Suburban America is a cinematic wonderland, where interchangeable houses on any random street can accommodate affable extraterrestrial life, poltergeist activity, multiplying gremlins, or some thirteen-year-old kid facing the bittersweet consequences of making a wish to become big.
But suburban America is also a refuge for white guys of a certain age that are on the verge of hitting rock bottom. It provides the backdrop for a familiar setting in which blokes that are not quite old enough to get it together, but certainly old enough to know better, return to their family abode in a bid to reflect on life, only to find salvage through the attentions of a girl that lives a few blocks away who will forever turn their days around for better, or at least help them realise they’re still worth it. Said girl will be in equal parts kooky and kittenish, but essentially, she will be way younger than said gentleman. This is a major wish-fulfilment fantasy for numerous American storytellers and remains a staple fixture of US cinema. To understand why such trends exist requires an individual to be American, Caucasian and possessive of determinant XY chromosomes. For everyone else, read on.
Silver Linings Playbook
Bradley Cooper suffers a terrible mental breakdown after he catches his wife showering with some bald co-worker while listening to a sacred song that was played on their wedding day, spurring the protagonist to beat his wife’s lover to near death and get committed to a mental institution. Cooper is prematurely released into the custody of his elderly parents, where he fights off the unwelcome attentions of a smoking hot girl next door in the form of Jennifer Lawrence. Cooper’s character is in his late thirties, but remains irresistible to 22-year-old Lawrence who can appealingly recall football scores and historic sports results at the drop of a hat. Pure make believe.
Some failed actor that looks a lot like Zach Braff returns to his suburban home town in New Jersey upon the death of his mother. While killing time in a place he resents, Braff books an emergency appointment to top up on his lithium, mood stabilisers and antidepressants (he’s complex). In the surgery waiting room he encounters a much younger Natalie Portman, who is also waiting for prescribed pharmaceutical candy and is a self-proclaimed pathological liar (she too is complex). The two embark upon a weekend love affair at the end of which Portman rushes to the airport and begs Braff to stay with her youthful self. Braff opts not to return LA to continue his pointless acting career and devotes himself to loving Nat fulltime. Totes emosh.
Crikey, Portman is at it again, only this time in jailbait form to Timothy Hutton’s well past his best thirtysomething struggling pianist, who returns home to attend a high school reunion while also deliberating if he should commit to his girlfriend back in New York. Portman’s rendering of a 13-year-old girl next door going on 37 is worryingly convincing, though her neighbourhood Lolita act is the most affecting performance in the movie. She is the incarnation of suburban white girl redemption, but that age factor leaves much to be desired. Unwholesome.
Jason Bateman, despite having lucked out by being wedded to a Jennifer Garner-type, finds solace in the force of nature that is high school surrogate mother to be, Juno. Unlike his onscreen wife, enfant terrible Juno cites 1977 punk rock to be the most important era for music and totally gets Bateman in a way suburban white women of his own age don’t. It doesn’t quite romantically work out, but Juno teaches Bateman that he’s better off alone than being stuck with some prissy wench that doesn’t share his taste in music. Emancipating.
Kevin Spacey’s lusting for his daughter’s popular best friend, played by Mena Suvari, manages to get him out of his existential rut as well as (spoiler) getting him killed. Middle-aged guys hankering after underage suburban white chicks has never gone well, but in this film such activities help characters realise they are either beautiful, gay, psychotic, depressed, beyond hope or straight-up weird, often all at once. Vintage stuff.