Full disclosure: I’m volunteering at Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and while I can’t trash the festival to hell and back (would I? I would not), I’m not required to give the films good press. This one deserves it though.
Director: Richard Bates Jr.
Writers: Richard Bates Jr., Mark Bruner
Cast: Mathew Gray Gubler, Kat Dennings, Ray Wise
New Normal Films
R, 90 min
Suburban Gothic screened in Toronto on Thursday as part of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. It is quite rad. Directed by Richard Bates Jr. (Excision) and starring Mathew Gray Gubler (Criminal Minds), Kat Dennings (Thor, Two Broke Girls) and Ray Wise of Twin Peaks, the film is a clever horror comedy about millennial misfits, suburban America, and angry ghosts.
Jobless recent MBA grad Raymond (“I’m holding out for a position in senior management”) is forced to return to his nameless home town and move in with his parents. His mother is a middle American super-housewife, everything coiffed from hair, to posture, to personality, and his father a racist, homophobic, life-destroying football coach. Everyone from the family doctor, to the cheating contractor working on their backyard, to Raymond himself, hates the dad. I hate the dad. You hate him too, you just don’t know him yet.
Can we talk about Raymond’s wardrobe? I think it’s Gray Gubler’s co-star, to be honest. Raymond was fat in high school. Fat, weird, scared, and non-typically masculine. As an adult he’s thin, weird, scared, and non-typically masculine. “I developed an eating disorder,” he jokes. Maybe. But after moving away, Raymond’s wardrobe went fuck-you-fashion. He shows up for career counselling wrapped a hot purple knit scarf, and at his parent’s place in tailored shorts and workboots, accessorized by matching American flag belt and scarf. Adult Raymond: no fucks given.
Raymond’s wardrobe is both running gag and set piece — always unexpected, frequently delightful, and wonderful ground on which to build his character and everyone else’s. His father and his father’s students are disturbed by it, gleefully homophobic about it. His mother, no slouch in the sartorial department herself, shrugs it off, wets her thumb, and fixes his hair. Raymond’s partner in disaffection, Becca (Kat Dennings), doesn’t bat an eye, even when he posts up at her bar in silk pyjamas and a trench coat. And a scarf? Of course a scarf.
But wait, the ghosts.
Raymond was born with the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. He sucks at communicating with them, because he sucks at communicating in general. His belief in the paranormal fuelled his bullies at school and at home, but at some point, late in high school, he stopped seeing them. Back home living with his parents, at his lowest point and too depressed to shower or leave the house, he starts seeing them again. The ole homestead is being haunted and Raymond’s life is getting weird again. Good thing he’s got a recently out, fleeing to the Peace Corps cousin to give him a few tips, Becca to knock some sense into him, and John Waters to be… John Waters.
I won’t spoil or bore you by reciting the plot details. What I will say is this: while the special effects are b-grade at best, the pacing, acting, soundtrack are on point. It’s the atmo, guys. That and the comedic timing. Kat Dennings does punk-girl-dangerous to a tee, Ray Wise is a nightmare in human flesh, and Gray Gubler is piss-your-pants funny.
And although everyone but Raymond is a quickly-drawn comedy-machine, they’re human enough to evoke empathy when appropriate, disgust when same. The villains are villains in Suburban Gothic, but the heros are lazy, self-interested, and confused. In a pre-recorded intro, director Richard Bates Jr., explained that the film was a result of his being unable to get a film made after Excision, and holing up in his home watching stuff he loved as a kid. Goosebumps and Scooby Doo were name-checked, and it shows in the light touch with which he handles the material. There’s a lot of sweetness in Suburban Gothic and it works hand-in-hand with its nastier side. The ghosts are real in Suburban Gothic, but so are the shitheads.
Can’t find a job, millennials? Take drugs and hang out with ghosts. Suburban Gothic makes it look great.