CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 14 . . . . March 7, 2008
"It looks like something it isn't." This observation, made by one of the participants in Radiant City, is a perfect summation of the film itself. Part documentary, part well-crafted drama, Gary Burns and Jim Brown's Radiant City is a thought-provoking social commentary on suburban life.
Bashing suburbia is not a new concept, and, as is pointed out in the film, despite all the things people complain about in the suburbs, we still buy homes there. So what sets this Canadian documentary apart from the crowd?
Radiant City offers a satisfying blend of testimonials, statistics, and expert opinions. The mind-numbing tedium of the Moss family's daily life is balanced by the information relayed by the "cultural prophets" who mourn the loss of a walking community, the waste of resources used in creating a community of McMansions, and the dehumanizing effect of strip malls. One of the most effective moments in the film is the juxtaposition of architect Marc Boutin, who claims that "[i]n some ways a suburban city can be understood as an intolerant city," with the chipper real estate agent who promises a friendly suburban "community."
Most of the film centres on the daily life of the Moss family. Evan has a two hour commute each day and spends most of his free time tinkering with his car or at rehearsals for a community theatre production of Suburbs: The Musical. His wife Ann chauffeurs their two children to a variety of after-school activities and lessons as laid out on a jam-packed colour-coded schedule tacked up in the kitchen. Kids Nick and Jennifer offer the child's perspective of suburbia, their roaming grounds restricted by highways and never-ending construction sites. The push to move into the suburban community of Evergreen was clearly Ann's, and the passive-aggressive tension between husband and wife boils over near the climax of the film.
Along with unsettling statistics, the filmmakers provide a number of memorable images, including a woman pushing a baby carriage along a walkway that borders a highway and a group of bored kids playing around with a gun while their parents are out.
Radiant City would be an excellent film to use in a high school geography or social studies class. Drawing on issues of urbanization, environmentalism, culture, and social stratification, this film is rife with materials for discussion that are presented in an accessible and entertaining manner.
Vikki VanSickle is a bookseller and writer living in Toronto, ON. She received a Master's in Children's Literature from the University of British Columbia.
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