Radiant City: Viewer’s Response

This strange Canadian film combines a couple of documentary styles into a single amalgamation critiquing suburban living in the couple of years just prior to the 2008 economic downturn.  Here’s a preview:

And here’s a warning that much of this post deals with the big reveal at the end.

Are you still with me? OK.

Here’s the big reveal:  It’s not a documentary.  I didn’t see it coming, and was relived when this reveal came.  Here’s why: the daughter gets shot.

  • I did, however, wonder about the documentary documentariness at a few points.  Right at the beginning is that scene you see in the preview when the boy is at the top of the cell phone tower, and I thought: how did the documentarian get clearance for that?
  • Also, as we near the end, there’s a scene where the mother is driving around a parking lot, by herself, while the rest of her family is at the community center (dad is in a musical about the suburbs–very meta–and the kids are watching), and I thought: they had a second unit just to drive around with her?  OK.
  • Then, at the end, I thought: who’s running the camera and letting this kids actually load a rifle and shoot out the window?  I mean, sure, documentarian, document, don’t get involved and all, but still–these are young people, early teens at the latest, be the grown-up, man.
  • Then the daughter got shot (there’s a very brief clip of her on the ground in the preview), and before I could really formulate a response to this, they broke the scene, and the actress popped up, and they spend a few minutes talking about why the film-makers went this way.

But I allowed these clues, and probably others, to wash over me with little effect, and didn’t seriously question the documentary premise of the film.  I’m with the young actor who played the brother, and I don’t fully understand why they chose to do it this way.  It has something to do with the belief that actors would portray the tensions and uncertainty they wanted to show better than actual people might?

Anyway.  The kids are, without a doubt, the best part of the movie.  Without a doubt.  While I still thought it was a documentary, I asked myself why they chose to edit it to make the mother the villain.  She was the person who insisted on the move into the subdivision, and she was the person coping least well with the move–though this was largely from the fact that she was the one most shouldering the logistical burdens of living out there.

But the other reason I didn’t realize the thing wasn’t really a documentary was because of the documentary part of it.  That’s the part where every few minutes they’d drop in interview clips with real-life actual urbanists.  People who I’ve heard of, read books by, and seen at real-live actual conferences saying things about suburbs, urbanism and the relative costs of each that are exactly the sorts of things you’d actually hear in an actual documentary about that stuff.

And there were also these bumps every once in a while, short animated segments showing some unnerving statistic about weight gain in the suburbs, or the dangers of cars to teenagers in the suburbs vs. in urban areas.  It’s really good.  Particularly since they did two things, first, they had a guy who not only wouldn’t live in the suburbs if you paid him but who can articulate the reasons why there are incentives to do so, and doesn’t think the people who do have done something wrong, wrong, wrong.  The other is letting one of the urbanists describe the things that can be done with what’s already been built in the suburbs to allow them to improve over time.

Anyway, it’s pretty good.  You would watch it.  The kids are really good.  And now we’ll close with…

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