If one were to view only the final scenes of these three films, one might think that suburbanites live in excruciating loneliness. The filmmakers have chosen, perhaps by coincidence, to devote the final minutes of their films to exploring different forms of isolation. Further still, each of the final shots takes place in an automobile. The automobile, which normally implies mobility, is used ironically as a symbol of confinement. Because suburbanites depend on the automobile to complete basic tasks, from commuting, to visiting the neighbors who live a few blocks away, these scenes succinctly show how suburbanites have accepted loneliness as an inseparable part of their lives.


In the final sequence from Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn sings during a school field trip.

    The last scene in Welcome to the Dollhouse shows Dawn on a bus trip with her school chorus, The Hummingbirds. They are singing their signature song ("We're the Hummingbirds of Benjamin Franklin Junior High! Hummm..."). On the film's soundtrack, the voices fade away until we only hear Dawn's. It recalls the first scene, in which the camera isolates Dawn's face in the portrait. The first and final shots deliberately separate Dawn from other human beings. Though she is physically surrounded by others, she smiles and sings alone.
    The loneliness in this scene contains violent undertones. In the sequence prior to it, Dawn caused the kidnapping of Missy, her sister. And prior to that, she considered murdering Missy with a hammer. With this context in mind, the image of Dawn singing to herself on the bus faintly suggests that she is a budding psychopath. She is, in pop culture terms, a suburban Travis Bickle. Like Travis, her loneliness is so intolerable, that she feeds on it because there is nothing else there. She could, at any moment, explode.


In the final sequence from The Ice Storm, Ben Hood begins to cry.

    In the last shot of The Ice Storm, the Hood family sits quietly in their Mercury Cougar. Ben Hood, the father, looks at his wife, Elena, and then at his two children, Paul and Wendy. He then starts crying. The others do not comfort him. "Ben... ," his wife says, barely audible. Ben continues crying, while his family, baffled by his display of emotion, looks on in silence. Ben's loneliness is ironic because at this point in the film, he is the closest he has ever come to appreciating his own family. That they choose to isolate him instead of embracing him turns his loneliness into a prison sentence.
    In the final sequence in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, Mrs. Bridge is backing out of the garage when her Lincoln coupe stalls in the doorframe, trapping her inside of the car. When she realizes her situation, she cries for help -- but no one can hear her. "Yoo-hoo! Anybody there?" she shouts hopefully. It starts snowing, and the car windows begin to white out. She tries wiping the glass but the snow is falling too fast. Several hours pass. Mrs. Bridge stares out of the windows. "Hello... anybody there?" she asks. A bored expression paralyzes her face as she absently taps the windshield. The scene is a concise summary of her life. It materializes her spiritual isolation, and shows, in a single episode, how loneliness progresses naturally to boredom and ultimately to indifference.6


Mrs. Bridge becomes trapped in her car in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge.

    Each scene uses the automobile differently in its effort to portray suburban life as a prison, or a form of solitary confinement, from which there can be no escape. Sometimes the prison is luxurious, like Mrs. Bridge's plush Lincoln. Sometimes it is unbearable, like the cloyingly cheerful motorcoach ride Dawn must endure. And sometimes suburbanites make their own prison, as in The Ice Storm, when the Hoods create a wall of stoic silence around the weeping figure of Ben.
    By placing these scenes at the end, the filmmakers defy our cinematic demand for a conclusive finale. We have come to expect a catharsis of some kind that will liberate the protagonists from their misery. But these suburban films never compromise their pessimism. Their characters cannot escape their claustrophobic lives. In the end, when we expect a climax, the characters just withdraw further into their isolation, resigning themselves to their perpetual suburban captivity.
    The "suburban" genre is essentially the family film gone awry. It takes pleasure in dissecting the nuclear family into its component members, and then analyzing each person through multi-layered dialogue. It critiques their rituals using subtle camera work. And finally, it explores the paradox of how suburbanites lead emotionally disconnected lives despite the family unity that surrounds them. By breaking free of the overstated suburban films of years past, suburban filmmakers of the 1990's have created an artistically rich, challenging film genre.7
    While these films unmistakably indict the suburban lifestyle, they stop just short of condemning suburbanites. The characters who populate their films are not loathsome monsters (even though their actions can be monstrous), but are disoriented individuals who have lost their way in the suburban void. This complexity of character allows us to empathize with them even though we condemn the lives they lead. As the United States becomes increasingly suburban, these films warn us of the tiny moral and emotional sacrifices we make each day for the sake of upholding a greater suburban good.

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