In an industry increasingly enthused by the possibilities of world-building — or, more appropriately, the creation of worlds expressly for comic book movies that can sustain repeated films and planet-devastating battles while looking oddly familiar to the real world in the process — the ability for any filmmaker to craft something wholly unique and fully realized is still damningly rare. “Greener Grass” does it with two filmmakers. Directed, written by, produced by, and starring Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the wickedly weird (and often wonderful) suburban satire crams more inventive ideas and clear-eyed perspective into 95 minutes than most billion-dollar franchises can do over the course of a dozen movies. Not everyone will vibe with the pair’s sharp upbraiding of the modern world, but those that dig what they throw down will love the inventive duo forever.
Based on the pair’s 2015 short film of the same name, DeBoer and Luebbe have further expanded their nutty vision of suburban ennui and the painful consequences of keeping up with the status quo into an unsettling and amusing send-up of human behavior. Set in a time and place best described as “what if ’50s suburbia crashlanded into the Instagram backend,” the candy-colored comedy’s insular world revolves around so few locations that everyone happily putters around in a golf cart — at multiple points, the post office is mentioned as some far-flung no man’s land, and we never, ever see it — and the kiddie soccer field functions as its characters’ predominant gathering place. Every adult that populates the film sports a pair of braces — great for creating uncomfortable marketing materials, better at driving home that this is a world where self-improvement is the only thing worth a damn, even when it hurts — but disaffection is starting to creep in.
It comes care of Jill (DeBoer), who appears to be the picture of weirdo perfection, all nutty outfits and vocal fry, when she shows off her new baby to neighborhood pal Lisa (Luebbe, a dead ringer for a younger Allison Janney). While engaging in some low-scale oneupmanship, the seeming bread and butter of their everyday lives, Lisa mentions how cute baby Madison is. Before she’s aware of what she’s doing, Jill has handed the baby over to her friend, eager to appease her, even as Lisa has given zero indication she wants the infant. Still, she takes her, and nothing is ever the same for Jill (or, presumably, the audience, who will either get on board with this twist or abandon the film wholesale because it’s so “strange”; they should absolutely stick with it and the weirdness to come). Samuel Nobles’ high-strung score hints at horror-esque influences, but “Greener Grass” has much more up its sleeve than trite genre riffs.
Jill’s choice to foist her beloved baby (soon renamed Paige and integrated into Lisa’s steadily declining family unit, including an uproarious Asher Miles Fallica as her son Bob) sets her, and the film, on an uneasy path towards some kind of reckoning. “Greener Grass” handily subverts persistent cultural ideas about not offending anyone and pushes them to ambitious, amusing ends. Instead of playing things safe, DeBoer and Luebbe trot in the opposite direction, showing what it would actually look like if people only cared about keeping up appearances and not ruffling feathers, while also striving for their own sense of superiority. So, you know, social media.
At one point, Jill and Lisa cuddle up close to their spouses (Beck Bennett and Neil Casey, respectively) at a kicky neighborhood barbecue, only to blink wildly when they realize they’re macking on the wrong husband. Later, a restaurant disaster finds the foursome eating their spilled food off the floor, better than making anyone feel bad about knocking away some plates. Everyone suffers, but the laughs are hard to suppress. Cracks continue to appear in Jill’s life, from her husband’s inability to deal with some of her recent choices (few people can pull off doofy bafflement quite like Bennett) to the hard-to-shake disappointment projected by “Good Place” breakout D’Arcy Carden as an elementary school teacher who has clearly seen some shit.
While DeBoer and Luebbe’s intricately crafted world (and worldview) could sustain any number of stories, “Greener Grass” eventually zeroes in on a rangy plotline involving a bizarre serial killer lurking around the neighborhood, and potentially sizing up Jill as his next victim. What follows from the introduction of the so-called “Bagger Murderer” (he’s believed to be a bagger at the local grocery store, another key location) inspires both some of the best and worst elements of the film, from a bonkers transformation that rips at Jill’s existing family unit to a hazier investigation into the dastardly crime itself. (At least the killer’s deed breeds one of the film’s most biting sight gags, a remembrance that terms the dead woman as a “sister, ex-girlfriend, and yoga teacher” and nothing more; only the appearance of a TV show called “Kids With Knives” can compete.)
The pieces may not entirely fall together by the end of film’s swift 95-minute running time, but the cracks that emerge are the good kind, with plenty to see in between. If there’s any justice in the world, DeBoer and Luebbe will be allowed to keep crafting their own singular works and Luebbe gets cast as Allison Janney’s daughter in some big budget extravangaza. Hell, why not both? The world is, after all, what you make of it.
IFC Midnight will release “Greener Grass” in theaters on Friday, October 18.
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