In the new suburban drama "The Oranges," a married 50-something father of two (Hugh Laurie) starts sleeping with his best friend and neighbor's 20-something daughter (Leighton Meester). And while I'm sure a few of you are giving Laurie's character a figurative thumbs up, that's not really par for the course in the 'burbs. (Also, ewwww!)
The truth is that life outside a big city isn't always the angsty nightmare that movies like "American Beauty," "The Ice Storm," "Little Children" and "Garden State" portray it to be. It shouldn't come as a surprise, though, because filmmakers often fall back on using suburbia as a shorthand for repression, depression, hypocrisy and desperation. It's cliché, not to mention incorrect, to assume life in the 'burbs can't be full of joy and happiness and that the Big City is always cooler and more interesting. We're here to debunk some of these movie myths.
1. No One is Happy: This is a universal theme; writers and directors love to portray the suburbs as one McMansion-filled cesspool of ennui and malaise. From Kevin Spacey and Chris Cooper in "American Beauty" to Kate Winslet in "Revolutionary Road," these dramas are filled with dark sexual desires and self-destructive impulses. Can someone – anyone – show a happy family in the suburbs? More like Steve Carell's family in "Dan in Real Life," perhaps? You would think unhappiness – one of the human experience's most common conditions – is relegated to the outskirts of big cities, where the lawns are neatly trimmed and you know your neighbors. Not so.
2. There Are More Pedophiles: Thanks almost single-handedly to Todd Solondz, films about the suburbs would have you believe that pedophiles practically outnumber everyone else. While statistics show that the lion's share of sexual assaults are at the hands of people we know, the suburbs aren't actually populated solely with characters like Dylan Baker in "Happiness," Ronnie in "Little Children," Big John in "L.I.E" and the coach in "Mysterious Skin." Abusers are everywhere.
3. Married Couples Are All Cheating: "The Oranges" puts a spin on the adulterous married couple by showing a husband who cheats with the daughter of his best friend, but he's not the only one who can't keep it in his pants. Wife-swapping, torrid affairs and even sexing up your sperm donor is par for the course in movies like "American Beauty," "Unfaithful," "Little Children" and "The Kids Are All Right." Are there any faithful couples in the cinematic suburbs? For the record, wealthy cities (particularly for successful women) are breeding grounds for adultery.
4. Teens Are Either Abused or Addicts: Obviously, adolescence is filled with sexual and substance experimentation, but the suburbs hardly have the corner on bad teen behavior. Promiscuity and drug use are part of any high school, as is the sort of teen angst that makes for good coming of age stories ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower"), but living in the suburbs can be more like "Easy A" (minus the literal scarlet letter) than the melodrama or damage in "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Thumbsucker" or "We Need to Talk about Kevin."
We get it. The suburbs aren't exactly known as a sanctuary of free-thinking people and artistic expression. Filmmakers love to pick on the suburbs, perhaps because so many more of us grew up and live there than in the alternately gritty or glamorous cities. Yes, (some) cities genuinely are awesome. But the same is true for (some) suburbs, particularly those that border a city and provide the best of both worlds. We're not all Applebee's-loving, mall-cruising, self-hating stereotypes.
So why can't we happy, well-adjusted and culturally aware suburbanites get a little more love and a little less despair? Maybe for that we have to leave the multiplex and turn on the TV.