Suburban stasis

Pub date June 19, 2007
WriterGlen Helfand
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

Colma is not Daly City. Apparently I’m the only San Franciscan who’s failed to comprehend the pronounced distinctions between these neighboring municipalities, outside the selection of merch at their respective Target stores. Daly City has Serramonte Center and the rows of houses made famous by Malvina Reynolds’s anthem to architectural sameness, "Little Boxes" (the song that opens Showtime’s fabulous stoned-in-suburbia sitcom, Weeds). Colma’s got car lots and a few square blocks of single-family dwellings, enough for the approximately 2,000 residents who live surrounded by a whopping 17 graveyards, most catering to specific ethnicities, if not deceased pets. According to the Colma civic Web site, the price of an average home here is a grounding $280,000. Necropolis is too harsh a word — there’s something truly adorable about a town whose official motto is "It’s great to be alive in Colma."

I learned this on a drive through the town with Richard Wong, the director of the wonderfully assured Colma: The Musical, a film that uses this unlikely and oddly ordinary community as a font of artistic inspiration. For Wong, who grew up in San Francisco, the burg recalls childhood trips to Toys "R" Us after visiting family tombstones at the Chinese cemetery. He brings me to the surprisingly expansive Colma Historical Association, a museum charting the town’s lore with binders on each of the memorial parks. Then we coast through the self-contained pocket of homes and the location where Rodel, one of the three restless, fresh high school grad protagonists of the film, fictionally resided. Wong notices a bit of improvement to the place — new brick-patterned siding spruces up the garage — and a couple of houses under construction at the end of the block. Other than that, nothing’s changed, he says.

"One of the inspirations for the film came from the idea of a small town — one that doesn’t really change much — next to one of the most progressive cities in the world," Wong remarks. "Colma is almost exactly the same as it was when the houses were first built."

Colma is a character in the movie — a collaboration with Wong’s college pal H.P. Mendoza, who wrote the script and songs and capably plays Rodel — whose opening musical number, "Colma Stays," is a peppy celebration of suburban stasis. It takes Wong’s expert use of split screen to enliven the carless boulevards and the encroaching sense of teenage ennui. (Befitting its location, Colma: The Musical does wonders with its garage-sale budget and rumpus-room laptop audio- and video-editing marathons.) Billy, another of the main characters, points to a rare new feature on the landscape: a just-built police station. It’s difficult to imagine the crimes the cops must contend with.

The film, however, vividly illustrates how three Colma youths occupy themselves: crashing generic college parties, working at the mall, and hitting the bars with fake IDs. (Wong had to excise a drug-use reference — another stereotypical suburban teen activity — in order to gain permission to shoot a moody musical number in the Italian cemetery.) The fog that envelopes Colma serves as an almost too-perfect metaphor for the insularity of dead-end streets, which engender the claustrophobia of neighborhood inertia in the characters. "There’s no conflict in their lives, and that’s the problem," Wong explains. "They just don’t have that much going on." With nothing to do, people can get bitter — or they get out. The two guys manage that — Rodel, shunned by his family because he’s queer, heads to New York to pursue his dream of being in the musical theater, while Billy, an aspiring actor, packs his car to move to San Francisco. Their female cohort Maribel, the tart character who holds them together, plans to stay — though her motivations are self-deprecatingly ambiguous.

There is a genre of suburban films that usually involves teen suicide, superdepressed moms, or scary skeletons in the linen closet. If this were a Larry Clark film, the kids would be shooting up or shooting themselves. If it were a John Hughes picture, there’d be prom-related antics in the McMansion. In Colma, they sing their suburban sorrows. Wong suggests his film might be a regional music-theater production of a suburban drama, and it’s a wacky idea that’s far more satisfying than you might expect.

Mendoza, in a phone conversation, admits that he prefers films that have some empathy for tract-house dwellers. He feels that Napoleon Dynamite sneers at its characters. "I did not want that for this. I find Colma endearing," he says. "This is not an indictment — it is a locale. We’re just portraying these kids saying it’s boring." Mendoza lived in Colma during his high school years, moving there after growing up in the Mission. "At that time, all the Filipino families moved to Daly City so their kids could go to Westmoor High."

While it finds comedy in the notion of living in a generically small locale, the film exudes an affably focused sense of place. Mendoza tells me that his best friend in high school cited a particular Colma cul-de-sac as his favorite place because it had a great view of the mall. He reveals his own beloved spot, an underpass at the intersection of an up-and-coming Filipino street and a dicey neighborhood. On the sloped, stagelike hill, Mendoza and his pals would have water-balloon fights and — "This is so gay," he warns — reenact scenes from Little Shop of Horrors. Given his movie, that makes wonderful sense.

The image also fits the satisfying, hometown-boys-make-good narrative of the film’s critical success. Since Colma: The Musical scored on the festival circuit, Wong has hooked up with the more seasoned director Wayne Wang, with whom he’s currently working. Future collaborations with Mendoza are imminent, including a Colma sequel: Serramonte: The Musical. That narrative will follow, in song, Maribel’s future in retail. As a career path, that may seem like a dead end, but for Wong and Mendoza, creating a movie about it affirms that their little town of graveyards is ripe with artistic joie de vivre.