Anticipation was high at the opening screening of the 2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival. Traditionally, the opening night feature sets the tone, thematically speaking, for the majority of the events’ programming, and I had to admit, I got why people just kept piling in. There’s fewer things Dallasites hate more than literally rubbing shoulders with their seatmates, but as people kept streaming in, aisles filled up, and the crammed seats just lent an even more breathless vibe to the proceedings.
And I could understand why. The teaser blurb for the opening feature, Greener Grass, had promised surrealism, a good dash of dark humor and some unexpected strangeness. Man, did the film ever deliver on those promises.
I won’t reveal too much because the plot is lean here, but Greener Grass takes place in an alternate reality where the mega-wealthy live in self-contained McMansion kingdoms, drive color-coordinated golf carts, and trade wives, husbands, and children like pawns in a complex popularity game. Ok, so maybe not so far removed from our world in some ways, but at least we don’t live in constant fear of our kids being magically turned into dogs, and elementary school teachers don’t tend to teach children sing-a-longs about infamous murderers. The plot kicks off when Jill, a perpetually perky mother of two, makes an impulsive gift of her baby to her longtime friend and social rival, Lisa. This one very strange act of friendship kicks off a roundabout of surrealistic set-pieces as the tight-knit, competition crazed community respond to Jill’s action. Against the backdrop of all this, someone’s murdered a yoga teacher, and more violence is possibly brewing just beyond the manicured lawns of this suburban dystopia.
From the above description, you might think that Greener Grass has its eyes on some pretty big pop culture targets, but really, the film, with its madcap randomness, its crazed devotion to switching wildly between gags, and its general disregard for plot, takes the focus away from the satirical. Yeah, there are some soft-armed jabs--modern American’s materialism, the obsession with children as a status symbols, the festishization of motherhood--but Greener Grass, for all its joyful madness, never goes farther than just pointing out, “Hey, these are some things that are pretty ridiculous about our culture, right?” Indeed, they are, but Greener Grass is so busy having a good time spoofing these vices, it joyfully forgets to say anything.
This may sound like the most damning of faint praise, but Greener Grass’s devotion to craziness over story or theme is actually its greatest strength. The social ills the film targets are as shop worn as satire itself. Hell, Thackeray was tackling these same issues, albeit from a contentinal perspective, back when Napoleon was considered the biggest threat to national security. Greener Grass is at its most vibrantly alive when it ignores the cultural dictates that art be “about” something. The scenes that got the best, most enthusiastic reactions from the audience that knight were the ones that stuck close to the Adult Swim, wacked-out comedy ethos: Jill gets a trim and the edges of her hair start bleeding, a muder-obsessed, haunted elementary school teacher leads her students in a bloody sing-a-long, the adorable kid from The Haunting of Hill House transforms from an underperforming little boy into an enthusiastic dog via a fateful fall into an otherwise unenchanted swimming pool.
If The Greasy Strangler and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie had a back-alley tryst and the baby was raised by a PG version of late period John Waters, that would basically be Greener Grass. Off-the-wall, casually surreal, a tiny bit grotesque, and just ever-so-gently mocking, Greener Grass isn’t an antidote to all the shallowness and sadness of American culture. But it doesn’t have to be. Raucously weird and strangely charming, Greener Grass is pure, crazy fun, and the perfect start to OCFF 2019.