Ah yes, the tragedy of the suburban class: the shameful rot underneath the veneer of patriotic Americana, full of meager lives and sublimated desires, stifled by the orthodoxy of propriety, desperate for acceptance and respectability. It is a grand theme of American art from the “quiet desperation” of Thoreau, through to Mad Men. Turn the dial on this theme a couple of clicks to receive some vaguely transgressive social commentary and pathos. Crank it a few more though and the surreality of Lynch starts to make it really interesting. Lean in super-heavy on the comedy however, and you come around to monstrous farce, arriving at the gem that is Greener Grass.
Billed as a comedy of manners, the film is a series of vignettes that imagine Jill and Lisa, a pair of relentlessly upbeat soccer moms, sitting on the sidelines of youth matches. From the minute the film starts you can sense something strange about them however—the extensive braces they wear on top of perfectly straight teeth, the dazzling outfits they coordinate with their husbands, the strange disappearance of their friend Cheryl? The first big joke of the film shows that the strangeness isn’t just surface-level. Jill has a brand new baby, and when Lisa coos at it, Jill, ever accommodating, offers to let her friend have it. After all, she already has another kid, so it’s only the polite thing to do!
The brainchild of Upright Citizen Brigade alums Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, Greener Grass is delightfully, utterly absurd—full of screwball set-ups and shockingly blithe decisions made by its naive main characters, played by DeBoer and Luebbe themselves. In a fanatical desire to get along, Jill is eager to sacrifice everything close to her with a cheery nonchalance, but the dark edge of the film is maintained at arms-length—Jill doesn’t have the necessary self-awareness to truly even understand the consequences of her actions and why they make her feel the way they do. Her lack of identity provides a somber tinge to the laughs.
But make no mistake, there are plenty of laughs awaiting you inside, from “wait a second, wrong husband!” to “Julian, are you a dog now!?”. I first caught this film at SXSW 2016, where, as a member of the jury, I awarded the film a Special Jury Prize, and for me it is the most endlessly quotable, and rewatchable short since Seth (a film that, I kid you not, I’ve seen probably 15+ times).
True absurdity can feel simple—just throw shit at a wall and see what sticks—but there is a special kind of genius to getting it right. From a writing perspective, the seeming non-sequitur nature of the plot disguises a rather intricate design, as there is a purposefulness to the stripping away of Jill’s character, and a hidden malice to Lisa’s that peeks though. Thematically it is on point, even down to the apparently non-sensical inclusion of a hidden voyeur. Paired with the artificiality of the performances there is a theatricality to the character interactions, one that develops a disconcerting feeling of being watched, of needing to perform, lest one is judged. This paranoia is ultimately at the root of the film’s tragedy.
While DeBoer and Luebbe are the creative forces behind the film, it would be wrong to overlook its director Paul Briganti. Briganti should be a familiar name to loyal Short of the Week readers for his delightful short Donald and Jess, and has developed into a go-to comedic director. Cutting his teeth at CollegeHumor, Briganti directs and produces TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything, and currently directs for Saturday Night Live, including one of this past season’s breakout digital films Friendos. Briganti helps provide a necessary visual complement to the comedy, from the gauzy lens filter to the inventive camera angles and zooms to build up faux-drama. In conjunction with the music, a hilariously out-of-place, booming and grandiose classical score, the film’s production elements are a seamless extension of the writing and performances, helping to maximize the film’s comedic effectiveness.
Upon embarking on a film career, DeBoer and Luebbe founded Gulp Splash Productions, which as produced two additional shorts, Buzz and The Arrival, both of which have met success on the festival circuit. In the aftermath of their SXSW award, the pair sold the television channel IFC on a Greener Grass pilot. I’m not sure of the status of the project, but have heard that the pair are actually in production starting this weekend on a Greener Grass feature film which is shooting in Georgia. This is grand news and immediately places the project near the top of my list for films to look out for in 2019!