Much like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the film Greener Grass—whose poster strongly resembles the iconic picket fence opening shot of Lynch’s neo-noir—looks through a microscope to reveal the underbelly inherent in the artificially manicured suburban aesthetic. But while Blue Velvet explores the menace that lies underneath the surface of suburbia, Greener Grass uses surreal humor to show just how absurd the suburban environment—and the internal politics that govern the behavior of its citizens—truly is.
Greener Grass is primarily about the lives of two suburban women, Jill and Lisa (Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the film’s directors). Jill and Lisa are both married, but their husbands are so bland and nondescript that at one point they don’t even realize that they’re making out with the wrong spouses. One day while watching their sons play soccer, Lisa nonchalantly notices that Jill has a new baby. After mentioning that she “loves her” the way we all say that we love cute children or pets that aren’t our own, Jill, not wanting to offend Lisa, offers to give Lisa the baby to keep, and Lisa, not wanting to offend Jill (and also maybe a little jealous of Jill), accepts the baby as her own.
The two women’s identities and social standings begin to blur from that point on. Jill starts off in a much larger house than Lisa and is more of a societal alpha. By the end of the film, Lisa has all but replaced Jill: she lives in her house, still has her baby, is wearing her clothes, her son is in the accelerated math program that Jill’s son was in, and Jill’s husband Nick (Beck Bennett) lives with Lisa and her husband Dennis (Neil Casey) as their pool boy.
In addition to featuring highly stylized cinematography, the film’s costume designer Lauren Oppelt created the main characters’ clothing to highlight the subtle shifts between the two families. In the opening scene, Jill is wearing all pink and Lisa all blue. When the husbands are introduced, their outfits match their wives. However, as the film progresses, pink and blue accents and purple (the approximate mix of the two colors) are introduced, and other characters often wear outfits with colors from the other family, culminating with Lisa wearing the exact outfit Jill was in the beginning of the film.
This is possibly a stretch, but I think it’s worth pointing out that while the title of the movie is obviously referencing the colloquialism “the grass is greener on the other side,” the phrase “greener grass” doesn’t exactly come from the expression. I think that the way it is phrased in the movie’s title doesn’t only imply a jealousy for what other people have, it also implies a constant dissatisfaction with the things you personally already have: I need greener grass, a bigger house, a faster car (or golf cart). It is also a subtle nod to the field where the community’s children play soccer, the film’s spectacularly bright and stylized color palette, and one of the symbols of the suburbs: the lawn.
Although much of the plot demonstrates Lisa gaining social status as Jill loses it, I find it hard to call Lisa the antagonist of the film. There is some subtle (and not so subtle) scheming on Lisa’s part to emulate or outshine Jill—like moving into Jill’s house, stealing Jill’s fashion statement of wearing old panties around her neck as a scarf, copying a pose in a picture of Jill’s family at a photo session, “getting pregnant” by sticking a soccer ball under her dress, and suggesting Jill gets a divorce when her own marriage is in much worse shape—but Jill is primarily undone by her own decisions, and insecurities that have been hammered into her by the bourgeois community she lives in.
Jill’s inability to say no and her compulsion to project politeness harm her at pretty much every turn. She gives away her baby, is never assertive enough to demand her baby back, agrees to get a divorce for no real reason other than Lisa suggested it, and simply accepts that multiple people claim her house is theirs. She doesn’t even chastise Nick for giving her pool water to drink, even though she clearly disgusted when she learns she just drank pool water. Jill is hardly the only character to act this way: Nick could have easily said that he wasn’t okay with them giving their baby away, but instead asks Jill “next time can you just talk to me first?” (Also, I love that “next time” implies a chance that Jill could just give away another child!) Nick outwardly expresses more dissatisfaction with Jill cooking Mexican meat pies instead of tacos than he does with her giving away their daughter.
The only people that the adult characters don’t really have a problem talking down to are their children. Jill and Nick’s son Julian, arguably the most free-spirited character in the whole movie, is constantly micromanaged by his parents. His parents belittle his pant-wetting problem and try to force him to go to the bathroom when he doesn’t need it, neither of which help any self-esteem issues that are likely the cause of the issue. In the most heartbreaking scene in the film, Julian’s parents decide to withdraw him from piano lessons after he embarrassed them by improvising at the piano during a recital instead of playing “Yankee Doodle,” to which he disappointedly replies “but I love piano.” Meanwhile, they continue to keep him in soccer, an activity he clearly doesn’t enjoy.
Jill and Nick view their son’s free-spiritedness as an embarrassment, not to him, but to them. Midway through the movie, Julian tries to sing “Happy Birthday” to his dad, but passes out into the pool and emerges as a dog. While Jill obviously misses the human Julian, it is clear very quickly that Nick prefers the dog version of their son, going as far to tell Jill that “Julian just got awesome.” Nick never truly wanted to engage with his son as a human being, he only ever really wanted a pet, and that attitude comes to the forefront in the second half of the movie. Even when Jill and Nick explain to Julian (who is a dog at this point) that they’re getting divorced, the usual “this isn’t your fault” speech isn’t about truly reassuring him, but rather about what he can and can’t do and how it reflects on them: “Julian, we want you to know that this is not your fault and it absolutely has nothing to do with you not being able to play soccer anymore.”
Meanwhile, Lisa and Dennis’ son Bob is finding his own ways to act out against his parents’ micromanaging. Early in the film, Lisa chastises him for making a cornhusk doll, which I’ll admit is a little creepy but harmless. Bob ends up going through his own transformation by becoming “Bad Bob” after watching a violent television program called Kids with Knives. The Bob who quietly made a cornhusk doll is gone, replaced by a child that yells, curses, and smokes. For their part, his parents don’t seem overly concerned with the change in their son’s behavior, describing it as a phase and lazily telling friends that “Bob is bad now.”
Not long ago, I wrote about another film that satirized suburbia called The Swimmer. In that film, a man named Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) realizes that there is a metaphorical river of pools stretching from a friend’s house to his house, and decides to “swim home.” On his way, the audience sees the veneer fade from the All-American Playboy persona he projects, revealing a broken man that has difficulty connecting with his supposed friends beyond anything more than the shallowest pleasantries.
In Greener Grass, many of the conversations are equally meaningless or otherwise disconnected, but the absurdity of the conversations is foregrounded through the use of non-sequiturs. For example, when one character responds to the already ridiculous question “Are you an ice dancer?” about her outfit, she responds, “No, are you pregnant?” Most of the plot is the direct result of the characters’ complete inability to communicate with one another, including their inability to express emotion, their desire to keep up appearances, and their dissatisfaction with what they have.
I’m going to go on a slight tangent for a second that I promise will come back around: in an interview with 25YL the filmmakers said that they tried to avoid referencing other movies or TV shows, but there is a running gag that seems like a reference to The Swimmer. Jill’s husband Nick is obsessed with how clean the pool water is, and by extension, how good the water tastes. “It’s the new filtration system. It’s all oxygenated, no more chlorine. It’s pure baby, you can drink it,” Nick excitedly tells Jill. “I think I prefer it [to regular water]!” The scene seems to recall a scene in The Swimmer in which Ned arrives at a friend’s pool and is told “We’ve got the best filter money can buy. It filters 99 point 99 point 99 percent of all solid matter out of the water. […] We put a six-inch lint filter in there too. The way we take care of this pool, the water’s purer than drinking water.” The friend then asks him what Ned wants to drink and he responds “Well scoop me up a glass of that!”
In a letter to screenwriter Eleanor Perry, John Cheever, who wrote the short story that the The Swimmer was adapted from, said “People will almost always tell you how much the pool cost and how much time and money it takes for maintenance. They swap notes on chemicals, hard and soft water, iron content, etc and they gossip” . In short, people love to talk about their pools.
Since only a few socioeconomic groups can even afford them, swimming pools are a near universal signifier of the suburbs and upper middle class. Even if the recurring water gag isn’t a direct reference to The Swimmer, it isn’t a stretch to think that two suburban satires would share the same headspace, even if their productions were separated by 50 years. The suburban ubiquity of swimming pools is the basis of The Swimmer and a not insignificant part of Greener Grass. Pool parties are frequently held in the latter film, and Julian’s transformation occurs after he falls into a pool. In the final scene, Lisa, who previously didn’t have a pool, invites Jill over to their pool (as Jill had done earlier in the movie), which is how Jill learns that Lisa has moved into her house.
The end of Greener Grass largely mirrors the beginning: Jill and Lisa sit next to each other watching soccer, Jill’s child (in this case, a young girl that Jill abducted) is largely disinterested in the game, and Lisa is noting how cute the girl is. However, this time around Jill is virtually at her wits’ end: she’s lost pretty much everything, drove through the night on a golf cart, ripped off her adult braces, and abducted a child. Her hair is windswept and her face is dirty from the golf cart. At this moment, she seems to see through the veneer of the suburbs, noticing for the first time that the children are playing soccer on top of people’s graves. The sudden appearance of the graves and circular narrative seem to imply that they are in some sort of purgatory, and really, is there a better metaphor for the suburbs than that? Meanwhile, although she acknowledged the graves, Lisa seems completely oblivious to the incongruity of children playing soccer on them, instead reveling in her newfound status.
I wish that I could list all of the flawlessly hilarious details that help make Greener Grass unforgettable. I can barely scratch the surface without recounting the whole film, and even then it would be a wholly insufficient depiction. The film and filmmakers understand the suburbs so perfectly and do an incredible job of using style and comedy to highlight the narcissism and hypocrisy of bourgeois suburban life.
 John Cheever in Chris Innis, The Story of the Swimmer: East River Crawl.