You never see the color blue in “Beneath the Blue Suburban Skies,” an unassuming slice-of-life family drama in brittle black and white. But Edward Burns still dares you to imagine the soothing shade stretching over the nearly identical middle-class homes of a commuter town outside of New York, symmetrically assembled with unexceptional yards rubbing shoulders with one another. For a film that has more quiet distress than cheeriness in store, this resembles an ironically happy image once considered in color. But through a low-key rhythm that informs much of his fiercely independent work, including that of “The Brothers McMullen” (the actor-writer-director’s 1995 Sundance-winning breakout), Burns finds glimmers of hope and humor in the bleak with what feels like his most mature work to date.
Attentively shot by William Rexer with elegant lighting and deep contrasts — a sweeping look in a modestly-scoped film that warrants a big screen — it all starts with alcohol inside a domesticated kitchen that could be out of a “Pleasantville”-ish 1950s. We watch as Tina (a perfectly cast Jennifer Ehle, silently seething in dissatisfaction with a hint of volatility) mixes what looks to be a mean martini for herself. Throughout the film, the cocktail shaker would seldom be absent from her side, her one avenue of release (at times, bordering dependency) in a life that clearly turned out to deliver considerably less than what this fiftysomething believed it would. Still, it’s not all bad news: Tina is employed, married to the fair-minded, hard-working Jim (Burns, wearing his character’s slight insecurity on his sleeve) and mothers two twentysomething children, Debbie (Hannah Dunne) and Frankie (Brian Wiles).
Except, there are also severe fault lines in this seemingly functional picture, as Burns’ story would expose in composed drops. Somehow, the couple has fallen behind their mortgage. In fact, the financial trouble has gotten so far out of hand that they can’t even afford to get their broken dishwasher fixed — a hindrance that comes up on a recurring basis, mildly suggesting a longstanding class divergence between the couple. (“I didn’t grow up with a dishwasher, did you?” asks Jim, more a beer guy than a martini sipper. “Yes, I did,” responds Tina, with audible bitterness.)
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Meanwhile, their drifting, ambitionless kids still live at home, absorbing resources while contributing nothing to the household other than constant worry. Possessing no viable plans for the future whatsoever, the siblings routinely dismiss their parents’ desperate attempts to set them up with something that has longevity. Debbie hangs out with a boyfriend of whom her parents harshly disapprove, sleeps in and frowns upon employment prospects while Frankie gets mixed up with the wrong sort in a dead-end job he eventually gets fired from.
In that, casual conversations between generations quickly turn into “when I was your age”-style confrontations, and backyard basketball games between the father and son inevitably resolve to hostility. Stuck in this vicious cycle, the parents eventually turn the mirror on themselves, especially after a family dinner with Jim’s brother and his wife, a couple at a pronouncedly more comfortable place with their resources and offspring. “I felt embarrassed not having anything good to say about our kids,” Tina confesses, wondering if they really did the best parenting they could. Every now and then, Burns braids in a well-designed interlude or two to the story, without abandoning the home base, but intensifying its tension-filled atmosphere. The most consequential one follows Tina getting ready for her high-school reunion, from which she comes back drunk, having made out with an old flame (an instance we don’t get to see but hear about after the fact).
With a range of such scenes both hushed and emotionally rapturous, “Beneath the Blue Suburban Skies” gradually turns into an Ehle showcase, even surrounded by an equally matched ensemble of actors. With her uniquely mellifluous vocal timbre and amiable gaze, the actor impeccably adorns Tina with a disquieting dose of tentativeness — admitting to her desire to disappear; she never looks anything less than a woman on the verge of a breakdown, halted only by her deep affection for her family.
Underneath its artful surface of sharp monochromatic visuals, “Beneath the Blue Suburban Skies” puts relatable middle-class troubles at its center, offering blink-and-you’ll-miss-it observations about generations of Americans falling short of the dream they were promised. It harbors a pessimistic view of parenting as an ultimately thankless job and harnesses empathy for directionless kids, sometimes military-bound due to lack of options. Still, it’s not a political movie, nor does it harbor grand thematic ambitions. That’s why Burns’ low-budget return emotionally resonates all the more, thanks to its expressly laid-back tone, refusing to approach anything didactic.