Spheeris, Penelope: Director Profile

Penelope Spheeris is uniquely equipped to examine suburban alienation given her background. Her childhood was spent on the road with her father, who worked as a carnival strongman. After the family settled in Orange County, her father was murdered, and her mother, an alcoholic, went on to marry nine times. Tragedy continued to dog Spheeris. The father of her daughter Anna died of a drug overdose when Anna was a child. Her films demonstrate penchant for dealing with outsiders in a way that invites interest, without the romantic skew of Hollywood pictures. Spherees evinces compassion for disadvantaged youth with genuine understanding of their anger.

In 1980, Spheeris made the first of her anthropological surveys of disaffected teen punks in The Decline of Western Civilization. For her, “one of the greatest contributions of punks was going against the lifestyles of the rich and famous, in contrast to heavy metal which buys into the rock-star trip.” Two sequels followed, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) and The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998).


Spheeris made two moody features about youth angst and alienation. The first, Suburbia (aka The Wild Side, 1983), was a drama about angry kids who cut their hair (in lieu of growing it long) and live in abandoned rat-infested crash pads. The film concerns the clash between a group of punkers and their enraged neighbors. Some humor is submerged within a conventional morality tale about punkers who are saddled with a murder they didn't commit. The film tries to make a statement while wallowing in random violence and maudlin sentiment. Framed by the death of two children, Suburbia is a heavy-handed, purposefully repellent film about how America destroys its youth. Spheeris sympathizes with the rejected childen, putting the blame for their mischief on society.

The Boys Next Door

The Boy Next Door(1985) starred Maxwell Caldwell and Charlie Sheen as alienated teens who go on a killing spree. Tired of being jeered at and ignored, they use murder to express their rage over not being loved, but Spheeris doesn't use their violence as a turn-on. A movie about inarticulate despair, The Boys Next Door attempted to do more than other teenage movies, though Spheeris' portrait of hopelessness lacks fresh insight into the boys' motivations. As in most of her work, blame for their problems is reduced to society's decadent values and careless, inattentive families.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, hardcover 2000; paperback 2001).