Pastel colours, attached garages, two diminutive trees per lot. Low speed limit, plenty of crosswalks, terraces manicured by background-checked city officials. Children play, parents drive to work and the sun always shines.
No one talks to anyone else. Welcome to the suburbs.
“Over 90 per cent of North Americans live in the suburbs,” says Gary Burns of his new suburb-focused documentary Radiant City. “One of our main things was making a documentary about suburban sprawl, but I don’t think it was entirely a criticism. The structure of the documentary actually mirrors the structure of suburban advertising campaigns.”
With the 1950’s nuclear family smiling out from every pamphlet advertising the “new developments” bleeding out from the edges of the city, it’s no wonder that Burns and co-writer/director Jim Brown chose a happy, white, upper-middleclass family as their subjects. In a few senses, one of which would ruin the twist of the movie, this choice is an analysis of not just the suburban lifestyle, but of the documentary style.
“It could [undercut it’s own message], but it’s done pretty well on the festival circuit so far,” says Burns. “Everywhere we’ve shown it, audiences have loved it. It hasn’t officially been optioned yet, but we’ve been in talks with one distributor, and it’s looking pretty good.”
After the critical failure of his most recent feature length (A Problem With Fear), the potential success of Radiant City could mark a return to the days of Waydowntown and Kitchen Party for Burns, which would likely be a welcome reversion. In spite of the disparity between the ratings, Burns insists the experience of creating a film isn’t a good indication of how well it will do critically.
“It’s always kind of hit or miss,” says Burns. “Like, Kitchen Party was a critical success, but it was also a disaster for me. It had to all be shot in Vancouver, and I had to deal with this difficult producer all the time, and it was all just really stressful. [Radiant City] was super fun to make, but I think it was at least partly due to Jim [Brown] being there to take half the responsibility–it was more of a shared experience than the others.”
All set in Calgary, Burns’ films also tend to feature the pervasiveness of either urban or suburban culture as a theme. Now at the forefront of the film, Burns’ hometown has become more intrinsic than ever to the message in his scripts.
“Jim and I both grew up in the suburbs–I lived over in Westgate,” says Burns. “I like to keep things generic, and Calgary is a pretty generic North American city. And like many North American cities, Calgary is growing unmanageably. So maybe it’s just a bit of a ‘comfort zone’ thing for me, but doing this one in Calgary just seemed to fit.”
Infused with Burns’ trademark dark wit, Radiant City is a cynical romp through the lives of the typical North American family. While a sterile, cookie-cutter gridlock of houses might seem like a pretty bland choice for a film, Radiant City promises to look at the side of the suburbs the housing developers would rather ignore.