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Radiant City

September 21st, 2007     by Elle E.     Comments

This Monday I went to my Grandmother’s funeral.* During the visitation I was amazed at the number of people who introduced themselves as Gran’s neighbours during the Leave it to Beaver Days of the 1950’s. To any suburbanites reading, how well have you bonded with your neighbours? Will you show up to their funerals in 60 years and tell their grandchildren heart warming stories of your joint antics?

I’m close to the age where house-buying will be a reality, and I grew up in the suburbs. There is a very real gap between the kind of community I want to belong to and the options that are available to me. This tension, among others, is well explored in the film Radiant City, a Canadian documentary and very funny suburban satire that opened in May (now out on DVD).

The film is juicy from both an environmental perspective and a film perspective (a fresh twist at the end has the power to change how you read the entire film, but since I didn’t put “spoiler alert” at the top of this post, you’ll just have to rent it yourself to see what I mean). However, here I can shamelessly indulge myself by exploring one of the other parts the intrigued me: the depiction of the mother, Anne Moss.

(I swear next time this won’t be so long. I’m excited.)

Radiant City focuses on the social impact the ‘burbs have on family. This post is going to make it sound very serious, but the film is hilarious with some beautifully dark moments as well. To show the complexity of the issues, the directors disperse talking head expert interviews and statistical cartoons with the story of the fictional Moss family, who just moved into the emerging suburb of Evergreen.

When the Moss family moves to Evergreen, the irony of the name is certainly not lost on the kids. Jennifer and Nick take us on a tour of the tree-less area, from the cell tower that makes their teeth tingle to freeway that locks them in. Bulldozers amid vast fields of dry mud give hope that one day a true “community” will emerge.

In interviews, Mr. Evan Moss and the kids displayed mixed feelings about the suburbs. They shrug and resign themselves to their new life, but are sceptical and unsatisfied. They suck it up for the sake of Anne, who apparently “had to have a big, new house.” Son Nick is left to traipse around their wasteland neighbourhood, Evan has a long commute to work every day, and Jennifer is carted to gymnastics to piano to karate most evenings. It has already sunk in that the promises made by the real estate billboards don’t match up with the void they face. After a year, Nick has seen the neighbour’s dog, but still not the owner.

When Ann comes into the picture, she is anxious and conflicted. At one point she sits down with her coffee and has fond recollections of her own teenage days smoking behind the skating rink and starting fires. She wistfully says that you just can’t let kids run around like that these days, that it’s better that her kids are busy learning things. Then she stares off into space, stirring her coffee.

Of course, the car is central to the suburban critique and to the Moss family’s life. To cope with the “convenience” of the suburbs, Anne has been forced to create a white board schedule, colour coded for each person and each car. Later, son Nick explains how vital the schedule really is. “I brushed by it once by accident,” he says mournfully. “It was a catastrophe.” Then, in a moment of rebellion, he takes his finger and “quits soccer” by wiping his slot off the board. The organization of life in the suburbs has become bigger than the life itself.

I’m fascinated by Anne because she doesn’t fit into the stereotypes I often see. She’s a power mom, but without the caffeinated optimism. She’s not the appearance-obsessed Bree from Desperate Housewives. She is shown as determined, but conflicted, caught in the lie of the burbs, but trying to survive. When she goes back to the inner city, she looks relieved to remember how “dirty and unsafe” it feels to her. She doesn’t want to raise her kids in the downtown. Evergreen doesn’t live up to the dream, but it carries with it come kind of hope. Likewise, a single mother in the film talks about how she wanted to leave downtown’s subsidized housing because of “crack heads”.

The experts’ insights unburden these mothers a little bit. It’s clear that trends in city planning limit the ways we can live. Smart growth and new urbanism are introduced as methods of planning that mix houses of all sizes and capacities with businesses, schools and shops. These are walkable communities that are difficult to implement, but are the recommend way forward, and will be necessary if we want to live in sustainable neighbourhoods. Experts are also quick to point out that in many suburban developments the lower-income town housing is kept well aside from the mansions of the Moss family. (Side note – the only two teen girls in the film, one the daughter of the single mother, are shown as volunteers at a help phone centre, which I thought was cool.)

The husband is also interesting. He says that living in the suburbs erases any ideas he gets when he’s out having his day, and he wonders aloud if he should even be married. He doesn’t want to play road hockey with any neighbourhood kids in case he’s labelled a pervert. We see him drinking beer with his buddy and acting in an amateur production of “Suburb The Musical.” He says he chose the play for the funny title, but it turns out to be a rather cutting satire of the lust for lawn mowing.

After Anne warns Evan not to mess with his car “after what happened last time,” he does anyway. Their second car, the glue that holds the chaos at bay, goes into the shop, leaving Anne to cart the kids around herself. Finally, when his play opens, Anne drops off the kids and speeds away. She refuses to come see his play on the grounds that she won’t put up with something that essentially mocks her way of life. I’m glad that she stood up to Evan for his constant disengagement and lack of support, but I can’t figure out if she is just making the best of their life, or in denial about how bad the ‘burbs really are. Should she join the rest of them and laugh about it, or is she perhaps truly the most heartbroken of them all?

If you’ve seen the film, let me know how you read it.

*She was 89 and passed in her sleep. Breast cancer (and other cancers) survivor with tremendous strength, courage and wit. Lived a beautiful life, and will be missed big time.

Tags: eco speak, film fridays

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