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Suburban Gothic
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by Jay Seaver

"Hauntings - and perhaps hope - in suburban hell."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: According to the post-movie Q&A, writer/director Richard Bates Jr. initially couldn't get any projects off the ground after "Excision", in part because that movie, despite garnering many positive reviews and festival awards, was just absurdly dark. So for his next one, he bounced back with something still kind of freaky and gross but also aggressively light. "Suburban Gothic" is about a guy who can see ghosts and who must help one find her final rest Or Else, but there's barely a moment without something enjoyable goofy going on.

It starts out with a not-uncommon scene for young people today - Raymond (Matthew a Gary Gubler) has earned an MBA, but there are no satisfactory jobs to be found, leading him to move back in with his parents (Ray Wise & Barbara Niven). Home is everything he remembers from high school and worse, from his belittling, intolerant father to the bullies who have grown up into angry alcoholics. The sole positive would seem to be that cute bartender Becca (Kat Dennings), seemingly the only cool person from back then who hasn't left, seems to like him enough to go along when he starts to see ghosts.

The spooky stuff isn't quite an afterthought in Suburban Gothic, but there's a good chance that it won't be what the audience remembers above other things over the movie ends. In some ways the ghosts and other supernatural elements serve to reflect and amplify the idea that there's a sort of rot in communities like this, withered dreams and barely-hidden prejudices that take on a life of their own and continue to exert an influence after the initial incident is long past. That comes through in the ghost story, but because there needs to be some mystery there, it's not as clearly communicated as it is in the more mundane parts, where it's right there to see.

This could have made for another bitter, angry movie about what sort of whitewashed hell the suburbs are, but a funny thing happened: At some point, Bates and co-writer Mark Brunner became just as interested in Raymond, Becca, and their better impulses as the bad situation, and something hopeful wormed its way into the story. The bond that develops between the two them grows past shared cynicism or romance-by-default, eventually usurping the spot at the center of the movie from the disdain that started out there. The simple act of giving a damn about something and finding you're not alone in it can go a long way toward making a bad situation better.

The script by Bates and Mark Bruner, thankfully, gets this across by telling jokes. Even better, it does so in rapid-fire fashion, and the cast keeps up with it. Star Matthew Gray Gubler is a manic, irrepressible force driving the movie forward, bouncing off everyone else in the movie with fine wit and the sort of cheerful sarcasm that keeps the audience on his side, despite a backstory and a strong of wisecracks that could have the audience thinking he's a whining, entitled prick. Kat Dennings is a fine foil, playing Becca with a dry barbed wit that means with Raymond perfectly but also makes it clear she's got her own thing going on. Every movie should have Ray Wise in it, because he makes the racist jerk of a father that Raymond has to deal with an utter delight to watch, pure unjustified ego dispensed with perfect snap. Some character actors like Jack Plotnick and Jeffrey Combs have well-spotted cameos, while others like Barbara Niven and Mel Rodriguez do surprisingly well in making characters without a lot of screen time people the audience is invested in at the end.

If the movie has a fault, it's that Bates and company really do pack a lot of script into about ninety minutes, with new elements popping up fairly late in the game and the manic energy that girls the movie seldom taking a break. When the movie slows down, it gets weird as much as serious, and there's occasionally something a bit off about the balance between its gags, gross-outs, and more heartfelt moments.

It kind of wore me out by the time it was over, to be completely. But I enjoyed most of it, even if the supernatural plot that held it together was the least interesting thing about it. It's got a beating heart behind its irreverence, and that counts for quite a bit.

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originally posted: 08/18/14 11:34:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  30-Jan-2015 (R)
  DVD: 04-Aug-2015



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