Greener Grass Is Razor Sharp Satire That Must Be Seen To Be Believed
Greener Grass from Dawn Luebbe and Jocelyn DeBoer is witty, fall-down funny, and might be the best thing you see all year.
If Nietzsche level nihilism filmed entirely in an artificial technicolor dreamscape sounds unique, quadruple your expectations and run to the theater this weekend. If Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka was a landscape architect (whatever that is anyway), the people and things that inhabit this movie would be the result. Greener Grass looks and feels more like the most gorgeously rendered Adult Swim faux commercial. It is surface lite and well deep. Navigating those tricky waters between serious statement disguised as hilarious situational comedy is a tall order, but one the writers/directors never waver from. A single second is not wasted in this cutting satire that is pitch-perfect in its portrayal of the social media society we live in. Not that this movie desires to be a thoughtful rumination of the ills of upper-middle class trappings, but rather a flat out, spit-take, cringe-worthy comedic obsession sure to be a cult classic.
I was lucky enough to talk with the women who wrote, directed, and starred in this absurdly brilliant comedic thriller. The movie is a bit of an oddball. Distributed by IFC Midnight, the genre affiliate of IFC, you would expect something thoughtfully scary not scary funny. Greener Grass is strangely both, just covered in a hysterical sheen of stringy spit. This is not your typical horror movie. There is only one death, and it’s only talked about postmortem in one of the most biting segments of situational comedy I’ve ever seen. The deceased woman is someone’s “ex-girlfriend”, “yoga teacher”, and “sister” instead of a person in her own right. Said surviving sister BTW, uses the event to one-up her dead sister. It’s the kind of plot beat that hits with a punch to the gut. Raucously funny, but also slyly pointed, Greener Grass is one of those films you watch again and again catching new things each time.
Probably the scariest thing in the entire film is the black as night reveal at the end that hides in plain sight throughout, and the apartment above the post office, which might as well be in Siberia the way it is spoken about(insert melodramatic sigh). There are horror elements galore from the mumbling weirdo who stalks our unsuspecting suburbanite to nods to ’80s classics like Poltergeist. Luebbe and DeBoer don’t take the easy way out, however, and find footing instead in the comedic horror of jealousy and hyper-political correctness.
Luebbe and DeBoer developed this full-length film from a short of the same name. The short was well received on the festival circuit years ago, and the world of saccharine ignorance they had touched on begged to be expanded. Originally pitched as a series, the writers were able to build on the tiny world highlighted in the short and create a pocket universe of matching outfits, plastic bushes, and four-way stops turned into country club nightmares. The two writers were interested in showing, as Luebbe puts it, “politeness taken to the extreme” and where competition among friends could manifest in the slapstick “drama of the mundane”. DeBoer explained that they pursued an “emotional connection” to the characters, so when things got “heightened to the level of absurdity” you see in the film, everything was still grounded in care for Jill and Lisa. What transpired is the best SNL skit in full-length version. Seriously. Lorne Michaels, you should hire these two toot suite.
The set pieces and costume design are hyper-stylized and define the inextricably colored world. This is a color pallet for lovers of Easter Egg hues and flowers(so many plastic flowers). Men wear madras shorts to their armpits and cotton button-downs firmly tucked in. They do goofy things like drink pool water and live and stare vacantly into the abyss instead of being a helpful parent. Every one of the adults wears braces over their radioactively white, line-perfect teeth. Lauren Oppelt’s whimsical costume design lives and breathes clueless privilege, while production design by Leigh Poindexter’s is disturbing plastic perfection.
It was a “seamless collaboration”, Dawn argued that resulted in the Day-Glo world. Dawn said the duo was influenced by the look and feel of the 1950s and 1980s, both times of “economic prosperity and social conservatism with the tendencies of rebellion”. DP Lowell Meyer shot the film with a dollhouse in mind Luebbe and DeBoer said. “Extreme symmetry” and “frame within a frame” was employed to accentuate the diorama feel of the film. Jocelyn explained photographer Gregory Crewdson and filmmaker Douglas Sirk were a big inspiration with their artificial lighting of domestic settings that project an almost dollhouse quality.
The all-out commitment the cast has to even the most bizarre and grotesque action is what allows the film to ring true even at it’s most insane. When derpy husbands discover they are saliva swapping with the wrong wives, and Lisa declares herself pregnant by doing nothing other than putting a volleyball in her dress in full view of the public we take it in stride because this is a world built from the bottom up, in loving detail that is just adjacent to ours. Jocelyn DeBoer(Jill) is a Pollyanna Parker Posey. She is the perversely edgy without meaning to be, face of extreme civility, while Dawn Luebbe(Lisa) is Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe from Friends if she were a super genius. Her dry wit, knowing glances, and clearly covetous feelings for Jill are written into every gesture and line. She is the driving force behind most of the film’s funniest moments. Jill and Lisa aren’t great people, but it is a testament to these two funny ladies that you wouldn’t mind being their friends anyway. Dawn says, “We aren’t proud of it, but we’ve all been Lisa Wetbottom every once in a while”.
D’Arcy Cardin(The Good Place) is right as home as Ms. Human the elementary school teacher that has been through some serious shit in her day. Husbands Beck Bennett, who according to Jocelyn, came to a casting meeting with a pair of Invisalign braces, and Neil Casey are delightfully loopy fathers who worry about all the wrong things while their world crumbles around them. Even the two frenemies children get a sprinkling of chuckle powder with Jill’s son Julian an adorable Julian Hilliard(The Haunting of Hill House) having a very unexpected coming of age life change, and Lisa’s son Bob, the gifted Asher Miles Fallica, who was last seen in AMC’s NOS4A2 this past Summer.
You likely know a Lisa or Jill. For the most part, the people who live in this insular community, so cloistered, only adorned golf carts are needed to tootle from French Bistro by way of Applebee’s and back again, are realistic. They are just archetypes of any typical privileged family. Both Luebbe and DeBoer grew up in Midwestern suburbs and pulled from that experience to write Greener Grass. Jocelyn’s experience babysitting in her twenties helped create the surreal family world while Dawn said, showing how television and advertising “affects these people’s lives” was exciting. In an era of unprecedented entertainment access, it’s not hard to see the extreme. The soul-crushingly bleak ending, was intentional to portray the timeless aspect of problems these people face. They are pushed to the boundaries of realism, but highly relatable.
This clean comedic horror(Lisa’s son Bob utters the only curse words, and they are doozies) is appropriate for kids. Jocelyn says, “middle schoolers especially loved this movie”. I can see why. My own thirteen year old was in stitches. There is an inherent goofy honesty to kids that age that translates so well in this film. The truth in characters who are more about how they present themselves and who they associate with, rather than an identity of their own rings true for anyone who has ever been on Facebook for more than a second.
Greener Grass is an extreme selfie nation without ever showing the actual technology. Dawn and Jocelyn made the conscious choice to exclude the technology making the film timeless in theme. Even through the laughter, the message is clear. DeBoer and Luebbe are currently working on another script and if it is half as clever as this one they are destined for greatness.
Greener Grass is out in theaters and on VOD October 18th, 2019.
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.