Greener Grass

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Greener Grass
"A bravura piece of work." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Greener Grass opens with young Julian (Julian Hilliard) getting bumped slightly on a sports pitch, looking around to check his audience, then collapsing in a fit of sobs. It's a scene that neatly encapsulates the environment in which he finds himself. Julian is learning to perform. He's not very good at it yet - he seems like a Todd Solondz character lost in Stepford - but he has plenty of talented role models. His mother Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer), however, is not among them. She's so anxious about her social shortcomings, her limited ability to play the game, that within ten minutes of the film starting she has given away her baby to her friend Lisa (Dawn Luebbe).

This extraordinary act drives the rest of the action, but not in the way you might expect. Jill soon comes to regret her impulsive action but doesn't want to appear impolite by asking directly for the return of her child. Every little step she takes in that direction - indeed, every time she takes any action that places her own feelings ahead of other people's - she faces immediate rebuke. Her husband Nick (Beck Bennet) wishes she'd talked to him first but acquiesces to her decision, distracted by concerns about Julian's inability to live up to his expected social role - until the boy undergoes an unexpected transformation which takes us right out of the realms of conventional modern satire and into a starkly absurdist space where reality seems to break down as Jill loses her grip - all very politely, of course.

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There are a great many different ideas crammed into this film, which was written and directed by DeBoer and Luebbe, an established team. it is perhaps inevitable that not all of them work, but the sheer volume of strangeness works effectively to highlight what is strange about the ordinary - that is, both women's obsession with following approved social rules, even to their own detriment. There are lighthearted scenes as the transformed Julian tries to fit in at school, satirical skits like TV show Kids With Knives (the accidental viewing of which has a corrupting influence on Lisa's son), and horror motifs surrounding the actions of a murderer who seems to be spying on the women. This character seems to function in parallel with Jill's emotional and mental breakdown. At one point their paths cross and there is a suggestion of blurred identity. The pressure on Jill is pushing her over the edge.

With its pastel palette and constant sunshine, this suburban world has a hyper-real quality, a if its characters were unwitting participants in a sitcom. There is excellent work from cinematographer Lowell A Meyer and costume designer Lauren Oppelt. The distinctive world they create seems destined to give this film cult status. Whilst it will be far too quirky for some viewers, who will find nothing here to like, others will simply adore it. It's a bravura piece of work, and like it or not, you won't soon forget it.

Reviewed on: 22 Oct 2019
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A deliciously twisted comedy set in a demented, timeless suburbia where every adult wears braces on their straight teeth, couples coordinate meticulously pressed outfits, and coveted family members are swapped in more ways than one in this competition for acceptance.


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