My first John Waters film was Serial Mom, starring Kathleen Turner. In it, a suburban housewife goes on a murderous rampage to teach people some manners. After seeing it, something changed in me for good. Suburbia, even in Finland, looked different. The illusion was shattered.
Fast forward twenty years, and not much in suburbia has changed. What once felt ludicrous now hinges on desperation.
It’s into that desperation that Greener Grass plunges its knife. This is a sharp satire that, while rarely subtle, is also surprisingly eloquent when it wants to be. Written, directed, and starring Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, it’s a deadpan daydream of absurdity and horror. One weaved together so tightly it’s hard to tell where one ends, and the other begins. Based on the short film the duo wrote in 2015, the feature stretches the insanity to a breaking point.
Set in a pastel-colored Stepfordian nightmare, Greener Grass is the story of what happens when you’re already on the top but still want more. Its world drips with venomous subtext; innocuous on the surface, malicious underneath. Jill and Lisa are best friends the way a scorpion and frog are allies.
Here everyone drives golf carts and wears braces well into adulthood. The geography is nothing but cul-de-sacs. There’s a demented forcefulness to being as polite as inhumanely possible. A four-way intersection with stop signs in every direction creates a stand-off of feigned care.
Beneath lies a far more unsettling layer of anxiety and fear. Everyone is polite to prevent offense, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to maintain that. When Lisa comments on Jill’s newborn, Jill immediately offers the infant as a gift. “She seems to want to be with you,” Jill protests as the child shrieks. Lisa shrugs it off. “It’s just because we’ve bonded. I’ve been her mother since she was born.”
This is the kind of film where you’re always unsure if you’re supposed to laugh or squirm. What a joy that is!
It’s disarmingly sweet, and that makes it scary. The jokes are as innocuous as possible. The terror lies in the straight-faced approach. Jill’s husband, Nick, is addicted to drinking pool water. It’s a random, almost throwaway. Yet Greener Grass dedicates itself to the punchline. By the time we see Nick swimming alone late at night, mouth agape underwater, it takes on a life of its own. There’s a Lynchian element permeating the air.
The same goes for the b-plot where Jill’s other child suddenly turns into a golden retriever. Jill remains unphased. “Are you a dog now?” Her neighbors take it in stride. Nobody can say otherwise; that would be rude. So a dog he is.
As Jill realizes that maybe giving away her baby wasn’t smart, her world begins to collapse. Suddenly, the seams of her universe become more apparent.
It’s here that Greener Grass shines. The soft filters gradually disappear, and previously unnoticed objects take the forefront. Meticulously crafted gardens reveal themselves to be plastic. Motivational posters reveal horrific catch-phrases nobody seems to mind.
It asks us how much does it take to keep believing in fantasy. School is for teachers to enforce wild make-believe of local legends. Parenting is preventing kids from seeing a single violent TV show – with disastrous results. There’s biting satire at the American desire to point fingers at the media at every turn. It hits with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, which ironically might not be unsubtle enough.
DeBoer and Luebbe are members of the Upright Citizens Brigade. The film’s foundation was a TV series pitch originally. That freewheeling energy does lose focus around the midway point. It never threatens to topple the entire picture, but its “yes, and” approach shows some limitations here.
While the satire ramps up and becomes wilder, Greener Grass turns to unexpected tragedy and sorrow. If everything in the world is perfect, how do you maintain that? After all, their world isn’t an equal society by any measure. As reality sets in, DeBoer and Luebbe beautifully navigate the fallout. Especially in a brilliantly poignant moment of sinister closure. It feels like this has happened hundreds of times before. The tension, condescension, and misplaced sisterhood feel overwhelming.
Like their inspirations, DeBoer and Luebbe aren’t satisfied with just anarchic madness. If you want to, Greener Grass is a feast for digging deeper. Its humor works because it refuses to punch down. The joke is always on the characters. DeBoer and Luebbe understand these people are not “them.” They’re us, and like the best of satires and horror films, that realization makes it all that much more chilling and hysterical in the end.