS' TRAILER

This is the audience’s introduction to the hilarious logic of ‘Greener Grass’, set in a postcode full of strange rules and rituals, deliberately stilted dialogue, and flashes of unsettling oddity that threaten to tilt the humour straight into horror. The intoxicating mix of kitsch and chic barely conceals the psychosis underneath.

Existing in a highly-mannered bizarro world where citizens battle self-preservation instincts in order to appease faux-friendly neighbours, ‘Greener Grass’ doesn’t have a traditional plotline. The film is strung along by Lisa’s dislocation from society after giving up her baby and a serial killer on the loose called the Bagger Killer (assumed to be a local grocery bagger) terrorising the neighbourhood, but not really. Nothing makes much sense aside from the underlying motivations. The film has the setup of a surreal rom-com, as Jill is married to Nick (a hilarious Beck Bennett), who is lusted after by Lisa, who has her own diminutive husband, Dennis (Neil Casey). Will Lisa stick with Nick or take a plummet down the social evolutionary ladder?

The film explores the pressure society puts on people to conform to the perfect picture of suburban bliss. The details of DeBoer and Luebbe’s oppressive dystopia - where Nick can be so disappointed in his son Julian’s sporting prowess that the kid morphs into an animal - create a warped reflection of our unforgiving societal expectations. This suburban nightmare brings to mind Soundgarden's 'Black Hole Sun' music video or the underground society of Topeka from L.Q. Jones’ ‘A Boy and His Dog’, a town which valued preservation of the status quo above all else, its residents adopting mime-painted faces and rosy cheeks to put on a façade of cheerfulness amidst the oppressive, sterile environment of a stagnant Norman Rockwell-inspired bubble.

The dialogue in ‘Greener Grass’ is all awkward alien chitchat - a grotesque but comical parody of desperate neighbourly pleasantries and familiar banter.

‘Greener Grass’ is constructed in a similar visual vernacular, like looking at that Rockwell image in the hyper-real: every dining room table and couch, every pair of braces glimpsed between the parted lips of the actors has been carefully placed and accordingly lit for the maximum pictorial experience. The work is an example of how we have come to understand film less as a mirror of nature and more as a constructed reality. Lowell A. Meyer’s cinematography and compositions mixes in some uniquely imaginative scenarios to give a sense of the unreal real. DeBoer and Luebbe’s vignettes have a clarity and familiarity that draw us in, yet as we continue to look at them, the absurdity of the film’s narrative begins to test our pragmatism. This tension between fact and fiction keeps us fully engaged.

The dialogue in ‘Greener Grass’ is all awkward alien chitchat - a grotesque but comical parody of desperate neighbourly pleasantries and familiar banter. “You’re a school,” Julian yells at his mother before performing a cruel impression of her, “I am mom! I’m full of classrooms! So many clocks in me!” His father angrily sends him to his room before reassuring his wife, “Don’t listen to him... if anybody’s a school, it’s Julian.” The actors rarely seem to be fishing for laughs but get them anyway, mostly by playing the madness completely straight.

As in Yorgos Lanthimos' ‘The Lobster’, DeBoer and Luebbe’s film twists human behaviour into pitiless but amusing science fiction: this is our world and this is not our world. One of the film’s sharper running gags concerns the extreme lengths people will go to in order to secure the house and partner of their dreams, cultivating their appearance and bending their personalities for the sake of compatibility. This suburban sendup squeezes so many quirks into the corners of its universe that you’re constantly startled by its oddness: divorced dads start wearing cowboy fashion, soccer balls are adopted as babies, pool water is delicious, kids enjoy watching Popeye the Sailor and a uniform-wearing golden retriever can attend a classroom overseen by Miss Human (D'Arcy Carden, TV's 'The Good Place').

Bathed in a strange glow as it captures people in moments of surreal epiphany, ‘Greener Grass’ distorts reality through a dreamlike lens. DeBoer and Luebbe have created a world of blunt allegories and social antagonisms, perverted by a unique style into a manic, nearly unclassifiable black comedy.

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