SubUrbia opens with a montage of dolly shots gliding horizontally from right to left, capturing the clear skies and lined houses of Burnfield, Texas, the suburb that serves as the movie’s setting. Linklater’s camera movement recalls what it’s like to stare out at a city through a moving car window; interesting, but emotionally uninvolved. There’s a notable sense of detachment in the opening that reflects the monotony that the movie’s characters - aimless, 20-something, and life-long Burnfield residents - struggle to live through. Roger Ebert drew a comparison between SubUrbia and Waiting for Godot, but unlike the deuteragonists in Beckett’s seminal work, whose cyclical and dissatisfied lives seemed worn down by time, the characters in SubUrbia combine the energy of youth with a precocious sense of jaded world-weariness. The resulting attitudes are varied, dark, and amplified when contrasted with the arrival of the rock star Pony, a successful ex-resident.
Jeff, Tim and Buff have all been friends since high school. They all take their sexual partners to the same old van, put each other down sardonically, and loiter at a convenience store owned by an aggravated Pakistani Engineering student Nazeer and his wife Pakeeza. They’re the kind of guys who were probably fun to be around in high school, but have now grown bitter and aimless as a consequence of failing to progress towards a promising post-graduate goal. Jeff’s an intelligent but cynical college dropout and “writer” who cares enough to argue but not necessarily enough to act on his convictions. Buff is a goofy drunk who is interested in shooting videos. And Tim, who was his high school’s star quarterback, has recently been “honorably discharged” from the Air Force for purposely chopping off the end of his pinky finger, and now uses a monthly military pension to sustain his alcoholism.
The three are counterbalanced by Jeff’s girlfriend, Sooze, who aspires to attend art school in New York. When Sooze acts out the performance piece she composed for her application, “Burger Manifesto Part 1: The Dialectical Exposition of Testosterone”, Linklater frames the scene objectively. The performance segues from Sooze humping the air in a crabwalk position while declaring a “fuck!” to a selection of male figures ranging from her own father to the Pope, and into a river dance routine performed while Sooze exclaims a series of rhyming couplets, “Bang your head, blow your nose, run down the street, suck a hose”, which eventually culminates into her repeatedly shouting “Fuck you!”. Though the performance is hyperbolic, confusing, didactic, and awkward, Linklater gives Sooze her moment, choosing to view her chaotic, unskilled willfulness as energy, as a desire to move on from her dismal surroundings.
Jeff is predictably upset over the prospect of losing his girlfriend, and his trepidation develops into an inferiority complex once Pony shows up to spend the night in Burnfield. The characters remember Pony as Neil Moynihan, the nerdy kid who played folk music at prom. So when Moynihan shows up as Pony, with a limo and his beautiful press agent Erica, he causes the characters to direct their energy towards introspection. Though Pony attempts to be encouraging and friendly, there isn’t much he can do to bridge the divide between the exciting development of his life and the static lives of his old classmates. When Pony excitedly informs Jeff about his album’s success, Jeff responds that he’s dropped out of college.
Sooze, however, sees Pony as a kindred artistic spirit. From the moment Pony and Sooze meet, it’s clear that Pony is smitten with her. As the night goes on Pony’s flirtations become more direct, and he attempts to take advantage of Sooze’s wanderlust to bait her into joining him in Los Angeles. Jeff senses this early on, prompting him to draw comparisons between himself and Pony. In a scene where Pony is encouraged to preview a developing song about the virtues of everyday life, Linklater closes in on Jeff’s searching face before the start of the song. Jeff probes for what sets himself and the rock star apart. Pony and Sooze share an artistic compulsion to spread their message, a concept contrasted so starkly with Jeff’s stance of ambiguity that it causes him to break down. Pony wants to spread messages with his music; Jeff doesn’t see the point in trying.
Meanwhile Tim, the Air Force Vet, is forced to face his own self-loathing as a result of his interactions with Pony’s manager, Erica. After drawing Erica’s sexual interest with surface-level observations of her rich-kid lifestyle, Tim falls victim to erectile dysfunction. After cutting from Erica laughing at the incident, the next time we see Tim Erica isn’t with him. Pony tries to get answers regarding Erica’s whereabouts, and the answers that Tim gives seem dodgy and unconcerned. Pony eventually leaves, and Sooze follows, breaking off her relationship with Jeff, leaving him alone to be emotionally prodded by Tim, who’s bitterly trying to bring Jeff down to his level while ranting in the convenient store parking lot. Nazeer, the store owner, summons the police to make Tim spend the night and jail. While the police form a report with Nazeer, Tim calls Jeff over to the car and, in a hauntingly emotional scene, admits that he beat Erica to death.
After spending the whole night trying to find a way to help Tim stay out of jail, Buff brags that he spent the night with Erica and got hired to shoot a video for Pony. Jeff depressingly calls his bluff until Erica pulls up in the limo to pick Buff up. While Buff, Sooze, and Pony all leave to further their aspirations, Jeff’s emotional ambiguity keeps him tethered to the unhappy Tim, who’s perfectly fine perpetuating the static nature of their lives. Linklater directed this movie but didn’t write it - it’s an adaptation of a stage play written by Eric Bogosian. The bitterness that fuels the movie is hard to watch, but ultimately there’s some reprieve in the wanderlust that prompts some characters to escape.