‘The Dark End of the Street’ | Credit: Courtesy

Trouble is brewing in the ‘burbs, in director Kevin Tran’s sneakily tantalizing debut film, The Dark End of the Street. That’s nothing new, of course: Cinema has often explored the seamier, less-than-pristine underbelly of suburbia — the muck, ooze, the ennui — beneath the manicured lawns and the potentially status quo blandness of the ‘burbs. Think Blue Velvet, Gran Torino, American Beauty, the innocent tang of John Hughes–land, and a host of other ‘burb-baiting items on the American movie menu. (View the trailer here.)

What makes Tran’s tasty, unassuming indie film a refreshing new genre entry is his deft and subtle hand in the telling. A central subversion tactic is at work here, in what is presumably a thriller about a serial pet killer in the ‘hood. While that narrative angle — itself a fitting reference to the peril facing suburban complacency and coziness — gives the film structure and tension, Tran’s interests are much broader than simple thriller shock tactics.

With a shambling, loose yet purposeful style, somewhat reminiscent of Robert Altman’s ensemble tapestries, Tran freely bounces and (vis-à-vis the roving and sometimes heroic skateboarder contingent) skates through this New Jersey neighborhood, home to “burger flippers and Nobel laureates.” Garage punkers (spewing “what the fuck is … up?!”), forestalled life dreams, and compromised ideals are also in the air, along with fixtures of comfort.

Through the agency of a filmmaker’s licensed voyeurism, writer-director Tran invites himself into several homes, several subplots, multiracial profiles, and several neuroses. His kindly, motley cast of characters includes a restless new father (facing a world of hurt when, drunk and disoriented, he wanders into the wrong house), a lonely party-meister and reveler-magnet, and a woman whose neighborly relationship with an older man loosens its platonic politesse in the face of the neighborhood’s aura of fear — and the lubrication of libations. Told that her suddenly more intimate neighbor had lost both his wife and dog, she asks, “Why didn’t you ever remarry… or why didn’t you get another dog?” Valid questions, those, but also questions rooted in the desperately hopeful nature of suburban continuum.

Then, of course, there is that matter of a psychopath lurking in the margins, with pet-icide as sin of choice. But, strangely, we digress.

Tran handles this smorgasbord of themes and characters with a deceptively casual filmic grace, and an admirable lack of contrivance. At one point, a girl puts her bird Polly’s cage next to the window, figuring, “That way, she can look outside, but still be inside.” With this sly nod to the closing shot of Blue Velvet, is there a better metaphor/mantra for suburban life?

For a bit of backstory, Tran knows from whence he speaks and arrives with an 805 pedigree, qualifying him as another Santa Barbaran — à la Max Barbakow (Palm Springs) — making good. Growing up in Santa Barbara–burbia, Tran is familiar with the turf and its dynamics, both apparent and semi-hidden. Following his film fanaticism to NYU, he graduated, worked in the business of crafting film trailers, and now has a fine, artful piece of work with which to launch his IMDb profile, and with another film in the oven. 

Full disclosure: I have known Tran since he was in high school, when he was a close friend of my daughter, Claire, and a fellow culture nerd with his head in the arts cloud. With pride, I remember seeing them absorbed in 8½, on the couch of our suburban home, on a street that Tran cleverly name-checks as an “Easter egg” in his film. On this block, there were no suspicious pet deaths that I know of, apart from some wandering cats meeting untimely ends — quite audibly — in the wee hours, done in by coyote packs drifting down the creek by Willowglen Park.

But that’s another American suburban story. The Dark End of the Street is currently available to stream on many of the major channels, including Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and YouTube.


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