A frequent theme that I’ve seen in quarantine art over the months, whether it’s on the cover of New Yorker or a sketch I saw on Tumblr, is the imagined living spaces of strangers in the city. When the streets were left barren in the beginning of quarantine, it was no longer due to an expected forecast for the year in which residents would rush to the beaches because the weather was nice, or that the B Line stops were empty because finals week across campuses was finally over. Everyone was at home because we had to be. Naturally, curiosity forms around the loud thumps above our ceiling or the kind of pajamatheleisure wear that we’re trying to pass off as acceptable for public coffee runs and windowsill sitting. In this citywide cooperation, I found these vignette-style piecework doodles as a little comfort that we’re all going through this together.
For ex-suburbanites, quarantine living may have invoked the eerie feeling of idyllic houses planted in the same block. Maybe it depends on the neighborhood’s vibe, but I grew up in a place where I hadn’t seen my next-door neighbor literally all throughout high school. Instead of their physical presence, there was an overabundance of weeds and the occasional evening porch lights if I happened to glance outside. In the opening scene of Kevin Tran’s The Dark End of the Street, while his dog tends to odor duties,a bespectacled professor pauses at a house. The fascination of the house’s darkened window on the second floor, silently footnoted with things that he may have observed before in previous walks, is peak Suburban Living.
Similar to the modern lockdown art, The Dark End of the Street traces a single day in the lives of several residents in a New Jersey neighborhood. In place of a contagious respiratory illness, a cat named Bruce is brutally murdered inside someone’s home. The residents are as concerned about the killings as their own personal turmoils will allow them; one family is ready to brandish kitchen knives for the safety of their daughter and parakeet, while a newly minted suburbanite, jonesing for excitement, takes it as an anecdote of amusing insanity.
Tran’s determination to evoke captivation in an otherwise mundane environment is admirable, especially as an independent filmmaker without other works under his belt. There’s no doubt that advertising this film with a dark secret that would be indulged by the end would be the easier “in.” But he fans away the aroma of mystery from the get-go; early in the film, we see the perpetrator (later dubbed as the Pet Killer for his alleged connection with other animal slayings in the past weeks) coming back to his own living space in bloody boots. As creepy as the guy may be, I didn’t even think he was as interesting as the skateboarding teenagers, who have a small-town naivety that is relatively wholesome to watch.
There are a lot of households included in the film with little pretext. A valid complaint might be the little narrative for each family, but if we needed more than that, the movie would be much longer, and unnecessarily at that. If anything, there is a confidence in this short story that makes it so rightfully done by someone who must have lived in the suburbs before. At moments, the comedy slips through the air without a punchline’s pause, but in the same tonal delivery that made me laugh at conversations after. We know as many of the pets’ names as we do the residents, which is again on-brand for Suburban Living™. We also probably know a Richard, whose attitude should be left explained when seen on screen.
I may be biased, since I found this film as a nostalgic recurrence that’s been happening since lockdown. When I walk around the block early in the morning and think about how there are so many people around me, but also not here here, I feel like I’m the alien. So it resonated deeply when Richard explains about his satisfaction with his life: “…we’re just visitors here.” Maybe it’s quarantine, maybe it’s the fact that there are hundreds of movies about the microscopic motions in suburbs and the only one that I can remember at this moment is fucking Ken Park, but I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. Tran makes subtlety interesting and that despite the weirdness of isolation, it’s okay to invite others for dinner when we’re ready.
The Dark End of the Street
dir. Kevin Tran
Now available VOD!
Streaming is no substitute for taking in a screening at a locally owned cinema, and right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.