My first John Waters film was the Kathleen Turner led satire SERIAL MOM, about a suburban housewife who goes on a murderous rampage to teach people some manners. From the very beginning, it was apparent that something had changed in me for good. Suburbia, even in Finland, looked different. It all felt like a big joke that nobody else got.
Fast forward twenty years, and here arrives GREENER GRASS, a satire so sharp it’s destined for the same cult status as the films that inspired it. Written, directed, and starring Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, this is a deadpan dream of absurdity and horror woven 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 takes a winning concept, and rather than just adding more of the same, it deepens the satire and expands the joke further.
Set in a pastel-colored Stepfordian nightmare of a neighborhood located in a universe comprised entirely of cul-de-sacs, GREENER GRASS is the story of what happens when you’re already on the top but still want more. In a world where everything said seems innocuous on the surface but is dripping with malice in the subtext, 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. There’s a demented forcefulness to being as polite as inhumanely possible. A four-way intersection with stop signs in every direction is a daily struggle.
Beneath the exterior lies a far more unsettling layer of anxiety and fear. Everyone is polite so that nobody is offended, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to maintain the facade. So when Lisa comments on how adorable Jill’s baby is, as if she were a recently purchased accessory, Jill immediately offers her infant as a gift. “She seems to want to be with you,” Jill protests. 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 of whether or not you’re supposed to laugh or squirm. What a joy that is! It feels like improv theater without a safe word, but one that is still never raunchy. All the jokes here are as innocuous as possible, but played so straight they become sinister in return. Consider the gag with Jill’s husband, Nick, who has become addicted to drinking pool water. It’s a random throwaway joke elsewhere, but GREENER GRASS has such dedication to the punchline that by the time we see Nick swimming late at night, mouth agape in the pool, it takes on a life of its own.
The same goes for the b-plot where Jill’s other child, a bespectacled young boy internally imploding, suddenly turns into a golden retriever. Just as with improv, there’s only the shortest of beats until someone asks: “Are you a dog now?” Nobody will say otherwise; that would be rude, so a dog he is.
As Jill begins to realize that maybe she did want to keep her child all along, her world begins to collapse as the seams become more apparent. It’s here that the directing and set design truly shines as the soft filters gradually disappear, and previously unnoticed objects become more pronounced. Look closely at the gardens, and you’ll see that they’re mostly plastic, and there are dozens of hilariously awful signs posted in every supermarket and classroom.
It’s also here that we see just what it takes to keep believing in the fantasy. School is for the teachers to enforce the wild make-believe of local legends, while the only parenting that takes place is preventing kids from seeing a single violent TV show – with disastrous results. There’s biting satire at the American home’s desire to point fingers at the media at every turn, delivered in such a blunt way that it circles right back around to being subtle once more.
The history between the duo’s past in the Upright Citizens Brigade is apparent, as is the film’s foundation as a TV series pitch originally. There’s freewheeling energy to the storytelling that does sag the tiniest amount around the midway point. It never threatens to topple the entire picture, but it does remind of the moment in improv where everyone is spinning plates before that next idea comes along.
While the satire keeps ramping up and becoming wilder by the minute, as GREENER GRASS reaches its climax, it finds new venues in unexpected tragedy and sorrow. If everything in the world is perfect, how do you maintain that? Their world isn’t an equal society for everyone by any measure, and as the reality becomes more into focus, DeBoer and Luebbe beautifully navigate both sides of that realization. There’s a brilliantly poignant moment where they patch things up where it feels like this has happened hundreds of times before, and the tension, condescension, and even odd friendliness of it all is overwhelming.
Like with its inspirations (both Waters and Lynch), DeBoer and Luebbe aren’t satisfied with just anarchic madness. If you want it, GREENER GRASS is a feast for digging deeper. It is a comedy that is uproariously funny because it never laughs at anyone with cruelty. The joke is always on the characters, but DeBoer and Luebbe understand that they’re not the “they.” 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.