The Spaces Between: An Interview with Imogen McCluskey and Béatrice Barbeau-Scurla

At times, Suburban Wildlife is so quiet it feels like it might disappear altogether — a character’s hand reaching lazily out of a car window, a pair of friends lying beneath a velvety bushland sky.

It’s an ode to a distinctly home-grown coming-of-age genre made astounding by the very nature of its production. Created entirely on a $4000 micro-budget by first-time feature filmmaker Imogen McCluskey and co-writer Béatrice Barbeau-Scurla, Suburban Wildlife follows four recent university graduates as they lounge by pools and on sticky couches, considering the next phase of their lives without having quite processed this one.

As they reckon with sexuality, ennui, and slowly rupturing friendships against a languorous Australian summer, they edge closer to an understanding of their own relationships with suburbia, and with security — whether to escape the endless expanse of backyards and sun-baked pavements, or else succumb to its domestic rituals.

In half-tipsy conversations and supine musings, McCluskey and Barbeau-Scurla find a deeply relevant — and painfully accurate — portrait of twentysomething indecision. Ahead of their Australian premiere at Sydney Film Festival next month, Michael Sun talked to them about memories of suburbia, growing up queer, and… James Charles.

Michael Sun: Suburban Wildlife just premiered at Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose — congrats! What was that like?

Imogen McCluskey: It was great! It was really amazing to share it with an American audience and I think it was the first time I realised how Australian our film is. In the first scene, there’s 6 F-words, but it’s a casual conversation between friends. I was sitting there like, oh my god! I think the best part of the festival, though, was the amount of first-time filmmakers there, so we really bonded with a lot of other people.

Béatrice Barbeau-Scurla: It was also really nice to just celebrate Suburban Wildlife, and how little we made our film on. I think when you translate it to American dollars, it’s $2000 USD or something. Everyone was asking “how is that possible?” and we’re like, “listen…we are dumb and we took a risk!”

IM: It’s been rewarding, but it’s also been so taxing; emotionally, physically, everything. My knees are gone, my eyes are gone, my mental health…I quite literally bled from the throat last year.

MS: Oh my god, are you okay?

IM: It was tonsillitis…it was the perfect metaphor for how much this film has taken from me, but it’s also given so much. I’m so glad we did it and really knuckled down and pushed through.

BB: I think our naiveté became one of our biggest strengths, because it meant Imogen and I had this passion the whole time to make something that needed to be made to fill a gap in Australian coming-of-age films.

IM: Making Suburban Wildlife was the best kind of film school, even though we shot it in a literal furnace of 50-degree summer heat. My next feature is definitely going to be single-location, middle of winter, one person…

BB: That’s cool! I’d watch that.

MS: I think what’s interesting about Suburban Wildlife is that, even though you started writing it 3 years ago, it feels like it’s coming out at an ideal time. We’re in the midst of a teen film boom, and we’re getting more and more diverse cinematic representations of it, like last year’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and of course, queer coming-of-ages like Love, Simon and Alex Strangelove. Did it ever cross your mind that Suburban Wildlife would become an Australian answer to these issues that were maybe only burgeoning at the time you started creating the film?

IM: It was definitely in our minds that we wanted to see an Australian version of that narrative. Personally, we hadn’t seen a coming-of-age film that really spoke to our experience here, and a big thing for me, visually, was that a lot of Australian films set in suburbia are really grey and washed out (like Animal Kingdom), or super saturated —

MS: Like Looking for Alibrandi?

IM: Fuck, I love Looking for Alibrandi — that film can do no wrong. It’s so sad when John dies, oh my god…

MS: Spoilers!

BB: I think there’s a dreamy quality about Australian coming-of-ages. I come from the suburbs of Sydney and Imogen is from Brisbane’s suburbs, so they’re a huge part of our lives and the lives of a lot of Australians.

IM: It’s very much a love letter to suburbia.

MS: I love that, because the suburbia you present in Suburbia Wildlife feels both very tangible and yet strangely new on screen. What does suburbia mean to you?

IM: I see the car as being such a big mood — a big metaphor for suburbia. For so much of the film, the characters are looking out at the world or observing the world passing by from car windows. It’s this state of mind of not participating in life — just observing it — and I definitely felt that growing up in suburban Australia.

BB: I think the car is interesting because that’s what the suburbs are to me exactly — driving, going from place to place, house to house, and not actually getting out of the suburbs, not going in the city or the beach like most Australian films will have you do. I remember after high school we’d just pick friends up from different houses and drive around on a Thursday night doing nothing but listening to music. The suburbs to me are a kind of waiting place to grow you until you’re ready to go into the world.

IM: We tried really hard to include those scenes in the car — or in transit — to celebrate their mundanity, but also their beauty. There are so many moments that are coded to be significant, but what really matters is the space between them.

BB: That theme of space, between huge events, between dialogue…

IM: We also left a lot of space in scenes where the characters just intuit or assume without actually articulating things. Often what reads as a TV friendship is when you’re being really over-the-top and wordy, but obviously in IRL friendships there’s a well-worn groove you settle into.

MS: I want to touch on the idea of the friendship break-up. It’s not actually shown in your film, but there’s definitely the assumption that the characters probably won’t be friends forever, especially with Louise — the anchor of the group’s — imminent move to London. Do you see a parallel between this notion of adolescence and high school friendships with the concept of suburbia? Both are safety, but also suffocation in their own ways.

IM: 100%. I feel like your identity is so rooted in where you come from, and where you’ve grown up around. And it’s necessary for you to break out of that.

BB: It’s interesting you mentioned Louise because she’s the person who’s decided that in order to grow up and become her own person, she needs to leave everything behind. Whereas a character like Nina is her opposite, who’s very much embracing the safety and warmth of the suburbs and the routine she’s built there. She doesn’t want to venture outside of that because she’s afraid of feeling lost. When we were writing Suburban Wildlife, I was still Nina, living in my parents’ house, hanging out with the same high school friends (and my sister). Watching it now gives me a nostalgia for that time because having that routine gives you security, even though it can only sustain you for so long. And that’s the thing — Nina slowly realises the way she’s been acting is not sustainable and she has to try these new sins to discover who she really is, which is a beautiful gay woman.

MS: Yes! Nina’s trajectory is probably the most relatable part of the film for me and for a queer audience, so many of whom only discover themselves and their sexualities via a much older person — as Nina does. As if anyone is so fully formed in their queerness as an adolescent!

BB: I think there’s something we always talk about, that queer narratives are often so tragic and about these star-crossed lovers where someone dies. It doesn’t have to be that way, and we wanted to celebrate that kind of learning about yourself, that it can be confusing and terrifying but good.

IM: There’s a line Nina says to the girl she has her first sexual experience with — “have you ever had proper sex before?” And it just speaks to her conditioning and her heterosexual prison she’s in, where there’s a right way and wrong way to exist which extends to her sexuality. I think another driver for making a coming-of-age queer film is that they don’t exist from a female perspective.

MS: Okay, I can’t lie, I feel like Nina’s storyline really reminds me of something James Charles said in his huge clapback video against Tati last week. Underneath all the tea, there’s a moment where he talks about being so insecure about boys, because he was never allowed to have those experiences — like his straight peers — of experimenting with sex and romance as a teen. I see that in Nina and I see that in myself and it cuts deep!

IM: That’s why it was really important for us to show Nina fumbling and making mistakes…

BB: And being intimidated as well! Being intimidated by women while being into women is such a real feeling.

MS: I guess the summation of this entire interview is that Suburban Wildlife is literally the most relatable film of all time. How much of yourselves do you think ended up in the film?

IM: It’s fully autobiographical. I think Béa and I see ourselves in each of the four characters, and I think I make films and use art to process questions in my life, or what I’m really working through.

BB: What made the film so great is that Imogen and I were very open in the writing process of telling each other memories, things that had happened, and we’d use that to generate ideas.

IM: One of my big memories of high school was that after graduation, it was a tradition for seniors to hop in their car and drive around campus with their vehicles. I don’t remember necessarily graduating — maybe bits and pieces — but what’s really stuck in my mind is us driving around and celebrating the moment, but then thinking: we’ve done this, what the fuck is next? I think that’s very much the mood of our film.

Suburban Wildlife will be playing on Sat 8 June and at a sold-out session on Thursday 13 June as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.

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Michael Sun is a writer and designer from Sydney who’s written on the intersection between race, pop culture, and queerness for VICE, Overland, Junkee, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He’s currently trying to watch every queer teen film ever made — tweet recommendations to @mlchaelsun.

Michael Sun

Michael Sun is a writer and designer from Sydney who literally can’t stop referencing Love, Simon in everything he does. Check out his other two pieces about it in Overland and Double J, or more at michaelsun.com / @MlCHAELSUN.