Director: Megan Freels Johnston
Writer: Megan Freels Johnston
Stars: Deanna Russo, Dana Gaier, John Redlinger, Emil Johnsen
Last night, on a soft summer evening in Beverly Hills, I had the privilege to attend the premiere of Megan Freels Johnston’s latest horror genre mash-up, The Ice Cream Truck. Our site had already screened and reviewed the film, giving it a mixed response. As Lisa Fremont (review) states, The Ice Cream Truck brandishes “an overall feeling of a wackadoo ice cream man being needlessly tacked onto an otherwise smart takedown of suburbia…” She is right to point out Johnston’s excellent takedown and smart writing on America’s ever-evolving relationship with the suburbs. For audiences coming in to this film, understand this: The Ice Cream Truck is satirical, social commentary that just happens to have a killer ice cream man lurking on HOA-paved streets.
Mary, a freelance writer played by Deanna Russo, is a thirty-something wife and mother of two who gets a jump-start settling in to her new Southern California home while her husband and kids stay in Seattle to await the end of the school year. This idyllic suburb, where Mary spent her childhood and adolescence, is presented with familiar motifs: Think Revolutionary Road meets Pleasantville. While the setting is present day, the suburb feels anachronistic. The nostalgic 1980s score serves as the back drop for post-World War II track homes, anchored by the presence of a 1950s era Ice Cream truck, which serves original soft serve to neighbors throughout the day (and mysteriously, the night).
|Director Megan Freels Johnston at the Q & A|
Mary’s neighbors, who may as well be Stepford Wife 1, 2, and 3, are the typical busybodies, prying – as the term denotes – for any information about their newest resident. Smiles and pleasantries are constructed haphazardly, but Mary is making friends, and one of the three (the impeccable Lisa Ann Walter) invites Mary to her son Max’s high school graduation party, a James Dean facsimile played beautifully by John Redlinger.
In these first few moments of the film, before any of the slashing starts, Johnston has managed to construct a fresher take on 1950s suburban correctness, a term I am borrowing from Thomas Hine’s epic takedown of corporate America’s usurpation of counterculture. The notion that the suburbs is a space of phonies willing to eat each other alive if simply keeping up with Joneses is too difficult a task, is admittedly, nothing new. (Johnston herself admitted this during last night’s Q&A.) Moreover, the dialogue between characters feels purposely forced, as if that metaphorical mask of niceness were made of thorns. Even Mary’s phone conversations with her husband, both of whom are supposed to be a loving couple, leave Mary with opaque expressions and mannerisms, as if after every piece of dialogue, her psyche ad libs “What am I doing with my life?”
So the real question is why tell this story?
The plot reveals the ironies. On her way to the party, Mary runs into Max and his girlfriend Tracy getting ready to smoke a joint. She casually obliges to join, as it’s quite clear that Max is catching a case of the MILFs. The three part ways, and Mary joins her new friends at the party and throws back endless Vodka Tonics, as if she is making up for lost time, or simply enjoying the freedom from motherly duties. Tracy, meanwhile, meets her fate in the ice cream truck.
Not surprisingly, Max pursues Mary with a smooth vigor, a seduction that Mary welcomes with anticipatory reluctance, noting how Max makes her feel young again. It’s a familiar fantasy – the boy or girl next door – younger and exuding confidence that rubs off the seduced like the sweat of summer. And it is this relationship that makes The Ice Cream Truck unique.
|The Cast and Producers|
Consider this merging of motifs, and ask why tell this story in 2017? Popular stories of the suburbs are usually tragic, feminist (and post-feminist) tales of oppressed housewives, grounded by bad husbands or mores that perpetuate the myth that a woman’s place is in the home. Even the 1970s and 80s – the film’s music take us there – marks economic declines that find suburbs, a bastion of Americana and that white-picket fenced dream, unattainable or unaffordable. The mass exodus to cities in those decades exacerbated the decline of suburbs, thus changing all the signifiers such a neighborhood represents. In a post-recession world, suburbs themselves are (seemingly) like housewives: A privilege only a few families can actually afford, unless you are, of course, a Real Housewife of (name your city…).
But for Mary, all of the above need not apply. Sure, 1950s suburban correctness could characterize her new neighborhood, but the truth is Mary appears to have agency. Her sexual attraction to Max, compounded later by a brutal slashing with the murderous ice cream man, represents a new take on a woman’s experience in the burbs. That experience may stem from a small but very significant plot point: Mary’s teenage pregnancy. Taking on the responsibility of a child forced Mary to grow up…fast. But her encounters with Max and other neighbors point to arrested development. She never had her college years, never had sexual liberation and exploration, something she knows Max, with all his pent up sexual glory, will fully embrace in the fall. And not surprisingly, the father of her first child (not her current husband’s) presumably left Mary alone with all the responsibility.
This is why The Ice Cream Truck works. It’s a satirical character study that just happens to have a murderous villain serve as a symbol for what Mary ultimately wants to purge from her life and from suburban history writ large. Mary’s experience in the suburb should be a marker of success, stability, and the American Dream. But the violent climax and Freudian-esque relationship signal a woman trapped by decisions she could or could not have controlled. That’s up to the audience to decide.
The Ice Cream Truck is out now on VOD and at select L.A Theaters.
Eric Dinsmore | Twitter: @dinsmorality
Images: E Dinsmore & Octobercoast PR